Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
A Social Animal
Jason Manning
The wolf has the most sophisticated social organization of any animal outside the primate world. There have been numerous studies of wolf socialization. One of these, conducted thirty years ago by J.P. Scott of the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University, explored the evolution of social behavior in both dogs and wolves.* Scott concludes that in a highly social species like the wolf, an environment that remains stable generation after generation results in the stability of social behavioral patterns. In preparing an ethogram for the dog which includes ninety behavior patterns, Scott discovers that very nearly all the patterns are also present in the descriptions of wolf behavior. He decides that "patterns of social behavior, at least within the Family Canidae, are conservative evolutionary traits."
Scott observes that with highly social species it is vital for a young individual to form rapid and lasting attachments. Such behavior is much in evidence in both dogs and wolves. Following a neonatal period during which it remains in the den with its mother, the wolf pup emerges into a brave new world and almost immediately begins the socialization process in the form of play-fighting and playful sexual behavior. Dogs demonstrate the capacity to form strong attachments to places and people beginning at three weeks of age, and Scott notes that wolf pups generally socialize quite easily to humans if removed from their pack at approximately 21 days. At this stage, an extremely important behavioral mechanism is distress vocalization. This reinforces social attachment. "Distress-vocalization is almost certainly accompanied by a form of internal emotional distress," writes Scott, "and the puppy must soon learn that he feels distressed away from familiar individuals and objects, and that this distress is relieved only when he returns to them."
It is also of interest to note that following a period of intense maternal care for two to three weeks, a mother wolf tends to spend less and less time with her pups, leaving them more and more in each other's company. According to Scott, this allows for the strongest bonds to be formed between litter mates, creating a solid foundation for the pack's future.
Scott also addresses certain myths and misconceptions about wolves. He is skeptical of the many tales of "wolf children" that began with the myth of Romulus and Remus and have been particularly numerous in India. He argues that based on what we know about how wolves rear their young, it would be virtually impossible for a human infant to survive in such an environment. Any wolf children that did exist, claims Scott, must have been juveniles who survived by scavenging and who, though possibly seen in the company of wolves, had developed no close attachment to them.
With respect to the true ancestry of the wolf, Scott points out the error of Darwin's assertion that dogs came from two species -- a theory repeated by Conrad Lorenz in 1955, who suggested that dogs could be separated into "jackal breeds" and "wolf breeds". Scott is certain that the behavioral evidence overwhelming supports the theory that dogs descended from wolves. Jackals are much less social animals than either the dog or the wolf, while dog and wolf vocalizations are not nearly as complex as those of the jackal. While he concedes that dogs are capable of breeding with coyotes and jackals, Scott insists that "all evidence is in favor of domestication of the dog from a local population of small wolves somewhere in the Near East or Central Europe." This domestication may have only occurred once, but once would have been enough. The occurrence of curly tails in domestic dogs indicates a common ancestor, and was probably a mutation that happened early in the history of the domestication, preserved because it distinguished the domesticated canid from its wild relatives.
Scott explores the discrepancy between reports of wolf behavior by hunters and trappers and those made by biologists and naturalists who have closely studied wolves. The former generally speak of wolves as destructive and aggressive in their behavior towards one another, while the latter almost invariably claim that wolves are friendly and cooperative within their own pack. Scott believes the explanation rests in the fact that hunters and trappers probably observe wolves during a period of social stress, of a "disruption and breakdown of social organization which they themselves have brought about."
In his conclusions, Scott states that the evolution of behavior in dog and wolf has "proceeded in different directions at different periods of life: toward adaptation for a highly protected neonatal existence [in the case of the dog] and toward adaptation for more independent adult existence [for the wolf]." Furthermore, not all social behavior is conducive to individual survival. As an example, Scott points to the extremely long copulatory tie observed in mating wolves. Such behavior serves a social function, and is not necessarily non-adaptive, as wolves are predators and are not usually attacked. (In contrast, herbivores usually mate swiftly; in the case of cattle the act is accomplished in a matter of seconds.) However, early wolf hunters lured male wolves by staking out a female dog in estrus and then clubbing the wolf when it was helplessly tied to the female. As Scott admits, the study of wolves, with their highly complex social organization, is a rewarding one -- and we have only just begun to scratch the surface.
* "The Evolution of Social Behavior in Dogs and Wolves," J.P. Scott, Ecology and Behavior of the Wolf Symposium, 1966
Copyright 2002     Jason Manning     All Rights Reserved
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