How 'Underdog' Yellowstone Wolf Runt Became Alpha-male Pack Leader

A new book has revealed the fascinating story of how one male wolf pup in Yellowstone National Park rose from being the runt of one litter to the pack leader of another as an adult.

The book, authored by naturalist Rick McIntyre, follows the reintroduction of wolves into the park in 1995, told through the story of the pup, Wolf 8, and another animal known as 21, Psychology Today reported.

The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone's Underdog reveals another side of these intelligent animals, providing a counter-narrative to the traditional view of wolves as nothing but aggressive and fearsome hunters.

"Touching on the nature versus nurture debate, McIntyre looks at 8's seemingly paternal relationship with 21, who reveals many personality traits in common with his brave, gregarious, and loyal 'stepfather,' Publishers Weekly wrote. "This narrative finally builds to a dramatic peak, with a clash between the aged 8 and full-grown 21, now head of another pack, seemingly inevitable."

McIntyre wrote the book after observing the animals in the park for more than 6,000 consecutive days between June 2000 and February 2019, in which time he witnessed behavior that had never been documented before.

"I feel grateful to the wolves for giving me the gift of seeing so much of their private lives and feel it is my obligation to share what I have learned from them through a series of books," McIntyre told Psychology Today.

The expert said that Wolf 8 was the smallest of all the male wolves that were introduced into the park in 1995. Normally, he would be considered the least likely to become an alpha male as an adult. But according to McIntyre, a chance event changed the trajectory of his life.

"When he was a yearling, equivalent to a teenager in human years, he came across a mother wolf and her eight pups," McIntyre said. "The father of the pups had been illegally shot, and the single mother needed a lot of help."

"She accepted 8 into her family and he suddenly became an alpha male with a lot of responsibilities, such as helping to raise, train and protect a large litter of pups. He rose to the occasion, never backing down when his family was threatened by rival packs despite his youth and inexperience," he said.

Among the pups that he raised was Wolf 21. The pair formed a strong bond over time with 21 eventually helping his mother and 8 with their parental responsibilities.

"21 later joined a neighboring pack as their alpha male after their previous alpha male had died, and, like 8 had done for 21 and his siblings, he raised pups born to another male," McIntyre said.

The wolf expert explains how these observations showed him the extent to which adult wolves cooperate to raise young.

"I saw that alpha females are the true leaders of the pack, not the big alpha males. Wolves have a matriarchal society and males seem to totally accept that. Maybe that is a sign of the intelligence level of wolves," he said. "I also witnessed how male wolves accept rejection from females in the breeding season, give preference to pregnant females at kills they made, and work tirelessly to feed and protect pups."

The book also explores the games that wolf pups play—which help to prepare them for adult life—as well as the playful nature of the adults, such as 21.

wolf, Yellowstone National Park
A Yellowstone wolf watches biologists after being tranquilized and fitted with a radio collar during wolf collaring operations in Yellowstone National Park. William Campbell/Sygma via Getty Images

"At times he seemed to have a sense of humor. While running around with pups he would do what looked like a pratfall," McIntyre said. "I got the sense that he liked to pretend he was a low-ranking wolf when with younger pack members, a type of role reversal. 21's concept of being an alpha male was the exact opposite of what we think of in humans as an aggressive, dominating alpha male personality."

Despite their seemingly playful nature, McIntyre notes that both 8 and 21 displayed impressive courage to defend their packs from attackers. But even in battle the wolves were capable of showing a tender side, with the researcher observing that both males allowed defeated opponents to escape with their lives after a fight, despite having opportunities to kill them.

"When 21 was a year old, he saw 8 fight and defeat a much larger alpha male that was threatening 8's family," McIntyre told Newsweek. "He had the other male in a helpless position and could have easily killed him, but 8 did something totally unexpected: he let the rival go. Wolf 21 later left his family and became an alpha male in a neighboring pack. As far as I know he never lost a fight with another male, but always followed the modeling of 8 and never killed a defeated opponent."

The wolf expert also highlighted the incredible teamwork that these pack animals use to not only care for their young, but also bring down fast and large prey such as elk and bison bulls. This is an extremely dangerous task, given that these animals are capable of killing or seriously injuring wolves.

"The average weight of an adult wolf is about 100 pounds, so pack members have to work together to chase, attack and finish off such large powerful opponents," McIntyre told Psychology Today. "Young females tend to be the fastest wolves and their job is to catch up with an elk, bite into a hind leg and act as a drag. That could enable a big male like 21 to catch up and make a killing bite by getting in front of the elk, then leaping up and biting its throat."

But even though they are formidable hunters when working as a team, McIntyre suggests that the popular image of wolves as aggressive animals to be feared is somewhat of a misrepresentation.

"Wild wolves normally have a fear of humans that caused them to avoid us," he told Newsweek. "I think they see us as superior predators. That norm could be disrupted if someone tried to bait a wild wolf with food. I have been around wolves for over 40 years and never had a problem with one."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Rick McIntyre.

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