Dispelling The Enduring Myth of Wolf Pack Pecking Order

In 1970, biologist David Mech published The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. The work was a groundbreaking summation of everything science knew about the elusive animals at the time. Popular in academic circles and with laypeople, it remained in print until 2022.

There was just one problem.

Some of the information in it was wrong.

In particular, notions of pack order — the ideas that would become “alpha male” and “alpha female” — were incorrect. Much of the research used to support the concept was conducted on captive wolves by Rudolph Schenkel in the 1930s. Schenkel published a study on his findings in 1947, a paper that later influenced Mech.

“That was what we knew at the time, but I’d say we’ve learned more about wolves since publication than we had in all of previous history,” Mech recently told The New Yorker.

a bearded man stares at the camera with a vast arctic expanse behind him

Biologist David Mech on Ellesmere Island. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


Mech spent the intervening years conducting intensive studies of wolves in the wild, including 24 summers on Ellesmere Island. It was these close observations that convinced him he had to change the narrative about wolf pack behavior.

The biologist has spent years pleading with his publisher to take The Wolf out of print, a request finally granted last year. But even though biologists no longer use Alpha terminology to describe wolf behavior, the damage, such as it is, is done. Like the largely debunked left brain/right brain concept, the idea filtered into the public consciousness and refuses to leave. “Alpha” behavior and its attendant misunderstandings are now lodged firmly in the public consciousness.

So how do wolves determine pack order, if not by struggle, violence, and psychological dominance?

That’s easy, said Kira Cassidy, an associate research scientist with the National Park Service. Like so many things in life, it all comes down to wisdom and experience.

Who’s your daddy?

“The wolves…in those dominant positions are not there because they fought for it,” Cassidy told The New Yorker. “It’s not some battle to get to the top position. They’re just the oldest or the parents. Or in the case of same-sex siblings, it’s a matter of personality.”

A specialist in wolf social structures, Cassidy studies packs in Yellowstone National Park. Packs in the protected area are often large and robust, including aunts and uncles, and occasionally more than one breeding pair, she explained. Order within these large packs is maintained by respect and seniority.

an Arctic wolf peeks inside a tent

Ellesmere Island’s bold Arctic wolves allowed Mech to study their behavior up close. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


In fact, having older animals in the pack provides an unexpected bonus, Cassidy found. Older individuals provide much-needed calm and experience when the pack tussles with rival groups.

“They can ease their pack mates and bring them together. Or maybe the older ones help the pack avoid fights that they know they can’t win — which brings up their winning rate overall,” she said.

So the next time someone tries to go “alpha” on you, remember: it’s not about who’s the biggest, strongest, or most impressive. It’s about who’s the wisest.

Andrew Marshall

Andrew Marshall is an award-winning painter, photographer, and freelance writer. Andrew’s essays, illustrations, photographs, and poems can be found scattered across the web and in a variety of extremely low-paying literary journals.
You can find more of his work at www.andrewmarshallimages.com, @andrewmarshallimages on Instagram and Facebook, and @pawn_andrew on Twitter (for as long as that lasts).