Far from the image of the lone wolf conveyed by tales and legends, the wolf is first and foremost a social and territorial animal. The life of the wolf is organized within a pack. We explain its organization to you.
Composition of a wolf pack
The basic unit is a group of ten animals. A family, made up of a monogamous breeding pair living surrounded by their offspring under three years old, can constitute a small pack on its own. But it can also unite with two or three other families to form a pack of about thirty individuals. These unions may only be temporary and last long enough to raid an area where game is particularly abundant, for example during periods of migration.
Contrary to certain clichés, a pack of wolves therefore remains a group of limited size and its hierarchy is ultimately much simpler than the classifications identifying wolves. alphas, omega and betas appearing in the scientific literature of the twentieth century.
Hierarchy within a pack of wolves
The pack is led by the breeding couple. The other members obey him not because they would have a character conducive to submission, but simply because they are younger than them and because they are their children.
Each year, a wolf gives birth to 5 to 6 young. They usually emerge in the spring, when prey is more abundant. In the event of an alliance between several packs, the cubs are raised all together. If their parents were to disappear, they are then easily “adopted” by another couple.
Foundation of new packs
Young wolves leave the pack when they reach the sexual maturity. They move away from the territory that gave them birth, easily traversing several hundred kilometers in search of a partner and a territory to found their own pack. If an isolated male wolf cannot find a female available to pair with him, he may temporarily mate with the daughter of a breeding pair. She will then remain within her pack to raise her young while the male will continue his journey alone.
The territory of a pack of wolves
The whole life of a pack is organized in an area of 35 to 40 km². Wolves move there permanently to hunt but also to signal their presence to neighboring groups by scent marks (urine and excrement) or howls.
The movements of the pack are made in single file, generally guided by the dominant male. It is moreover from their observation that the expression “à la queue leu-leu” comes from, “leu” being quite simply the word “wolf” in Old French. Progressing in short strides, at a speed of 8 to 9 km / h, the group can cover up to 60 km each night, then using the day to rest.
Hunting ensures the cohesion of the pack
The wolf’s power and ability to run fast long enough – over 50 km / h for about twenty minutes – would allow him to hunt on his own with a good chance of success. Yet the pack hunting is a ceremony which ensures the cohesion of the group and embodies solidarity between generations.
The hunt begins when prey has been spotted by scent. Wolves can begin with a ritual where they sniff the air together, nose to nose. Once the prey has been killed by the breeding male with the help of the more vigorous young males, the breeding pair eat first, with their offspring dividing up the remains.
Communication within the pack
The wolf has a wide range of means of communication to interact with his fellows. As in dogs, the position of the legs, tail and ears are essential signs. The dominant male stands proudly, tail erect. The other members of the group adopt a position of passive submission (motionless on their back to be sniffed) or active (nose low to the ground then come and lick the face of the other wolf). The wolf also controls his pilo-reaction, that is to say the orientation of its hairs: it shows its aggressiveness by bristling them. Finally, bullying games and biting play an important role.
What the collective imagination has retained from the wolf’s communication skills is first of all its powerful howl. It can be heard several tens of kilometers away. The wolf frequently uses it to call other members of its pack, when it has moved away from the group or to signal the presence of prey. But howling also serves to protect its territory by signaling to rival groups the presence of a powerful and determined pack. It is for this reason that the wolves howl together, to make their voices resonate on a maximum of notes and harmonics. They thus create the illusion of being more numerous than they really are.
But howling is not the only vocalization of the wolf: it is also able to emit a wide variety of other sounds, ranging from moaning to barking, from whining to yelping. This variety makes it possible to organize the work of the pack and the sharing of information between its members.
Scientists have shown geographical peculiarities: American wolves do not use the same tones as European wolves and Asian wolves, and they do not “tonic emphasis” on the same part of the sound. Despite everything, wolves of different origins seem well able to understand and respond to each other.
Fear of the wolf
Beyond the grace and power of the animal, the observation of a pack of wolves brings us back as much to our ancestral fears as to our questions about intelligence. The wolf has always aroused fear – a fear that is undoubtedly exaggerated given the fact that he is himself afraid of man – but he has also always fascinated, and still fascinates, by his gregarious behavior. which allows a small number of well-organized individuals to dominate vast territories.
We can only be surprised at the persistence of the image of the lone wolf. Exiled, far from his territory and his family, the lone wolf would be perfectly capable of hunting alone, yet his instinct reminds her that the meaning of life is to find a mate and perpetuate the species.