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Because of the ways in which wolves have evolved and the special demands of their way of life, wolves have become one of the most highly social of all carnivores.
Wolves live in packs – groups of animals that are usually related by close, blood ties (family units). A hierarchical order exists within the pack; every animal knows its place in that order.
Researchers studying wolves today observe the common traits shared by humans and wolves. Like many human beings, wolves live in extended families. For wolves, those families are called packs. Wolves live in packs because cooperation allows wolves to bring down larger prey than individual wolves can do on their own. Pack life also insures the care and feeding of the young, and allows wolves to expertly defend their common territory. The male and female leaders of the pack are called alphas. These two animals lead the pack during a hunt and often eat first when a kill is made. Generally, though not always, the alpha wolves are the only wolves in the pack to have pups.
Wolves mature sexually at around 22 months of age. Most often the alpha pair are the only wolves in a pack to mate and produce pups, however in areas where prey is abundant and life is mostly stress-free, multiple litters within a pack can occur. The breeding season for wolves occurs roughly from January through March, depending on the latitude. Animals in the highest latitude usually have the latest season. Pups are born in the spring (following a 63 gestation period). The entire pack takes a part in raising the young. The average litter size is four pups.
At birth, wolf pups weigh about one pound and are darkly furred. They are deaf, blind, have little or no sense of smell and cannot regulate their own body heat. For their safety, wolf pups are born in a den. Wolf dens can be in rock caves abandoned by other animals, in the hollowed bases of large trees, or in shallow surface beds. More commonly, pregnant female wolves dig dens themselves, often as early as three weeks before the pups are born. Wolves prefer their den sites to be located on elevated areas near water. Dens are typically tunnels that extend six to fourteen feet into the earth. At the end of the tunnel is an enlarged chamber where the newborn pups are kept. The age of the pups when the pack abandons the den is not known; it is thought to be between eight and ten weeks after the pups are born.
Between the time the pups leave the den and the next winter, the young wolves remain at rendezvous sites while the adults hunt the surrounding countryside. When adults return from the hunt, the pups lick the muzzles of the adult animals, and the wolves regurgitate predigested food for the young pups.
As the pups grow, some of them will be very assertive in their play, while others in the same litter will be weaker and more submissive. Like human children, the more assertive wolf pups will grow up to be alphas while the more submissive pups will most likely grow into subordinate wolves.
Next in the social hierarchy of the pack is the beta wolf. Betas can be either male or female and, if something happens to one of the alphas, it is the beta that will most likely move up in rank. the remainder of the pack is typically composed of adolescent wolves, one to four years old, several pups and an omega. An omega wolf can be either male or female and is the scapegoat, the lowest ranking member of the pack. The omega lives on the outskirts of the pack, usually eating last. The omega serves as both a stress-reliever and instigator of play.
When wolves become adolescents and have reached sexual maturity, many will leave their home territory in order to search for a mate. These wolves are called dispersers. The long, drawn-out howl of a 'lone wolf' will hopefully attract another unattached wolf. The two new self-proclaimed alphas find suitable territory to start a family of their own.