Wolf adolescence and wolf families

Many folks fear wolves, as old wives tales and childrens stories like little red riding hood have misrepresented them the world over. So I thought it’d be nice to write an article helping to dispel some of the commonly held misconceptions.

Wolves, like humans, are family animals. Wolf society is made up of wolf families, each comprising an adult male (the dad) and female (the mum) and their offspring. In this post I will briefly tell the tale of how young wolves grow up with their parents and then migrate away in search of love, to establish a family of their own.

In the beginning wolf pups are born into the loving environment of their parent’s family, with whom they stay for two years. Over this period of wolf childhood, parents teach their pups the art of being a wolf.

Pups quickly grow bigger and stronger, and by the end of their first year they are almost adult size. But like human teenagers, they are not yet ready for life on their own. So young wolves spend a second year with their parents, fine tuning their hunting skills and looking after their younger siblings.

After their second summer, wolves are just about adults and begin to get itchy feet: they instinctually desire a place of their own to call home. To do this, they must fly the nest in search of their destinies.

Territories

Instinct drives young wolves to migrate away from their parents. They must find a life partner and territory of their own to call home. This object of their desires, a territory, is simply a patch of land to which a wolf family has exclusive rights and defends from intruders.

This all important life strategy of defending territories allows wolves monopolise resources in an area – these resources being, of course, prey species – their food.

[red deer]

But across the wolf range, from the deserts of the arctic, to the deer infested forests of Europe, prey densities vary wildly. So to secure themselves an ample food supply, wolves vary the sizes of their territories. The largest ever-identified territory was in Alaska (in an area where food is scarce very scarce) – a whopping 6,272 km2 – over a quarter the size of Wales! More conventionally though, as in Poland, wolves inhabit territories between 100-250 km2.

Once wolves establish a territory, they mark them to keep intruders out and away from their precious resources. In contrast to humans though, wolves thankfully don’t put up masses of fencing to keep foreigners out. Instead they keep it simple: they shit and piss around their land. Neighbouring wolf families and other intruders then know to stay away; those that miss or ignore the markings tend to be promptly chased away.

An interesting consequence of territoriality in wolves is that it creates a limit on population densities: wolves can never become overpopulated, as two packs cannot occupy the same patch of land. This forces young wolves to migrate far and wide in search of their own lands. The Polish side of the Białowieża Forest (640km2) exemplifies this nicely. For the past 20 years, four wolf packs have inhabited the same four locations in the forest – see the picture below. There is simply no room for any more wolf families, and so the younger generation migrates away, thus leaving the wolf population in the primeval forest at stable levels from year to year.

Map showing the core areas of the four wolf families of Białowieża Primeval Forest (dashed red lines). Core areas are simply the areas where wolf packs spend 50% of their time. The gradient of colour in the background represents the distance to human settlements. Note how the four packs are located as far away from villages as possible, within the white areas on the map. Map was originally published in Kuijper et al. 2015. Behavioral Ecology 26: 1558-1568.

To establish a territory a young wolf must disperse

Dispersal is the term for the journey upon which young wolves embark to find themselves a territory.

Some disperse near their parents, and others migrate over remarkable distances, travelling even hundreds of miles. But the objective is always the same: to find a mate and set up a territory.

Only the lucky wolves stay near their parents, when there are unoccupied forests nearby (that is, unnoccupied by other wolf families). Those less fortunate embark on a risky journey, sometimes across entire countries. These bold adventurers often must brave roads, farmlands, and even towns and villages in search of a territory of their own.

Like in many other mammal species, young males disperse across the furthest distances. Females generally prefer to stay closer to their parents. This phenomenon has interesting consequences – often when wolves are recolonising areas from which they were historically exterminated, males can find themselves in forests that would otherwise be perfect, except for one missing critical factor: no potential female companions. This is partly why the recovery of wolf populations often takes time.

So to recap, as they disperse, young wolves choose the locations of their new territories according to whether lands 1) are unoccupied by other wolf families and 2) contain food (prey species). But there is a third factor that wolves are sentitive to – and that is 3) whether lands are reasonably free of human disturbance.

Across the world, the types of lands that satisfy the above requirements vary markedly. But Europe is particularly interesting in this regard: it is densely populated, and even our forests are heavily infiltrated by human activities. So where is there room for wolves you may ask?

Generally in Europe, wolves only really inhabit forests and marshlands: they squeeze themselves into the places least disturbed by humans, on a continent largely unfriendly to wild animals.

Recently though, contrary to our expectations, wolves in Europe have been surprising us. It was long thought wolves would, as a rule, avoid areas with too high road and human population densities. But they have in fact been turning up in the most surprising places. Wolves are more adaptable than we ever suspected.

Wolves tend to select the most optimal habitats when they can; howeber, as the best forests become occupied by wolf families, they begin selecting less optimal habitats. A case in point is the Bolimowski Landscape Park near Warsaw, where wolves recently returned to a forest that is sandwiched between two medium sized cities and two very large roads that feed Warsaw.

Contrast this with Asia, Russia and North America, which all have wilderness in abundance: steppe, taiga or tundra − wolves live there. These are vast tracts of sparsely inhabited land where settling down is merely a case of choosing an unoccupied patch (and hoping you don’t get shot by poachers).

So to conclude, wherever they are in the world, the ambition of every wolf is to find themselves a vacant territory and partner during their dispersal – they then settle down and form a wolf family.

After this risky journey in young adulthood, wolves usually stay in one place. They will dig dens and give birth to pups. But for the rest of the alpha-pair’s lives, they and their family stay firmly in the place it was first established.

A wolf’s future is bright

With wolves now protected across much of Europe, the future of a young wolf pair has never been so bright. If a wolf survives the risky journey during his dispersal – when he is traversing across the countryside, crossing busy roads. If he survives this and establishes himself a territory, then few unnatural causes of mortality remain, at least in the civilised countries where hunting is banned or severely limited.

In Europe, wolves are now dispersing ever further westwards in search of suitable woodlands to call home. After decades of absence France and Germany have growing, healthy wolf populations, and there are even now odd sightings in Denmark and Holland.

It’s a shame that the English Channel is such an impenetrable barrier to recolonisation. The British Isles in this way are a perfect example island biogeography – islands are always more susceptible than continents to extinction, and subsequent recolonisation is next to impossible. But perhaps, in time humans will help a young wolf pair disperse across the English channel to be reintroduced, and wolves will grace the British countryside once again.

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