The following account is from Kira Cassidy a research associate with the Yellowstone Wolf Project.
We called him Triangle, for the shape of the white blaze on his chest. Born into the last litter of the Druid Peak pack—he was smaller than his brothers, and even one of his sisters. One cold morning in 2009 he and an older sister encountered three members of the Hoodoo pack, deep in Druid territory. His sister was immediately attacked but instead of running to safety, Triangle jumped into the melee twice, bit one of the Hoodoo wolves and distracted the opposition long enough for his sister to escape. As he turned to run he was bitten hard on a back leg but outdistanced the attackers, finally out of harm’s way.
Why would he take such a risk? In Yellowstone 68% of natural death occurs when two packs fight. And of the 34 attacks we witnessed and analyzed, in six cases a wolf attempted to rescue their pack mate. So why didn’t Triangle run for safety, saving himself? It may be because the pack, the family, is a crucial part of a wolf’s life.
Wolves are rarely alone. They are born in a litter and with pack mates while they hunt, travel, and sleep. If a wolf does leave its pack it is usually to start their own, have their own offspring, and once again, be surrounded by family. It is beneficial to live in a big family, too. It helps every member of the group survive longer, recover from injuries and infections more easily, raise more pups, and hunt larger prey. Wolf packs are also territorial and aggressive with their neighbors; and big packs—especially ones with adult males for fighting power and older adults for their knowledge—are more likely to defeat their opponents.
Risking death or injury to aid a pack mate during an attack may have important evolutionary benefits. This behavior fits with the kin selection theory because helping close relatives promotes your shared genes. Or the pack mate you saved may reciprocate and help you in the future.
As scientists and naturalists fascinated by this behavior, maybe we shouldn’t be that shocked. The news is inundated by stories of a dog saving its family from a burning building, or a person saving a neighbor stuck in a raging river or even a wild animal entangled in a fence. Instead of seeing these acts of selflessness as a human anomaly, maybe we should start viewing them as the bridge that connects us to other animals. Animals like the gray wolf who see family as the most important part of life.
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