Tuning In To Nature’s Most Developed Social Network.
Originally published in slightly different form on January 18, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.
“Nothing in nature is random.”
The Valley of the Wolves
This is one of the strangest and most intriguing stories I’ve ever come across. It starts simply enough with a pack of gray wolves living happily in British Columbia. Then one day, in 1995, while they were out doing ordinary wolf-like things, they were tranquilized by a group of biologists, fitted with radio collars, then transported to a new environment: the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park. They were dubbed the Druid Peak pack, after a central geographic feature of the valley.
By 2002—after six or seven generations of new wolves had come along—the pack was getting too big to sustain itself, so a group of them split off, left the valley, and formed their own pack near Slough Creek, where, over the next several years, they grew to outnumber their old pack mates by almost three to one.
Then, in 2005, when PBS began filming In the “Valley of the Wolves,” to document this phase of the wolves’ transition to the park, the Druids had been ensconced in the Lamar Valley for over twelve years.
They were reportedly now “at war” with the Slough Creek Pack, though the incursions from their rivals were few and far between. There was also a coyote husband and wife living in the valley, enjoying a semi-peaceful co-existence with the Druids. They would often approach the Druids’ latest kill from a safe distance, and, in an almost pro forma way, one or more of the Druids would launch a mock attack.
Wolf: “Hey! You know the rules!”
Coyote: “Sorry, we were hungry. We’ll come back later.”
Wolf: “Okay. But there might not be much left...”
Even when the Druids were hunting it seemed almost like a game to them. It was only when they got in close enough to be gored or maimed by their prey’s horns and hooves that their teeth came out.
There was also a lone wolf who wanted to leave the Slough Creek pack. He would occasionally come around, trotting behind the Druids at a safe distance, eyeing a particular young female. The head of the Druid pack repeatedly chased him away, not in a mean fashion, just a kind of, “She’s too young for you!” The female’s attraction was stronger than her father’s objections, though, so her suitor was eventually allowed to join the family.
And family is the key word. If you were to compare life in the Lamar Valley to a 1950s television show, it would’ve been more like “Leave it to Beaver” than Wild Kingdom.
An All-Out Attack
That all changed in the winter of 2006 when the Slough Creek pack came into the valley, launching an all-out attack on everyone in it. In a period of just a few days they had killed the mama and papa wolf, scattered the rest of the Druid pack, slaughtered more elk than they could eat, and instead of just chasing the coyote couple away, they systematically chased down the husband and ripped him to shreds while his helpless, now-pregnant wife watched, terrified, from a distance. Then, their thirst for blood still not satisfied, they came after her too. Luckily, she was able to escape.
Then spring came slowly, as it does in the high country. Several of the Slough Creek females had given birth, and were raising their litters in a large den on the side of a ridge. The valley’s victors, the Slough Creek males, had grown a bit lazy. They had let their guard down. So they weren’t prepared when, one day, as they returned from a hunting expedition, they found a dozen mysterious black wolves—very different in color from the mostly grey and brown Druids and Slough Creekers—who came marching into the valley, took strategic positions on the hill, and then staged a siege outside the den of the nursing females, preventing the Slough Creek males from returning to their dens.
The Siege at Druid Peak
These black wolves—while fewer in number than the Slough Creek males—were able to keep their position while the Slough Creek males stood helplessly by, unable to get food to their wives and pups.
The black wolves did nothing but wait patiently on the side of that snow-covered hill for twelve days, until one by one, every single new Slough Creek pup died slowly of starvation. (Some reports state that the black wolves went into the dens and killed the Slough Creek pups.) The helpless Slough Creek males were bereft, agitated, in a state of terrible distress, so much so that by the time the black wolves finally left the valley, never to return, the Slough Creek pack scattered to the winds, their spirits broken.
It wasn’t long before the Druid pack came out of hiding, joyously re-assembled, and re-took control of their beloved valley. For them, it must have been the best spring in years.
As mysterious as this event was, on a certain level we can understand the behavior of the Slough Creek pack. They wanted the valley. They had superior numbers; they came in and they took it. Still, they didn’t have to kill the coyote husband; he was no threat. In fact, by chasing him down and killing him, they used up more energy than it was worth. So did killing more elk than they needed. If one of the laws of nature is the conservation of energy, these wolves weren’t aware of it.
