The life of an alpha male wolf that led Yellowstone’s famous Druid pack told us much about what animals think and feel. Carl Safina investigates in this extract from BeyondWords.
Yellowstone’s finest pack leader and his surprising life
Twenty-one was the most famous wolf in Yellowstone National Park. “If ever there was a perfect wolf,” says expert wolf-watcher Rick McIntyre, “It was him. He was like a fictional character. But he was real.” Even from a distance, Twenty-one’s big-shouldered profile was recognisable.
Utterly fearless in defence of his family, Twenty-one had the size, strength and agility to win against overwhelming odds. “On two occasions, I saw Twenty-one take on six attacking wolves – and rout them all,” Rick says. “Watching him was like watching Bruce Lee fighting, but in real life. I’d be thinking: ‘A wolf can’t do what I am watching this wolf do’.” Watching Twentyone, Rick elaborates, “was like watching Muhammad Ali or Michael Jordan – a oneof-a-kind talent at the top of his game, with talents outside of ‘normal’.” And normal for a wolf isn’t like average for a human, because every wolf is a professional athlete.
Twenty-one never lost a fight. And he never killed any defeated opponent. Twenty-one was a superwolf. He came into the world in the first litter of pups born in Yellowstone in nearly 70 years. His parents had both been trapped in Canada and shipped to Yellowstone to reintroduce wolves into a system that had become out of balance, with too many elk (a relative of Eurasia’s red deer) for the land to bear.
After almost 70 years without wolves, the elk had built to such numbers that winter for them meant scarcity and hunger. For the introduced wolves, though, the imbalance meant plenty of food. But even though wolves had been absent longer than most people could remember, just before Twenty-one was born, someone shot his father.
A wolf does not do well as a single mother. Researchers reluctantly decided to capture her and her pups and feed them for a few months in a one-acre pen. When humans brought food to the pen, all the other wolves fled to the opposite fence, but one pup would pace a little rise in the enclosure, putting himself between the humans and the rest of his family. This pup would later be given tracking collar number 21.
At age two and a half, Twenty-one left his mother – and an adoptive father– and his birth pack. He waltzed into the family known as the Druid Peak pack fewer than two days after its alpha male had also been shot illegally. The Druid females welcomed this prime male wolf; their pups loved the big new guy. He adopted the pups and helped feed them. With no hassle at all,
Twenty-one had left home and immediately become the alpha male of an established pack. It was his big break in life.
Twenty-one was “remarkably gentle” with the members of his pack, says Rick. Immediately after making a kill, he would often walk away to urinate or lie down, to allow other family members to eat their fill.
One of Twenty-one’s favourite things was to wrestle with little pups. “And what he really loved,” Rick adds, “was to pretend to lose. He just got a huge kick out of it.” Here was this great big male wolf. And he’d let some little wolf jump on him and bite his fur. “He’d just fall on his back with his paws in the air,” Rick half-mimes the action.
“The ability to pretend shows that you understand how your actions are perceived by others. It indicates high intelligence. I’m sure the pups knew what was going on, but it was a way for them to learn how it feels to conquer something much bigger. And that kind of confidence is what wolves need every day of their hunting lives.”
Early in Twenty-one’s run as an alpha, three females in his pack gave birth. That was extraordinary. Usually only the alpha female, or matriarch, breeds. The three litters reflected the unnaturally abundant food supply. An astounding 20 pups survived, swelling an already large pack to a hard-to-believe 37 wolves, the largest ever documented. Because the pack’s size resulted from a food base so artificially swollen after seven decades devoid of wolves, the three-dozen-member pack might have been the world’s all-time largest.
“Only Twenty-one had what it took to run an outfit that large,” Rick comments. It wasn’t all peaceful. The high density of wolves probably produced unnaturally high wolf-on-wolf conflict. In territorial defence and in pursuit of expanded territory, Twentyone participated in plenty of fights.
Wolf territorial fights resemble human tribal warfare. When packs fight, numbers count, but experience matters an awful
lot. As adults of both packs beeline to or away from rivals or battle for their lives, juveniles can seem lost in the confusion. Wolf pups under a year old often seem dismayed by an attack, and a juvenile that gets pinned by attackers may simply give up. Wolves often target the alphas of the rival pack, as if they fully understand that if they can rout or kill the experienced leaders, victory will be theirs.
Fatal conflict between tribal groups isn’t just a human or chimpanzee thing. The second-most-common cause of wolf death in the Rockies is being killed by other wolves. (Being killed by humans is first.) But, as mentioned, Twenty-one never lost a fight and he never killed a vanquished wolf. His restraint seems incredible. What could it be? Mercy? Can a wolf be magnanimous?
When a human releases a vanquished opponent rather than killing them, in the eyes of onlookers the vanquished still loses status but the victor seems all the more impressive. You can’t be magnanimous unless you’ve won, so you have proved yourself by winning. And if you show mercy, your lack of fear shows tremendous confidence. Onlookers might feel it would be desirable to follow such a person.
