What Is a Wolf Pack Mentality?

By: Cristen Conger  | 

One for all and all for one. See more wolf pictures.
Guy Edwardes/Getty Images

You can find a host of wolf packs within high school and college athletic programs. And why not? In a battle of mascots, North Carolina State University's Mr. Wuf would devour Sammy the Slug of University of California-Santa Cruz hands down.

However, in nature, wolf packs are less about ferocity and more about order. The complex wolf pack dynamics more resemble those of a teenage clique than a group of wild beasts. Of course, they still stalk prey, such as elk or rabbits, and get into vicious fights with each other, but you'll discover that these canines follow an incredibly sophisticated group hierarchy.


Wolves naturally organize themselves into packs to maintain stability and assist with hunting. These are often groups of three to seven wolves led by an alpha male and alpha female [source: Busch]. From there, the couple's pups and possibly younger, unrelated wolves comprise the rest of the pack.

The pack leader isn't necessarily the alpha male [source: Busch]. The alpha female takes the reins in certain groups since wolf rankings are based on strength and the ability to win fights, not gender. Although other wolves within the pack may copulate when prey abounds, the alpha pair are normally the only ones to mate. Multiple female wolves in the same pack can cause problems, however, since they fight with each other more often than males [source: Busch].

The beta wolf comes next. Beta wolves act as the second in command, taking over if the alpha male dies and possibly remating with the alpha female. When an alpha grows weak or too old to effectively lead the pack, the beta wolf may challenge him or her to a winner-take-all brawl.

On the bottom rung of the ladder, you have the omega wolf. As the name implies, the omega wolf is the weakest and the least cared for in the pack. Bullied by other members, the omega wolf will receive the brunt of the aggression in the wolf world, particularly during inter-pack fighting [source: Busch]. Sometimes, this antagonism climaxes to the point that the omega wolf will leave the pack and go it alone. Aside from being the pack's punching bag, the omega wolf also instigates play among the wolves to ease tensions.

In this dog-eat-dog (or wolf-eat-wolf) environment, what's the prevailing pack mentality? Do they hate each other or simply have a severe way of showing affection? Get inside a wolf's mind and find out the answer next.


Pack Behavior

An alpha wolf displays dominance over an omega.
An alpha wolf displays dominance over an omega.
Jim & Jamie Dutcher/Getty Images

A pack mentality of extreme loyalty and devotion to the group binds the wolves together as a unit, despite times of scarce prey or violence. For example, while the alpha wolves rule the roost, they ensure that any pups get their fill of food before the others dig in.

Wolves exhibit visible signs of the strength of their pack behavior through unique body language. You can tell a wolf's rank in the pack simply by looking at how it holds its body. Alpha wolves stand more erect with their tails held higher, while lower-ranking ones slouch toward the ground.


Submissive wolves even relieve themselves differently from alphas. An omega wolf urinates in a squatting position. Alpha males, on the other hand, do so standing up with their legs raised. If a dominant wolf approaches a more submissive one, the latter may lower its ears, pull its tail between its legs or show its throat or groin to demonstrate subservience. When greeting a more dominant member, the lower-ranked wolf may lick the other's muzzle like a servant kissing a king's scepter.

Along with these internal displays of wolf pack mentality, wolves are also intensely territorial. A pack's terrain may include thousands of square miles, and crossing into another's domain opens the door for confrontation [source: Mech and Boitani]. How do wolves know where their land begins and ends? By following their noses. Wolves detect smells 10 times better than domesticated dogs and 100 times better than humans [source: Discovery Channel]. Two hundred million olfactory nerve cells within their snouts detect minute information about where scents came from and how long they've been there [source: Discovery Channel].

Wolves scent mark by urinating on targets above the ground, such as a tree stump. This tells intruders that they're crossing boundaries and provides the wolves with olfactory sign posts to help with navigation. Defecating also releases hormones and leaves behind visual territory indicators. In addition, wolves scratch at the marked areas to add another layer of scent [source: Mech and Boitani].

With all of these canine superpowers, no wonder wolf packs from across the world have survived and stuck together for thousands of years. To learn more about wolves and other animals, visit the links that follow.


Originally Published: Jul 30, 2008

Wolf Pack FAQ

What are the ranks in a wolf pack?
A pack of wolves includes an alpha male, an alpha female, a beta wolf, a gamma wolf and an omega wolf. In between these ranks lie a few individuals without any rank. This hierarchy allows the group to operate as a team, which is critical to their survival.
How does a wolf pack travel?
Wolves form packs to hunt and maintain discipline. Usually, a group contains 3 to 7 wolves led by an alpha male and female. The alpha pair’s pups and other wolves follow their direction.
What is a wolf pack?
A wolf pack is a form of social organization of wolves that travel, hunt and live together. Most members are related by blood.
Do wolves travel in packs or alone?
Wolves mostly travel in groups. However, the omega wolf sometimes permanently leaves the pack and travels alone. This happens when an omega wolf is bullied or chased out of the pack.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Busch, Robert A. "The Wolf Almanac: A Celebration of Wolves and Their World." Globe Pequot. 2007. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=iUVJsGY9Q-8C
  • "How Animals Do That." Discovery Channel. Oct. 2, 1999.
  • Lopez, Barry Holstun and Bauguess, John. "Of Wolves and Men." Simon and Schuster. 2004. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=-3FTLxW09K0C
  • Mech, David L. and Boitani, Luigi. "Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation." University of Chicago Press. 2003. (July 16, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=_mXHuSSbiGgC
  • Whitt, Chris. "Wolves: Life in the Pack." Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. 2003. (July 16, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=x4DLA4TE_rAC
  • Wilson, Don E. and Ruff, Susan. "The Smithsonian Book of North American Mammals." UBC Press. 2003. (July 16, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=qNFgzIPGuSUC