The concept of "Alpha" originates in studies of wolves and the theory that an "Alpha" wolf leads a pack.

They were very scientifically popular in the 60s/70s, and obviously dominate popular culture.

However, the pop-science view that I encountered was that the very same researcher who helped popularize the theory (David Mech in his popular "The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species" book), has ended up stating that the theory is wrong: http://www.davemech.org/news.html

The problem is that (a) It seems like the debunking is by a single researcher - even if who the researcher is clearly gives the idea credence; and (b) Most of what I can find on the subject when Googling is very lightweight pop-science stuff like this or even various dog training site comments.

Is there more rigorous research and its coverage that corroborates the idea that the wolves don't have a concept of "Alpha" that Mech originally popularized based on Schenkel's 1940s research?



  1. The concept of alpha wolf in wolf packs was based on studies on captive wolves.

Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs, however, has been conducted on wolves in captivity. These captive packs were usually composed of an assortment of wolves from various sources placed together and allowed to breed at will (Schenkel 1947; Rabb et al. 1967; Zimen 1975, 1982). This approach apparently reflected the view that in the wild, "pack formation starts with the beginning of winter" (Schenkel 1947), implying some sort of annual assembling of independent wolves. In captive packs, the unacquainted wolves formed dominance hierarchies featuring alpha, beta, omega animals, etc. With such assemblages, these dominance labels were probably appropriate, for most species thrown together in captivity would usually so arrange themselves. Source:Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs

  1. In nature or the wild, the wolf pack is usually a family unit which consists of pair of breeders and their young offspring which was previously observed by other researchers such as Muries in 1944, Young and Goldman in 1944, Clark in 1971 and Haber in 1977.

In nature, however, the wolf pack is not such an assemblage. Rather, it is usually a family (Murie 1944; Young and Goldman 1944; Mech 1970, 1988; Clark 1971; Haber 1977) including a breeding pair and their offspring of the previous 1-3 years, or sometimes two or three such families (Murie 1944; Haber 1977; Mech et al. 1998). Source:Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs

  1. Due to the elusive nature of wolves, there have been only few observational studies on leadership in wolf packs. Rarely an unrelated wolf is also observed to be adopted into a wolf pack.

Occasionally an unrelated wolf is adopted into a pack (Van Ballenberghe 1983; Lehman et al. 1992; Mech et al. 1998), or a relative of one of the breeders is included (Mech and Nelson 1990), or a dead parent is replaced by an outside wolf (Rothman and Mech 1979; Fritts and Mech 1981) and an offspring of opposite sex from the newcomer may then replace its parent and breed with the stepparent (Fritts and Mech 1981; Mech and Hertel 1983). Source: Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs


  1. Other researchers have observed the same activities of the wild wolf acting as a family unit similar to David Mech's observations as mentioned in the below reference.

The pack, even in these situations, consists of a pair of breeders and their young offspring (Mech 1970; Rothman and Mech 1979; Fritts and Mech 1981; Mech and Hertel 1983; Peterson et al. 1984). The pack functions as a unit year-round (Mech 1970, 1988, 1995b). As offspring begin to mature, they disperse from the pack. Source:Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs

  1. The wild wolf pack is a family with parental roles such as the female taking care of the pups and defense and the male taking the role of searching and providing food.

Even the much-touted wolf dominance hierarchy is primarily a natural reflection of the age, sex, and reproductive structure of the group, with the breeding male dominating all others posturally and the breeding female garnering food from the male while she is tending young pups. The typical wolf pack, then, should be viewed as a family with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group and sharing group leadership in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them. Source:Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs

TL;DR: Referring to David Mech's website, the concept of the alpha wolf is outdated and per latest wolf research, wolves are just termed "breeders" or "parents".

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. "Alpha" implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that's all we call them today, the "breeding male," "breeding female," or "male parent," "female parent," or the "adult male" or "adult female." In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the "dominant breeder" can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a "subordinate breeder." Source: Dave Mech.org

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