History’s most esteemed, higheststatus leaders are not ruthless strongmen like Hitler, Stalin and Mao – they are Gandhi, King and Mandela. Peaceful warriors earn higher global status than violent ones. Muhammad Ali was a practitioner of combat who spoke of peace and refused to go to war, and his status rose to unprecedented heights with his rejection of killing.
For humans and many other animals, status is a huge deal, preoccupying one’s mind, occupying one’s time and costing energy. And for it, much treasure and blood is risked. Wolves do not understand why status and dominance are so important to them, any more than do humans. Without consulting our opinion our brains produce hormones that make us feel strongly compelled to strive for status and assert dominance. Dominance feels like an end in itself.
Here’s why: high status aids survival. Status is a daily proxy for competition for mates and food. Then, whenever mates or food are in short supply, the high-status individual has the advantage. The thing at stake is survival, and ultimately in survival the thing
BBC Wildlife at stake is reproduction. Dominance lets you outcompete others for food, mates and preferred territory, which boosts reproduction.
So, can a wolf be magnanimous? In humans, as we’ve noted, letting a vanquished rival go free is a show of both extra strength and extraordinary selfconfidence. In free-living animals, the public display of excess is sometimes called the ‘handicap principle’. The message is: “Notice that I have enough to spare. I have so much, in fact, that I can afford to handicap myself.” Almost any kind of excess will impress, as long as it’s something that’s valued, such as bravery, beauty or wealth. In humans, elevating one’s status by displaying excess wealth is called conspicuous consumption.
Many animals bid for status by flaunting excess accumulation, such as peacock tails or long, luxurious hair. The iconoclastic Israeli researcher Amotz Zahavi, who first coined the handicap principle, studied social birds called Arabian babblers. He noticed that they compete for the opportunity to fight rivals. He considered such birds altruistic because the fighters vie for the honour of being seen putting themselves at risk on behalf of their group. If they were soldiers, they’d come back to the nest wearing medals.
Onlookers are impressed – and they should be. But releasing a beaten but potentially lethal rival greatly ups the ante. An individual that shows such exceptional confidence boosts their own status. Some of those confident animals might be wolves. Some might be superheroes.
“Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” asks Rick rhetorically, before volunteering his answer. “In admiring the hero who restrains his strength, we are impressed with the hero’s power,” he says. “A story in which the good person kills the bad guy isn’t nearly as interesting as a story where the good guy has a moral dilemma. In what’s been called the
greatest movie of all time, Humphrey Bogart has won the love he has sought. But he arranges things so that the other man does not lose his wife and is not hurt. We admire him for that. When we see strength combined with restraint, we want to follow that individual. It greatly enhances status.”
The character in the movie feels bound by his ethics. But do wolves have morals, ethics? Rick chuckles at the thought. “It would be scientific heresy to say they do. But…”
In Twenty-one’s life there was a particular male, a sort of roving Casanova, a continual annoyance. He was strikingly good-looking, had a big personality, and was always doing something interesting. “The best single word is charisma,” says Rick. “Female wolves were happy to mate with him. People absolutely loved him. Especially women. Women would take one look at him – they didn’t want you to say anything bad about him. His irresponsibility and infidelity; it didn’t matter.”
One day, Twenty-one discovered this Casanova among his daughters. Twenty-one ran in, caught him and began pinning him to the ground. Various pack members piled in, beating up Casanova. “Casanova was also big,” Rick says, “but he was a bad fighter. Now he was overwhelmed and the pack was finally killing him. Suddenly Twenty-one steps back. The pack members are looking at Twenty-one as if saying, ‘Why has Dad stopped?’” The Casanova wolf jumped up and ran away.
But Casanova kept causing problems for Twenty-one. Well, why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker so he won’t have to deal with him anymore? With Casanova and Twentyone it didn’t make sense – until years later. After Twenty-one’s death, Casanova briefly became the Druid pack’s alpha male. But he wasn’t effective, Rick recalls: “He didn’t know what to do, just not a leader personality.” And although it’s very rare for a younger brother to depose an older one, that’s what happened to him. “His year-younger brother had a much more natural alpha personality.” Casanova didn’t mind; it meant he was free to wander and meet other females.
Eventually Casanova, along with several young Druid males, met some females and they formed the Blacktail pack. “With them,” Rick remembers, “he finally became the model of a responsible alpha male and a great father.” Meanwhile the mighty Druids were ravaged by mange and diminished by interpack fighting; the last Druid was shot near Butte, Montana, in 2010. Casanova, though he’d been averse to fighting, died in a fight with a rival pack. But everyone in his Blacktail pack remained uninjured – including grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of Twenty-one.
Wolves can’t foresee such plot twists any more than people can. But evolution does. Its calculus integrates long averages. By sparing the Casanova wolf, Twenty-one helped assure himself more surviving descendants. And in evolution, surviving descendants are the only currency that matters. Anything that’s helped descendants survive will remain in the genetic heirloom.
So in strictly survivalist terms, ‘should’ a wolf let his rival go free? Is restraint an effective strategy for accumulating benefits? I think the answer is: yes, if you can afford it, because sometimes your enemy today becomes, tomorrow, a vehicle for your legacy. What Rick saw play out over those years might be just the kinds of events that are the basis for magnanimity in wolves, and at the heart of mercy in men.