Wolves have one of the most sophisticated social systems in the animal world, and many studies have been conducted on the dynamics of the pack lifestyle. The pack is an integral component in the success of the wolf as a predator. It makes possible the protection of a territory -- and the prey within that territory -- from other, individually stronger predators such as bears and mountain lions. And the pack hierarchy establishes order and stability among highly intelligent and potentially deadly individual wolves.
In 1983, with a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, Kevin MacDonald of the University of Connecticut examined the importance of group stability in the development of wolf pups. MacDonald wanted to know more about how individual behavioral characteristics in wol pups changed over time as they integrated into pack society, and to what extent those changes were affected by endogenous processes or environmental factors. His research was conducted on a litter born in May 1977 at the University of Connecticut, and which consisted of seven males and one female. (The parents were obtained from a zoo.) Two of the males died within weeks of birth, and the female was removed, leaving five subjects for the experiments MacDonald conducted.
At four weeks of age the litter was removed from the enclosure in which they had been born, and preliminary assessments of their behavior were conducted from that point until they were 44 days old. They were then subjected to a number of tests. In the Active Person Test, the young wolves were individually isolated and then introduced to a series of humans, who would enter the pen, sit on the floor, and attempt to coerce the pups into coming closer with exaggerated gestures. Some of the pups did approach, using submissive postures, while others never did. In the Unfamiliar Objects Test, the pups were tested both individually and in a group. Objects such as rope, rakes and boxes were placed in one part of a dual enclosure while the pups watched from the other part; the gate between the two parts was then opened, and the researchers recorded the extent to which each of the wolves responded to the strange objects. In the Bone Competition Test, designed to determine dominance in the litter, a bone was tossed into the enclosure containing all of the pups, and data was recorded to reflect which animal or animals acquired possession of the bone, and how long they maintained control.
Careful reflection upon the results of these tests led MacDonald to conclude that there was at least a suggestion that "whether an animal is in a social group affects his performance on similar tests." Pup Six, for example, invariably led the way in boldly examining unfamiliar objects when in the company of the rest of his littermates, in comparison to Pup Three, who had a high approach latency to unfamiliar objects while in the group. And yet individually Pup Three was much more prone to investigate boldly than Pup Six. (This is in keeping with the phenomenon observed in the "disperser" -- a wolf, usually located at the lower end of the pack hierarchy, who leaves the pack only to demonstrate dominant traits in future relationships.) MacDonald noticed that there was greater variability in overall ranking when the pups were compared as individuals as opposed to when they operated as a group. He also noticed that a consistency in reaction to both unfamiliar objects and humans occurred much more quickly when the pups were grouped together than when they were separated. Clearly then, the pack environment could have a significant impact, since individual animals sometimes responded quite differently within a group than they did alone.
Early personality traits seemed to have a clear impact on later behavioral differences. And there appeared to be a consistent pattern in the relationship that developed between the pups MacDonald studied. During much of the experiment the pups were placed into different pairings -- in fact, they spent less than five of the entire eighteen weeks of the experiment together as a group -- and yet these pairings and the isolation that occurred at other times had no significant impact on the "hierarchy" that was established within the group. This suggested to MacDonald that "the traits under investigation are not maintained by some continuous environmental factor and are relatively well buffered from environmental effects." Thus MacDonald concluded that the individual animal became increasingly immune to environmental disruption as it grew older and more experienced.
MacDonald was well aware that previous research had made clear the fact that dominance relations among pups would often predicate later dominance within the pack organization. In another study conducted at the University of Connecticut it was observed that one of three male pups included in the experiment early on became much more assertive than his littermates, and when this individual grew to adulthood it attained the "beta" position in the pack hierarchy, second only to its father, the alpha male. A major reorganization of social behavior occurred around the time of puberty, but MacDonald thought that the relationships between pups could reveal individual characteristics that should be associated with dominance as adults.
The experiments demonstrated the importance of the group to the development of individuals in certain ways that predict that sophisticated social organization of adult wolves. Of equal importance, they suggested the durability of the wolf to change when in a group. Environmental continuity was "not a necessary condition for stability of personality in a highly social species." This bodes well for the continued survival of the wolf in a swiftly changing world and points not only to the remarkable durability of the pack even in times of stress, but to the adaptability of wolves as long as their social organization remains more or less intact.