July 22, 2014

As a conservation scientist at Defenders of Wildlife, I follow the latest scientific findings on wolves and other important wildlife species closely. Wolf science is a very active area of inquiry, and lately, there have been many studies coming out about wolves’ social structures and behavior. Today I want to pass along one of the latest discoveries.

In order to survive in a dangerous and competitive world, wolves form cooperative groups known as packs. Members of a wolf pack hunt together, rear pups together, and compete against other wolf packs for food and territory. Cooperation benefits all members of a pack and improves their odds of survival.

Alaska wolf pack, © Gary Schultz/National Geographic Stock

Wolves naturally develop a hierarchy within their pack, with the most dominant wolves acting as – you guessed it – the “leader of the pack.” While wolves occasionally compete for the top spot in a pack, it is rare for sustained fights to occur within a pack. Until recently, researchers didn’t fully understand how wolves are able to resolve or eliminate inter-pack conflict, but a new study sheds light on this process. It turns out that wolves have elaborate ways of communicating that help to maintain hierarchy and reinforce relationships among pack mates. For instance, a subordinate wolf might spontaneously lie on its back with its tail tucked between its legs, exposing its stomach and throat to a more dominant wolf. This submissive behavior acknowledges the submissive–dominant relationship between the two individuals, thereby maintaining order and preventing violence among pack mates. This study underscores just how complex and intelligent wolves really are.

While these behaviors help to explain inter-pack dynamics and how submissive behavior can actually be a conflict deterrent in wolf packs, how are conflicts resolved once they occur?

Wolves, © Eilish PalmerTo answer this question, researchers working in Yellowstone observed two packs of free-ranging wolves, the Druid Peak pack and the Blacktail Deer Plateau pack, from 2008 to 2009. The scientists monitored and recorded wolf behaviors following fights and compared these observations to the behaviors of wolves during times with no group conflict. What the researchers found was that after a fight, subordinate wolves would actually attempt to reconcile with their more dominant pack mates. Ever hear of “kiss and make up?” Immediately after a conflict, subordinate wolves will often touch noses and lick their more dominant pack mates. Researchers think that this nose touching behavior is a way of apologizing and asking for forgiveness. It’s their way to resolve a conflict, reduce tension within a group, show respect, and prevent further violence. The more heated the fight, the greater the number of friendly behaviors that followed, including nose touching, licking, body contact, greeting, inspecting, playing, and sniffing.

Why would subordinate wolves want to ‘make amends’ after a fight? It is probably due to the interdependence of the group. Subordinates benefit most by maintaining peaceful relationships with their more dominant pack mates – they need each other in order to survive. Resolving and diffusing the conflict helps to prevent further violence and keeps the group cohesive so that they can work together to hunt and defend territory. This research is yet another example of the remarkable intelligence of wolves, and their complex social structure.

Dan Thornhill is a Conservation Scientist at Defenders of Wildlife

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