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.
Like many human beings, wolves live in extended families which are called packs. Pack life insures the care and feeding of the young, and allows wolves to defend their common territory. Wolves live in packs because cooperation allows them to bring down larger prey.
The male and female leaders of the pack are called the breeding pair (formerly referred to as alphas). These two animals lead the pack during a hunt and often eat first when a kill is made. They typically 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. 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. Pregnant female wolves usually dig dens themselves, often as early as three weeks before the pups are born. They 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. It is believed that the pups are between eight and ten weeks old when the den is abandoned.
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 pup will grow up to be a breeding wolf 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 rest 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.