Image: Wikimedia Commons

For millennia, humans have been comparing themselves to wolves. It’s not a big stretch; the way wolves behave in their packs isn’t too different from the way human social structures work in tribes and families. But there’s one comparison we’ve been getting wrong.

The “alpha-male” stereotype conjures up aggression and strong, loud leadership. It’s someone who’s firmly in control, and don’t you forget it.

But, as researchers have learned by watching free-roaming wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park, that’s not what being an alpha means. Not at all.

“The main characteristic of an alpha male wolf is a quiet confidence, quiet self-assurance,” wolf researcher Rick McIntyre is quoted as saying in the New York Times. “You know what you need to do; you know what’s best for your pack. You lead by example. You’re very comfortable with that. You have a calming effect.”

Alpha wolves aren’t aggressive at all — because they have no reason to be. They’re already respected by the other members of their pack.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

“Think of an emotionally secure man,” McIntyre said. “Whatever he needed to prove is already proven.”

The alpha wolf will participate in hunts, but once the pack has taken down their prey, he’ll often step away, and even take a nap until his pack has eaten. McIntyre has been studying wolves for the National Park Service for more than 20 years. In that time, he said, he’s rarely seen an alpha wolf act aggressively toward the members of his pack.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, evolutionarily speaking, it makes more sense to promote calmness and teamwork within the pack.

“Imagine two wolf packs, or two human tribes,” McIntyre said. “Which is more likely to survive and reproduce: the one whose members are more cooperative, more sharing, less violent with one another, or the group whose members are beating each other up and competing with one another?”

We may have always thought of the alpha as a male position, but now biologists have a different perspective. The leaders of the Yellowstone Gray Wolf Restoration Project, say it’s actually the females who make most of the decisions on behalf of the pack.

As McIntyre puts it, “it’s the alpha female who really runs the show.”

Featured image: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr