Wolves featured, © Montana FWP

Wolves are even more socially complex than we thought…

As a conservation scientist at Defenders of Wildlife, I follow the latest scientific findings on wolves and other important wildlife species closely. Wolf science is a very active area of inquiry, and lately, there have been many studies coming out about wolves’ social structures and behavior. Today I want to pass along one of the latest discoveries.

In order to survive in a dangerous and competitive world, wolves form cooperative groups known as packs. Members of a wolf pack hunt together, rear pups together, and compete against other wolf packs for food and territory. Cooperation benefits all members of a pack and improves their odds of survival.

Alaska wolf pack, © Gary Schultz/National Geographic Stock

Wolves naturally develop a hierarchy within their pack, with the most dominant wolves acting as – you guessed it – the “leader of the pack.” While wolves occasionally compete for the top spot in a pack, it is rare for sustained fights to occur within a pack. Until recently, researchers didn’t fully understand how wolves are able to resolve or eliminate inter-pack conflict, but a new study sheds light on this process. It turns out that wolves have elaborate ways of communicating that help to maintain hierarchy and reinforce relationships among pack mates. For instance, a subordinate wolf might spontaneously lie on its back with its tail tucked between its legs, exposing its stomach and throat to a more dominant wolf. This submissive behavior acknowledges the submissive–dominant relationship between the two individuals, thereby maintaining order and preventing violence among pack mates. This study underscores just how complex and intelligent wolves really are.

While these behaviors help to explain inter-pack dynamics and how submissive behavior can actually be a conflict deterrent in wolf packs, how are conflicts resolved once they occur?

Wolves, © Eilish PalmerTo answer this question, researchers working in Yellowstone observed two packs of free-ranging wolves, the Druid Peak pack and the Blacktail Deer Plateau pack, from 2008 to 2009. The scientists monitored and recorded wolf behaviors following fights and compared these observations to the behaviors of wolves during times with no group conflict. What the researchers found was that after a fight, subordinate wolves would actually attempt to reconcile with their more dominant pack mates. Ever hear of “kiss and make up?” Immediately after a conflict, subordinate wolves will often touch noses and lick their more dominant pack mates. Researchers think that this nose touching behavior is a way of apologizing and asking for forgiveness. It’s their way to resolve a conflict, reduce tension within a group, show respect, and prevent further violence. The more heated the fight, the greater the number of friendly behaviors that followed, including nose touching, licking, body contact, greeting, inspecting, playing, and sniffing.

Why would subordinate wolves want to ‘make amends’ after a fight? It is probably due to the interdependence of the group. Subordinates benefit most by maintaining peaceful relationships with their more dominant pack mates – they need each other in order to survive. Resolving and diffusing the conflict helps to prevent further violence and keeps the group cohesive so that they can work together to hunt and defend territory. This research is yet another example of the remarkable intelligence of wolves, and their complex social structure.

Dan Thornhill is a Conservation Scientist at Defenders of Wildlife

49 Responses to “Wolves are even more socially complex than we thought…”

  1. Linda Pries

    So where is the information that is new? Thought there was something here that was “more than we ever knew before”.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Linda. The study discussed here is one of the latest studies on wolf packs, published in April of this year. Although there may have not been anything never known before, the findings certainly give more insight into the intelligence and complex social structure of wolves.

    • Frank Wendland

      Thank you for stating your comments. For a moment, while reading the article, I thought maybe this was an ‘old’ posting as I thought this info was known a long time ago as well.

    • di i nscoe

      I;m with her, where are the NEW facts, I knew this about wolves since I was a child!

    • Ruth

      Fascinating! wolves are tops! Its a pity the same “intelligence” isnt manifest in human beings! who are constantly killing each other instead of taking a leaf out of the wolfs book & realize that as the author says beings ” benefit most by maintaing peaceful relationships”. nuff said!

    • Lisa

      It may be “old” news for people who love and have studied wolves, but there are so many more people who do not know this exact information about these gorgeous and amazing creatures. Thanks for posting these findings.

    • Barbara Smuts

      What is new in the cited article is the information on reconciliation after fights in wild wolves (a previous study documented reconciliation in one group of captive wolves). Reconciliation after conflict has been extensively documented in primates but is much less studied in other animals. Not all social animals show reconciliation behavior. The fact that wolves do is important, because it demonstrates that, within a pack, wolves are willing to expend time and energy to maintain good relations. This finding indicates that wolves value their relationships highly. I am a research in animal behavior who has studied nonhuman primates, dolphins, and domestic dogs, all of whom demonstrate reconciliation behavior.

