The wolf’s life takes place in the pack, which is no more than its family. A pack is formed indeed, a few exceptions aside, by the dominant male and female, and by their pups born in the current year and born in the previous years , but who nevertheless have not left the pack of origin yet. The packs of Apennine wolves usually do not exceed 6-7 individuals, but their size is quite variable over time, not only from one year to another but also in different periods of the same year. In fact, the members of the group do not always move together, and the couple may tend to isolate themselves during the reproduction period.
Within the group there is a sort of age-based hierarchy which regulates social relations between the members of the pack, where the dominant individual, besides being the most performing individual, is also the one with more experience. In reality, the dominant individuals are nothing more than the parents of the other members entrusted with the direction of the pack.
Decisions in everyday life which are related to hunting, defence of the territory and more generally on what to do and how to do it, are taken by the couple and every other member learns from them the behaviors and strategies that will be useful to him in his future life.
Communication assumes in this context an essential role; each animal shows its own role through the gestures of the whole body and, above all, express their intentions towards others: in fact, those behaviors that invite reconciliation are highly developed.
Only the dominant couple is generally the one that reproduces and this factor contributes to the natural regulation of the wolf population.
When there were no more wolves (until the ’70s)
The wolf was present in all continental European countries up until the 1800’s.During the 20th century, especially after the Second World War, the species became the victim of an extermination that involved all of Central and Northern Europe, due to the exacerbation of human feelings towards it, since it was considered as a threat to human activities, extermination probably made more effective by the diffusion of more efficient firearms and the ease of finding poisons.
Only very small wolf populations survived in Italy, Spain and Greece.
Until the 60s the wolf was considered by the law a harmful animal in Italy, therefore slaughtering it by any means was quite allowed. Even within the historical National Parks of Abruzzi and of Gran Paradiso, the staff used to hunt the wolf to protect the precious ungulates, considered as a symbol of the mountain: the Apennine chamois of which only one population had survived in Abruzzi and the ibex, extinct otherwise throughout the Alps.
Because of the incessant persecutions, and the lack of wild preys, but also of the reduction of favourable habitats due to human activity, only a hundred specimens had survived in the most isolated Apennine areas, while in the Alpine regions and in Sicily the species had been completely eliminated between the 20s and 40s.
From the idea of rigid dominance to the pack as a family
The first studies carried out on the behavior of the wolf were carried out by Rudolf Schenkel in the 30s and 40s of the last century. According to his observations inside the pack there was a rigid hierarchy, maintained and obtained by a violent rivalry, which foresaw that an individual, called alpha, would predominate over his direct subordinate, which in turn was dominant over a third individual, and so on, in a hierarchical scale in which the last wolf, the most submissive, was defined as the omega.
Schenkel had also identified two separate and parallel hierarchical lines, male and female, with the male and female alpha dominating the others. This idea was taken up by David Mech in his first treatise on wolves “The wolf”, published in the 1970s, which was incredibly successful and probably led to the widespread use of this theory.
However, Mech himself, studying the behavior of wolves in the wild, realized that this strict hierarchical system did not correspond to reality. In fact the wolves studied by Schenkel were animals confined to enclosures, where the herds were formed by randomly aggregated specimens and among which social relations altered by the situation of captivity in which they were maintained were established.
From the study of the social behavior of wolves in natural conditions, developed in more recent years, scholars realized that the pack was nothing other than the social unit of wolves and consisted of the wolf family, formed by the parent couple and its offspring and that leadership was nothing more than the dominance of adults over children, due to age and experience and not to an unceasingly claimed supremacy by force.