The Importance of Young Wolves in Caring For Pups
text and photography by Gordon Haber from his www.alaskawolves.org blog | Winter 2009-10
Reproductive relationships are the strongest, most durable bonds in an established family of wolves, but there are also other close bonds, such as between 12–16-month-olds and the current pups. I commented in earlier essays on the importance of 12–16-month-olds, i.e., “yearlings,” in caring for pups during the May–September homesite period. Not surprisingly, yearlings seem to identify easily with the pups; sometimes they even revert to pup-like behavior while with them. Their close care of the young pups is one of the manifestations of the wolves’ sophisticated cooperative breeding behavior (July 23, 2009 blog entry), in this case a form of “helping” that also amounts to a division of labor.
I watched another example of this behavior during a late August 2009 research flight in Denali National Park, as three females of the Toklat family moved three pups to a new location within the group’s territory. One or two of these females produced nine pups in May—the dominant female of the family and a larger female, and both nursed them into June. The third female, a yearling, is probably the same female who I thought also nursed the nine pups, per details in the July 23, 2009 blog entry. At this writing, the whereabouts of the six other pups is a mystery. I will return to this question (and update the August 16 and 18 blog entries) soon.
The photos show highlights of the yearling female’s attentiveness to the pups as observed on the late August flight. They also convey a good sense of the wolves’ intelligence, expressiveness, and emotional depth.
A 15–16-month-old female of the Toklat wolf family of Denali National Park tries to coax a reluctant 3–4-month-old black pup the rest of the way across a shallow river. She is urging the pup on with a combination of close eye contact and by slapping the water playfully, perhaps to put the pup more at ease. Refer to the following photos to see if she was successful.
The six Toklat wolves travel at a leisurely pace along a river. The 3–4-month-old pups (1 black, 2 tan) are together near a pool of water, where two apparently see their reflections. On the far left, wearing a radio collar, is the dominant female, in the middle (leading) is the larger female, and at the right is the yearling female.
As the wolves travel, the pups generally remain closest to the yearling female and play more with her. She seems to enjoy their attention.
The three pups follow the older wolves across a shallow channel of the river. This channel poses little if any danger for the pups, nevertheless the yearling female stops to watch over them closely as they cross, while the other two females continue on.
Somewhat further upstream the three females cross the main channel, with the three pups just behind. This channel is a little deeper and swifter than the last one but still doesn’t amount to much.
But the pups are afraid to cross. A cloud passes overhead as they pace back and forth anxiously, trying to get the attention of the older wolves, who are distracted briefly with a dominance interaction between the two older females.
Within seconds the yearling turns her attention to the pups, trying to coax them across with playful crouches. The two older females seem unconcerned.
As the sunshine returns, the black pup decides to give it a try. The yearling female jumps into the river to reassure and encourage the pup, primarily with close eye contact and by leaping and pawing the water playfully.
The pup has only 6–7 ft (2 m) to go but seems to lose its nerve at this point, despite the yearling’s intense urgings.
The yearling sees that the pup is about to turn back. She makes a last attempt to bring the pup across, first by steadying it against the current with her paw (on the pup’s downstream side), then by trying to grab the pup by the neck. However, the pup is too afraid and pulls away, to return to the other side.
The yearling (standing), now joined by the large female, encourages the pups to try again.
After a few minutes, the pups try again. A tan pup crosses, followed by the black pup. The tan pup makes it across but by not starting far enough upstream ends up having a little difficulty climbing out of the current along a cut-bank. The black pup is about to do the same. The yearling female rushes to their aid. She helps the tan pup climb out by placing her jaws around its neck and lifting while steadying it and holding it out of the current with her paw. Note that both of the other females are now watching but still do not seem too concerned. This is not a very dangerous situation, and in any case they may think the yearling female has it under control.
With the tan pup safely climbing the bank, the yearling immediately springs into action to help the black pup, who is almost across but still in the current. Note how laser-like she is focusing on the black pup. I was not able to photograph the final scene (one of the limits of circling above), but what the yearling did was impressive: She caught up to the pup within seconds and jumped into the river just ahead of it, to brace it against the current from the downstream side. The pup could then use her body to climb the bank fairly easily. Meanwhile the third pup, who had watched the missteps of the other two, crossed the river on its own a little further upstream, thus avoiding the cut-bank entirely.
The large female is in the mood for play (“ambush”) as the two pups pass by after climbing out of the river. Understandably, they are not as eager to play at the moment as they normally would be.
The dominant female (outside the photo to the left) starts the group off again and the large female turns to follow with a bounce in her step. The yearling female (right side) brings up the rear; all three of the pups immediately perk up and rush to her with obvious good feeling and affection
The group continues traveling upriver, with the dominant female (light-colored) and larger female (on her right) doing most of the leading.