    • Marie Soto

      I appreciate this article and your right not all people know this stuff. However, I’m very disappointed on the conference call meeting. I RSVP and was not able to connect. I care so much about wolves and cry when I hear how these ranchers and wolf haters are killing them. Why can’t we get more people out there protecting them. There has to be a better way to protect them.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Marie. We are very sorry that you were not able to connect to the conference call. However, you are in luck! We will be sending a recording of the call to everyone who registered for the event, whether you connected to the call or not. Look for it soon!

    • Lonnie

      I think sometimes we might consider those who are new to the plight of the WOLF and always keep that in mind. Bless you all who are educated in WOLVES. We must really stand strong as I can attest, this fight truly never ends……. DO WORK!!!! 😉

  2. Alan Wing

    What an interesting article. No wonder I love and respect wolves so much. We humans could learn so much from these incredible beings. They need to be treated with more respect by we humans.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Alan, thank you for your interest in this post! It’s research like this that helps us learn more about the species and discover new ways to help them survive and flourish in the wild.

  3. Diane Keilman

    I am very upset that I wasn’t able to connect to the conference call. I came home special for it. I got home at 7:40 PM to make I could be connected. Someone called but never connected me to the conference call. I am very sorry. My heart is for saving the wolves. I’m sorry that it didn’t work out tonight.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Diane, we are so sorry that you weren’t able to connect last night to the conference call. We did record it, and will be sending out the recording to all who attended.

  4. Laura Ice

    Seems like we humans could learn a thing or two from these intelligent and beautiful creatures! Thank you for posting this…

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Laura, thank you for supporting our mission! We agree that we can learn a lot from wolf pack behavior. Wolves are such intelligent creatures, and we must continue to do everything that we can to help.

  5. Anna

    Why wolves reconcile after they fight? Maybe simply they have the same reasons as humans do. They form a pack, they know their strength lies in a group so they maintain it and they’ve known each other for years, so they form friendships (I used to have 3 dogs and plenty of cats – they do form friendships, believe me) – scientists think they make such a ‘big’ discovery when in fact they are discovering the obvious – the fact that animals don’t use the human language does not make them ‘stupid’. Try to go abroad without learning the native language – you always meet some people there who will treat you like you’re ‘lower’ just because you don’t know their language. Maybe it’s a flaw in us, humans, that we cannot see the world just as it is but we impose our limited way to see and conclude.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi William. You can get updates from our Wolf Weekly Wrap Up, as well as all of our blog posts, on any page of our blog (see “Subscribe to the Blog” on the right hand side of each blog post.) You can also sign up at this link. Please be aware that once you sign up, you will receive an email every time there’s a new blog post.


    I was not able to even register for the call online so would appreciate if you will send the recording to me also. Thanks.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Jill, we’re sorry that you had trouble registering for the call. However, if you received the invitation to the town hall, you’ll also receive the recording of it (even if you weren’t able to RSVP).

  7. doug

    yeah, not seeing new information and this is drawn from very limited and not natural wolf populations but ones crowded into a confined area..It contradicts what I read other places such as Animals Make us Human, Temple Grandin, which says wolves prefer nuclear family to the pack..That the pack idea is not the truly natural wolf social unit at all.

    • Barbara Smuts

      Temple Grandin’s view is limited. Here are the facts: When a new wolf pack is formed, the initial group includes, typically, one male and one female, and when they breed for the first time, they form a nuclear family unit. In most habitats, at least some offspring from the previous year’s litter remain with their parents for at least another year and often for longer. Thus, some wolf groups, all of which are called packs, contain the original pair and some of their offspring from several previous years. In some sense, this is still a nuclear family, since all offspring are from the same pair. However, particularly in habitats with high prey availability, one or more daughters or sisters (see below) of the original breeding female may also reproduce, resulting in an extended family social structure. In other cases, packs accept young males who have dispersed from other packs, in which case they go beyond an extended family to include unrelated wolves. When a breeding male or female dies, they will typically be replaced by an outsider who has dispersed from another pack, which is another way in which a pack may go beyond an extended family. Finally, in Yellowstone and perhaps other areas, new packs are sometimes formed by two or three males, or two or three females, who have dispersed from the same pack and who then meet up with one or more wolves of the opposite sex to form a new pack. Such packs also go beyond the nuclear/extended family. I other words, wolf packs can take many different forms and only some of them involve just a nuclear family. The larger a pack the more likely it is to involve more than just a breeding pair and their descendants. The size of wolf packs and therefore the chances that packs may involve non-relatives (beyond the original male-female pair, who are unrelated) depends on the particular habitat, the number of other wolf packs in the area, prey availability and dynamic processes that cannot be predicted in advance. This information comes from my conversations with wolf biologists and from my own reading of the scientific literature. I am a researcher in animal behavior who studies members of the genus Canis, which includes wolves.