The Laws of Nature
Even so, that’s not what’s really puzzling. What’s really hard for us to wrap our minds around is the behavior of those mysterious black wolves. They weren’t following the rules of nature either. Far from it! They weren’t after the valley’s resources. They didn’t do much if any hunting there. They just marched in, surrounded the dens of the Slough Creek wolves, waited for all the pups to die, and then left, as if that were their sole purpose. Who were they? Where did they come from? Why did they do what they did?
Biologists and evolutionary scientists can’t explain this. To them it’s either an extended example of biological altruism (their behavior benefited the Druids), or just a strange, random event.
Dogs and Wolves Form Social Networks
Meanwhile, somewhere around the same time in Minnesota, a German short-haired pointer named Effie, was out for a walk one night with her owner. But within a few minutes she started acting strange, pulling to go in a totally different direction. Then she took off running to a nearby house where a 94-year-old man was lying unconscious, face down in his driveway, having a heart attack.
The dog started licking the stranger’s face. Her owner called 911, then began doing CPR. Together, they saved this man’s life.
Why do these things happen? How do we explain them?
The only answer I can think of is that that dogs and wolves may have their own social networks that help them tune into situations that require action when someone in the network is in danger, or perhaps even when the network as-a-whole is out of whack.
Dogs and wolves can’t text each other; they don’t have thumbs. But they can definitely feel what someone else is feeling, and they seem to do so as if it’s actually happening to them. From my observations, canines also seem to have a gut reaction when something’s not right in whatever social network, large or small, they’re a part of. For Effie, that network may be her neighborhood. For those mysterious black wolves, it’s a much larger network, one that includes the entire Yellowstone basin. In fact I would argue that it consists of all wolves and coyotes, along with the birds, the elk, the aspen trees, the rivers and streams, the weather systems, the sky above and the earth below, and even the PBS cameraman, drinking coffee from a Thermos, munching on an energy bar, and making breath clouds behind his telephoto lens while waiting for the wolves to do something interesting.
Nature’s Feedback Mechanisms
Konrad Lorenz, who’s responsible for a lot of the misinformation we now have about dominance in dogs and wolves, was still a brilliant scientist, capable of keen insights. One of his theories on ecology is the idea of feedback mechanisms.
“In nature,” he writes, “these mechanisms tend towards a ‘stable state’ among the living beings of an ecology: A closer examination shows that these beings... not only do not damage each other, but often constitute a community of interests. It is obvious that the predator is strongly interested in the survival of that species, animal or vegetable, which constitutes its prey. ... It is not uncommon that the prey species derives specific benefits from its interaction with the predator.” (Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, 1974).
As if to prove Lorenz' point, once the Canadian wolves were relocated to Yellowstone, the aspen trees—which had been dying out because the elk were eating most of the young aspen shoots before they had a chance to grow—made a comeback. As a result the elk made themselves scarce, not wanting to interact with the wolves. This enabled famlies of beavers to enter the park and start building dams. This slowed down the rushing currents in many of the park’s rivers and streams, creating a trophic cascade, positively affecting most if not all the flora and fauna in the park.
Did the black wolves came to Yellowstone to rescue the Druids from the evil Slough Creek pack? Perhaps they came simply because they were part of a natural Lorenzian feedback mechanism. The Slough Creek pack had gotten too big and powerful for the network-as-a-whole. The black wolves felt a disturbance in that network, so they took action, not to punish the Slough Creek wolves, and not necessarily to rescue the Druids either, but simply to restore the network-as-a-whole to its optimal setting. (It’s telling that they didn’t kill any of the adult wolves; they simply prevented them from providing food to their young, which prevented a new generation from becoming part of a pack that had already grown too big to sustain itself.)
To me this is the only explanation that makes any sense.
Social Flexibility in Dogs and Wolves
One of the key features of wolf behavior is their ability to hunt as a cohesive social unit. In order to do that, you have to have enormous social flexibility. You have to be able to read each other’s social signals very quickly and extremely well, especially in a high-pressure situation.
When dogs began domesticating us, around 32,000 to 44,000 years ago, they expanded on the wolf’s natural social networking skills, so that now they exhibit an extraordinary ability to read human social signals in a way that’s far more developed than what we find even in our closest biological relatives, chimpanzees. (In some ways dogs are far more social than we are!) Their social intelligence is the primary reason dogs are the current “it” animal for cognitive research.
So the next time you take your dog for a walk, switch off your iPhone or other device. And don't worry that you'll be out of touch; you'll still have a direct connection to one of the most wonderful and miraculous social networks ever created, right there at the end of your leash.
“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”
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