Parenthood Confers Alpha Status, Not The Other Way Around, By Charles Wood

I am writing this post to offer some ideas about the lost alpha status theory Janet proposed as a possible explanation for why her mom coyote didn’t have puppies this year or last.  I also thank Janet for discussing this topic with me via email and for providing me with more information about coyote alpha behaviors.

My thinking is that alpha status is conferred by parenthood, that is, a coyote acquires alpha status by having children.  Consequently, to say an adult coyote lost its alpha status is to say an adult coyote doesn’t currently have children.  Lost alpha status describes an adult coyote that doesn’t have kids around.  Yet it is not an explanation for why an adult coyote doesn’t have kids around.  My thinking is that a coyote doesn’t require special status to be eligible to breed.  Instead, a coyote who successfully breeds thereby obtains the special status of being a parent.  As a parent it has the status of being an alpha to its children.  These ideas are based on newer research done on the pack life of gray wolves, research that I am generalizing to the pack life of coyotes.

The term alpha male/female as applied to gray wolves is currently regarded as simply denoting a breeding gray wolf pair whose pack members, in most instances, are the children of the breeding pair.  My understanding is that DNA analysis revealed a gray wolf pack to typically be a wolf nuclear family.  Discredited is the notion of a dominant gray wolf pair suppressing breeding among its lower ranking pack members.  Instead, generally speaking, the children comprising the gray wolf pack are simply not of breeding age.  Even the usefulness of the term alpha is currently questioned.

“According to wolf biologist L. David Mech, “Calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information”, however, there may still be a use for the term “alpha” in rare cases involving large packs, “The one use we may still want to reserve for “alpha” is in the relatively few large wolf packs comprised of multiple litters…[i]n such cases the older breeders are probably dominant to the younger breeders and perhaps can more appropriately be called the alphas.”

Perhaps a change is in order for the language used to describe coyote parent/child interaction.  For example, descriptively I could say “certainly mom was perceived as alpha by her two boys for two years, hadn’t lost her alpha status.  She had lost her mate and had become a single alpha mom.”  Another way to say the same thing is “mom lost her mate and was the sole parent to her boys for two years and hadn’t lost her status as a parent”.  To say it thus is to show that in this particular context the word alpha doesn’t add any information, as Mech opines.

I am also suggesting that mom doesn’t need any special status to be eligible to breed.  The idea of having to have high status in a pack in order to be eligible to breed is part of a discredited view of how things work in a gray wolf pack.  To breed, mom simply needs working equipment, a mate and some territory.  To say it another way, she doesn’t need to be an alpha to breed.  Instead, the fact of breeding successfully makes her an alpha.  Rephrased, the fact of breeding successfully makes mom a parent.  Parenthood (alpha) doesn’t precede breeding.  It is the other way around.

The same would hold true for those ‘other’ coyotes rumored to be in the area.  The other male and female needed no special alpha status to be eligible to breed.  They only needed each other, working equipment and some territory.  ‘Alpha status’, in the sense of ‘eligibility to breed’, probably never existed as anything other than human misconception.

Janet has mentioned that current literature on coyotes does use the term alpha.  I find the term useful in explaining to dog owners why my dog Holtz pushed and shoved their dog around on a first meeting.  It makes more sense to say “oh, he is an alpha” than to say that he has leadership skills.  I do think the term has utility in describing a canine that by inclination tends to be dominant among its peers.  In other contexts the term alpha may indeed carry additional information.  The context where the term seems to have become inappropriate is in expressing “the idea of an aggressively dominant “alpha wolf” in gray wolf packs” (wiki/Pack canine link above), and if extension is allowed, to coyote packs as well.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. yipps
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:50:38

    If our mom’s behavior is much less bold and more elusive than before — in other words, less “alpha” — it may simply be because there are no “pups” to defend now. You are absolutely right: the protective and bolder behavior that was exhibited before was just a mom doing what moms do. I had used and accepted the concept of “alpha status” as being a prerequisite for having puppies because I had read it in the literature.

    But since all coyote groups, as you also point out, are nuclear family groups, there is going to be a mom or a pop or a mom/pop breeding pair who are “parents” and act like parents to the rest of the group. I agree with you. It is not that “only alphas become breeders”, as the literature suggests and as I wrote in my posting, but rather that “parents become alphas” due to the role they have to play. Thank you for making this clear! That there are no puppies, then, may be due to any number of other reasons which I have suggested.


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