  8. Mary

    Really enjoyed the article. Wolves are fascinating, intelligent, beautiful creatures. We must do all we can to preserve them.

  9. Alexander Yeung

    Governor butch otter is a complete monster who show no respect to wolves. His idaho wolf control board are fill with wolf hater. He and his anti-wolf followers deserve to face punishment. If their plan on killing every wolves bring devastated and bad results upon their state, then idahoans have alot explaining to do of why they let it happen. That why it is fate far worse than death. They’re wasting all of their money killing wolves instead of approving idaho education with true and honest fact.

    • Sue

      As far as Butch Otter goes, you really need to hope there’s such a thing as karma. I was going to say that I hope he comes back as a wolf (if there’s any left at that point), but that would be much too good for him.

  10. Johnice Reid

    Sorry I must agree with Linda. Those of us who are truly connected to pack animals see nothing new or more insightful here. Possibly the research teams are to removed from the subjects or strangled by some arcane protocol. Nonetheless, I wasted time reading that which I have known about Wolves and Pack animals since WWII!

  11. Judy Epstein

    I love reading about wolves. The book NEVER CRY WOLF by Farley Mowat is SO good! Governer Butch sounds like an idiot. However, he did get elected. It’s amazing to me how such short sighted people get to a high political office. It’s all free will here and inhabitants of Planet Earth chooses some really strange people to ‘lead’ us

  12. Joanie Beldin

    Thank you for the article. One thing the article doesn’t clarify is that the wolves’ pack is a family unit, not just a random group of wolves that have come together. The pack is made up of the breeding pair and their offspring. I understand that occasionally an outside wolf may be included in the pack. To me, this helps to explain the dedication of the wolves to each other. The pack structure is needed not only for hunting and territory defense, but also for rearing their young. I have read that many members of the pack help in the raising and teaching of the young in the first year, including wolves acting as “babysitters” when the rest of the pack is out hunting. A most amazing story of wolf intelligence and family dedication can be found in this article posted on the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Services site: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/arctic/wolfstory.html

    • Joanie Beldin

      Thank you for the article. One thing the article doesn’t clarify is that the wolves’ pack is a family unit, not just a random group of wolves that have come together. The pack is made up of the breeding pair and their offspring. I understand that occasionally an outside wolf may be included in the pack. To me, this helps to explain the dedication of the wolves to each other. The pack structure is needed not only for hunting and territory defense, but also for rearing their young. I have read that many members of the pack help in the raising and teaching of the young in the first year, including wolves acting as “babysitters” when the rest of the pack is out hunting. A most amazing story of wolf intelligence and family dedication can be found in an article posted by the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Services. You can find it by googling “a family of wolves Arctic Alaska fish and wildlife services”

  13. LdyGreyWolf

    As to the Idaho situation, I remember many years back when states like Idaho decimated their wolf packs in order for them to be able to sell large amount of hunting licenses. Guess what happened. The deer and elk herds got so large that the ranchers started complaining about having to go out and throw hay to keep the animals from starving so that there would be something to hunt. Why in Gods name can we humans not leave Mother Nature to keep things in balance. Seems that most things we humans touch we manage to ruin…all in the interest of making things better. Better? For who??? Certainly not any of the wildlife, whether on land or sea.
    Just saying

  14. Jenny Barnard

    I enjoyed the article! Yeah, I kind of already knew about some of it but I’m glad there are positive studies still going on for wolves. I am deeply disturbed by all the articles I read about the relentless hunt to kill off these beautiful and necessary creatures! All of God’s creatures have a right to live their lives with dignity. Man kind, far too often, wants to control things that they really should not.

    Keep up the good work, Defenders of Wildlife!


