Is Alpha, Beta, Omega Really a Thing?

So, is it?

In folklore? The answer is no.

In real life wolf behavior? Also no.

Don’t get me wrong. The alpha, beta, omega trope is fun. But is it accurate to any actual science about wolf behavior? Wolf researchers will argue a solid no – including the guy who originated the concept of alpha, beta, omega to begin with.

So let’s talk wolves!

In 1947, a fellow named Rudolph Schenkel – an animal behaviorist – published a paper called “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” He studied wolves in captivity in Switzerland, trying to figure out how their sociology worked. He decided that there were two “lead” wolves in a pack: the male wolf and his “bitch.” He also cited “violent” rivalry between other packmates. However, he doesn’t use the term “alpha wolf.” He originated the idea.

A backbone of Schenkel’s paper is the idea that wolves parallel domestic dogs in their society and behavior. He pretty much declared that domestic dogs and wolves have the same kind of pack hierarchy.

But he only studied wolves in captivity. And wolves in captivity behave very differently from wolves in the wild.

In 1970, David Mech released a book called The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. In it, he created and used the term alpha wolf, and he continued to propagate the idea of wolf packs based around competitive hierarchies focused on dominance.

Mech’s book hit it big. It was published, reprinted, and became the foremost source of information on wolf sociology. A lot of modern conceptions of wolves come from this book, including and especially the idea of the pack hierarchy.

But now, Mech himself has said that a great deal of that research he did then, including the idea of an “alpha wolf,” isn’t really true.

How does that work? How exactly are wolves in captivity different from wolves in the wild?

Well, researchers today (including Mech, who has since performed studies on wild wolves) have a new theory: wolves in the wild live primarily in families. Two parents, younger pups.

There’s no particular “ranks,” there’s simply parents and children. Do the parents sometimes exert their dominance over the children? Yes, but that’s not terribly unlike any other species. The parents teach the kids how to fight, how to hunt, and occasionally have to remind them who’s boss, as long as they’re still following their parents around. They didn’t win their role as leaders in some kind of wolf dominance fight – they have that role because they’re the parents of their pups that form their pack.

As they get older, adult wolves sometimes will split off from their original pack and “disperse” (this is where we get the term “disperser wolf,” if you’ve ever heard it), setting out to create packs – families – of their own.

This is why no other wolf mates with the “alpha female,” “lead beta female,” or whatever else you’ve heard her called. It’s because the “alpha female” is their mom, not necessarily because of some social structure and vying to mate with her.

And guess what? You got it. Wolves mate for life, and they have extremely powerful family bonds (among siblings as well).

Do unrelated wolves sometimes enter into existing packs? Maybe. Do younger wolves ever specifically overthrow the “alpha”/dad in the wild and take over the pack? Not that researchers have seen so far.

Does that mean wolves don’t have any sense of social dominance? By no means. Most animals, especially social animals (wolves and humans alike), have plenty of social dominance behaviors. There have been cases of, for instance – as Mech cited – an adult wolf pinning and displaying dominance over a younger packmate for several minutes, most likely and/or maybe because that wolf was about to disperse and try to form his own pack.

This is less about behavior and more about the pack structure itself.

Neat, right?

Long story short: wolf packs are wolf families. Wolves mate for life. Wolves do display social dominance behavior, and yeah, being the concept we have of trying to be “top dog” among what we used to call “beta wolves” is really just misunderstood sibling rivalry. Wolves go to amazing lengths to protect each other and protect the pack. We even have some cases of wolves burying their dead.

Wolves are amazing, and learning about their behavior and social structure is frankly one of my favorite research topics that isn’t folklore-related.

Alpha werewolves of pop culture, of course, aren’t by any means the same idea as wolf packs, since we have all the complications of werewolves infecting each other (which does usually result in that werewolf being the bitten person’s alpha/”father” in media), etc., and all these other factors. (And yes, wolves are also territorial, so all your “territorial werewolf” behavior is certainly still accurately wolfish enough!)

So, yes, it’s very different. This isn’t by any means a call to stop writing fun stories about your alpha werewolves (I’ve occasionally enjoyed that trope, too). It’s just something to be aware of!