26 November 2010

Wolf Behavior

While waiting to get a haircut I flipped through the various magazines available and stumbled across the November issue of Outside. In this magazine I came across an interesting article on the various wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park and their observed behavior and mannerisms.

The article comes at us through the eyes of Rick McIntyre who has spent over 3,500 consecutive days monitoring the various packs in Yellowstone. Apparently this means he has no social life, but his observations are quite useful in terms of understanding wolves and their pack behaviors. Below are a few interesting things in the article.

One pack, the Druid Peak pack, peaked at 37 members. This is the largest pack ever recorded. According to McIntyre the average pack size in Yellowstone is 8. So how the pack was able to sustain that many members without serious drama is interesting. It brings to mind Dunbar's number, which for humans puts the maximum number of stable relationships we have at around 150. Maybe wolves have the potential to maintain extremely large pack sizes, it just usually not sustainable in most environments. The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone also included an overpopulation of elk. As the elderly elk  slowly ran out, not having natural predators before, I am guessing the large pack size became unsustainable. 

The number one killer of Yellowstone wolves? Other wolves. Whereas most areas have de-listed the wolves from the Endangered Species List, one would think hunters are responsible for any decline. Wolf-on-wolf violence seems to be increasing as the elk and wolf populations reach more sustainable numbers. So is dog fighting natural? Was Michael Vick in the right? Hardly. Death is natural, but is violence? Is war? I think so. Overpopulation and limited resources, if it gets out of hand, will eventually come to a head. Wolf on wolf, man on man, country on country, whatever, history has shown this is the case. It will be interesting what will ultimately happen to mankind in the long run, but that is another issue in and of itself.

Pack cohesion highly depends on relationships. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it seems a loss of a member can lead to the downfall of the pack. McIntyre mentions that when the alpha female of a pack was killed by a rival pack, the alpha male simply gave up and left the pack. What does this tell us? I doubt wolves are monogamous in any sense, but it seems to be that this example is one where the alpha male's life as #1 was tied to being with that special female and losing her uprooted his world. The article also goes into a year when one pack did not have any offspring survive and how that seemed to upset the pack as a whole. In that case I am sure their yearly cycle included the care and training of new pups and this change of routine threw them into a funk. Sounds a lot like what happens with people when they lose a friend, loved one, or a child.

Wolves may follow a moral code. The article talks about a certain alpha male of the Druids, known as Wolf 21, who seemed to be a badass and a half. He frequently fought and won fights, highly outnumbered (like 6 to 1) and seemed to take it in stride. He was known to never kill a rival, always letting them go. As mentioned above, wolves will kill other wolves, and here is an example of one who seemed to rise above it. Another story involves Wolf 21 caring for a younger sibling who was unable to feed himself. When 21 would bring food back to his pack, he would sit with his sibling to make sure they ate. I have often heard of the sick and elderly being left behind or killed to protect the pack... survival of the fittest, but here is an example showing otherwise. 

How old do wolves live? Wolf 21 apparently lived to 9 years old, before he just curled up under a tree and died. This is old for a wolf. Regarding dogs, unless you own a Great Dane, 9 years old seems rather young. I have often read that hunter-gatherers would live to an average age of 35... and in 2008 the average life expectancy the US was 78.4. Modern life does have its perks. And the domesticated dog tends to have dedicated shelter, veterinarians, food, and overall their survival is 100% dependent on their owner. So as with humans, one would expect that these modern conveniences would extend the life of dogs versus the hard knock life of the wild. I imagine Wolf 21 would live quite awhile longer if he had Mr. and Mrs. Human and their influence. That is unless they feed him Old Roy or some other bullshit. The question I would have is would Wolf 21 have been such a physically awesome badass had he not had to fight for survival? Would he have been the same had he be raised in a modern environment like a domesticated dog?

My thoughts. I am sure for each wolf that lived long or had specific behaviors there was a wolf that did the exact opposite. With each individual, how evolution rolls, there will be slight changes from genetic makeup to behavior. The things that improved survival propagated and that which didn't died off. I am sure Wolf 21's 'moral code' of not killing his rivals was not the best move in terms of survival. These rivals could heal up and return with his buddies to try, try again. Did that make him a better wolf? I am not sure if the rivals that were spared changed their tune, if they in-turn started sparing rivals they defeated or they were unchanged. From the rest of the article, it seems both the elk and wolf populations are transitioning to more sustainable levels. And the reintroduction of the wolves has allowed the plants, trees, songbirds and other parts of the ecosystem to boom. It seems that, at least in Yellowstone, there is some sort of balance forming. I look forward to reading more on these packs and their impact.

If interested, the article can be found here.