The way in which alpha status has been viewed historically can be seen in studies in which an attempt is made to distinguish future alphas in litters of captive wolf pups. For example, it was hypothesized that "the emotional reactivity of the dominant cub, the potential alpha animal (emphasis mine) of the pack, might be measurably different from the subordinate individuals," and that "it might then be possible to pick out the temperament characteristics or emotional reactivity of potential alpha or leader wolves (emphasis mine), and of subordinates" (Fox 1971b, p.299). Furthermore, "Under normal field conditions, it seems improbable that timid, low ranking wolves would breed" (Fox 1971a, p.307). This view implies that rank is innate or formed early, and that some wolves are destined to rule the pack, while others are not.
Contrary to this view, I propose that all young wolves are potential breeders and that when they do breed they automatically become alphas (Mech 1970). Even in captive packs, individuals gain or lose alpha status (Zimen 1976), so individual wolves do not have an inherent permanent social status, even though captive pups show physiological and behavioral differences related to current social rank (Fox 1971b; Fox and Andrews 1973). Secondly, wolves in captivity breed readily, and I know of no mature captive individuals that failed to breed when paired apart from a group, as would be the case if there were inherently low-ranking, nonbreeders.
Third, in the wild, most wolves disperse from their natal packs and attempt to pair with other dispersed wolves, produce pups, and start their own packs (Rothman and Mech 1979; Fritts and Mech 1981; Messier 1985; Mech 1987; Gese and Mech 1991; Mech et al. 1998). I know of no permanent dispersers that failed to breed if they lived long enough.
Wolves do show considerable variation in dispersal age, distance, direction, and other dispersal behavior (see references above), and conceivably these are related to the intralitter variation discussed above (Fox 1971b; Fox and Andrews 1973). However, unless a maturing pack member inherits a position that allows it to breed with a stepparent in its own pack (Fritts and Mech 1981; Mech and Hertel 1983), sooner or later it will disperse and attempt to breed elsewhere.
Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none.
Thus, 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. Why not refer to an alpha female as the female parent, the breeding female, the matriarch, or simply the mother? Such a designation emphasizes not the animal's dominant status, which is trivial information, but its role as pack progenitor, which is critical information.
The one use we may still want to reserve for "alpha" is in the relatively few large wolf packs comprised of multiple litters. Although the genetic relationships of the mothers in such packs remain unknown, probably the mothers include the original matriarch and one or more daughters, and the fathers are probably the patriarch and unrelated adoptees (Mech et al. 1998). In such cases the older breeders are probably dominant to the younger breeders and perhaps can more appropriately be called the alphas. Evidence for such a contention would be an older breeder consistently dominating food disposition or the travels of the pack.
The point here is not so much the terminology but what the terminology falsely implies: a rigid, force-based dominance hierarchy.
The degree to which these arguments apply to other species no doubt varies considerably and is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is notable that similar arguments might be made for African hunting dogs (Lycaon pictus), which ecologically are similar to wolves (Mech 1975). Whereas some workers observed no rank-order behavior in this species (Kuhme 1965; Estes and Goddard 1967), others liberally write of "alpha" animals (Creel and Creel 1996).