Do you think of yourself as a big dog? The top lad? The alpha wolf? If you do, you might be using a term that actually has no relevance at all in the wild.

The term was first coined in a paper by Rudolph Schenkel, an animal behaviourist who observed wolves during the 1940s. Having watched a pack in detail, he observed that there was a dominant male and female in the pack; two wolves who were respected above the others in the pack, and who were exempt from any kind of internal pack aggression that some of the other wolves in the pack had with each other.

The term was then firmly thrust into popular culture by a book published in 1970 by David Mech—it was a bestselling hit and cemented the term into common usage. It became common knowledge that there was a wolf in every pack who had fought his way to the top to then dominate the other wolves in the pack.

The issue was that neither biologist had followed the packs for long enough in the wild. When they did, what they found was that the relationship was far more mundane—there was no alpha wolf or alpha bitch; there were simply parents and their children. Each pack was essentially just a family; a father and a mother wolf leading their cubs. Cubs would grow to a certain age, and then when confident, they would break away from the group, find a mate, and then set up their own pack.

David Mech has spent years trying to get people to stop reading his initial work—he has told people repeatedly that the work is wrong, and that a different hierarchal order exists, but unfortunately, his initial work was just too popular, and there seems to be no getting rid of the term.

Biologists should consider how animal research in the wild should be undertaken, and how animal behaviourists go about creating identities for animals. Students studying HSPS and Geography can consider Donald Trump Jnr’s quotes about how his father was “just an alpha male [when grabbing a woman]” and how terms are lodged into the public conscience and the effect that they have.

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