    Jenny Barnard

  15. Barbara G. Efraimson

    I saw a program on public TV a couple of years ago on these wolf groups and their behavior. I was amazed then, and still am. Thanks for all you do.

  16. Alan L.

    These comments show the overwhelming hubris, stupidity, and self importance of the average human.
    We are just animals like all the others, but with the bigger brains, and a complex language. And, with all those benefits, we manage to kill, maim, denigrate others of our kind, and destroy the environment that supports us. Don’t be in awe of the wolves, be disgusted with yourselves!

  17. Linda Carroll

    Kissing/licking reproduces a typical action of a juvenile, who licks or kisses the corners of an adult’s mouth to get the adult to share food. By showing juvenile behavior, a wolf indicates that it understands that it occupies a lower rung on the hierarchy (i.e. is a juvenile in comparison with) the individual to which it displays this behavior. The juvenile behavior also encourages the recipient to act as a caring parent toward the lower-ranked or defeated animal rather than continuing aggression. Showing the stomach also has some origins in juvenile behavior; juveniles show their stomachs not only to signal their peaceful intentions by making themselves vulnerable but often also emit a small amount of urine, which allows the parent to evaluate the juvenile’s state of health. In the case of the mother, if the juvenile is ill, she then manufactures antibodies against the juvenile’s illness, which the juvenile ingests with her milk.
    Thus a defeated or submissive wolf uses typical gestures of the young to encourage caring rather than aggressive behavior in the dominant animal. Which is what domesticated animals also often do with their humans. It keeps the ‘family’ together.


    Does seem like your article is a bit old hat. But thanks for taking up the cause of wolf preservation. It’s so difficult to stand up against the dumb vulgarity of so many office-holders.

  19. Mary

    Wonder how much of U.S. hard working Americans Tax Dollars went to this – already researched ~ research project on the behavior of Wolves?

  20. Susan Childs

    U always knew how intelligent they were and how complex their social structure is. Every member is cared for and crucial. We dismiss so often what these amazing creatures are capable of as it makes it easier to brutally murder them

  21. Myrle Horn

    I also missed the telephone call.
    The phone rang but never connected.
    There must be a way to stop this horrible murdering of the wolves.
    I continue to donate when I can, but the killing continues.
    I pray every day for the wolves.
    Please send me a copy of the phone call.

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Myrle. We’ll be sending a copy of the telephone call to everyone who signed up for it, regardless if you were able to connect or not.

  22. Carroll the Irishman

    My MOST favorite animal. Thanks very much for the information. I’ve watched different TV shows about wolves and their behavior but, they never covered this. They showed when one would be “told” to leave and how they would struggle until they found another pack and went through the motions of joining. Thanks very much.

  23. Mary Martin

    This makes it all the more terrible that here in “Pure Michigan” a second wolf hunt
    may be authorized despite two petition drives to get it on the ballot. Killing off the pack leaders may make it easier for those of lesser status to advance but generally set the whole pack back. Lack of humanity and democracy both are at stake here.
    Unfortunately we have our own share of wolf haters here, too.

  24. Georgene McKinney

    Why can’t we bring protection back for our beautiful wolves? They are still killing them in Idaho and some other states…having contests on who can kill the most…it is just sickening that they can do this and get away with it…I love wolves and I get so upset when I read about the killings…these animals are smart and family oriented…why can’t they just leave them alone…

  25. Minnie

    This is a good article, but to me it is not “new news”. Just look at your domestic dogs! They too will behave in this manner when they have interconnected relationships. I currently have a brother and sister from the same litter and I have seen this type of behavior between them since they were born. Of course, there are humans out there that “never” notice this type of behavior because a “dog” or any other animal is just and “animal” whom they think as little or zero intelligence.
    There is a great video that a person can watch on YouTube, “How a wolf can change a river”, it is a must “see” for anyone who cares about wolves or this planet!

  26. Robin Down

    I wanted to share this on facebook but there is no link. Why?

    • Defenders of Wildlife

      Hi Robin. If you look at this post beneath the title and next to the author’s name, you will see a Facebook share icon. Please feel free to share this on your page. We appreciate spreading the message about wolves!

  27. Michael S

    Yes, a lot of us knew a lot of this info. However, as many have mentioned many people know little. Instead of knocking the article try to remember it may help some other people learn more and hopefully do more to help wolves.

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