Wolves live in a complex social unit, also referred to as a pack. A wild wolf pack is a family and usually comprises the two parent animals, who mostly maintain a lifelong bond, their pups and young wolves from the previous year. Young wolves often leave their parents' territory at the age of 10 to 22 months, i.e. even before or at the time they become sexually mature. However, some young wolves also stay with their parents for a longer time. Wolf packs are thus families with two parent animals, who as a rule are the only wolves permanently residing in the territory. Moreover, they are often the only breeding pair in this area. In contrast to female domestic dogs, a wolf bitch comes into heat only once a year, namely in winter. After a pre-mating period of up to several weeks, the breeding pair usually mates at the end of February / beginning of March. The gestation period lasts around 63 days, with two to eight (usually four to six) pups being born at the end of April / beginning of May. When the pups have reached an age of six to seven months, they almost have the same size as their parents and young from the previous season and are mature enough to accompany the other wolves of the pack.
The parent pair shares its knowledge and experience with the younger wolves. Some of the young from the previous year often support their parents in nursing and raising pups of the subsequent year. They regurgitate foods or stay behind with the pups as babysitters. The young wolves become increasingly independent and start exploring their parents' territory, making excursions within and outside it, until they ultimately leave to found their own pack. Some dispersing wolves may cover distances of hundreds of kilometres while others try to stay and settle in their parents' neighbourhood.
Pack size may change between 5 and 10 wolves during the course of the year. All in all, the number of wolves in a territory remains more or less constant. The size of the pack depends on several factors, including the birth of pups, the dispersal of young wolves and deaths. Under certain conditions, a wolf family may even accept a stranger into their pack (please refer to the 2011-10 newsletter (in German) for more detailed information on this subject).
The Alpha wolf myth
A wolf pack used to be considered a group of animals with a dominant wolf or dominant pair who achieved this position in the pack through hierarchic encounters. Literature wrote about Alpha males, Alpha females or Alpha pairs over decades. Even today, this terminology can still be found in many books. Meanwhile, it has become clear that this often quoted hierarchy does not exist under natural conditions but is the result of captive living arrangements. In captivity, wolves live together in a group that was determined by humans. Unlike in nature, dispersal is impossible for young wolves. Instead, they must stay together in a group even as adults, which is against their natural way of life and results in frequent social tensions.
Aggressive, sometimes even deadly encounters are characteristic of groups of wolves living in captivity. In the wild, wolves can avoid social tensions by dispersing. Of course there still are some disputes between family members in free living wolf packs, but these do not result in a strict hierarchy.
Every breeding pair claims its own territory. They use scent marking (scat, urine), visual marking (scat, scrapes (narrow, short scratches in earth or snow)) and howling (*listen to the Link*) to warn other wolves from outside the pack that this territory is already occupied. The size of the territory mainly depends on the food available there. A wolf territory must be large enough to allow the parent animals to hunt prey for raising their pups every year. As a rule, the higher the prey density in an area, the smaller the wolf territory or the fewer the number of prey animals in a region, the larger the wolf territory. Studies conducted in central Europe often showed territories to be between 100 and 350 km². Evidence of territories exceeding 1,000 km2 was found in regions with a very low prey density such as in northern Siberia and northern Canada. Consequently, the wolf density varies from 0.1 wolf / 100 km² in areas with little game up to nine wolves / 100 km² in regions particularly abundant in game. In Saxony, the wolf density is around two to three wolves / 100 km². This density is similar to other central European wolf areas.
The wolves' spatial organisation allows them to use the food available in a sustainable way. The first results obtained from wolves fitted with a (GPS) tracking collar indicated an average territory size of about 220 km2 in Saxony. Moreover, the data of these wolves showed that places of retreat are also key to the wolf territories' location and size in cultural landscapes that are in intensive human use.