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I have just watched a "documentary" on a female wolf raising her cubs in the Alps. I found various aspects of the programme less than convincing, but one in particular puzzled me. The alpha male of the pack is killed, and his eldest son takes over as alpha. Whilst the alpha female remains with her dying mate, the programme stated she could not rejoin her pack, as her place had been taken by her daughter. This would mean a brother-sister mating - the female became pregnant very soon - which I find highly unlikely, although perhaps not impossible.

Wikipedia simply states:

Wolves are monogamous, mated pairs usually remaining together for life. Should one of the pair die, another mate is found quickly. With wolves in the wild, inbreeding does not occur where outbreeding is possible.

Wondering if there are any wolf experts on here?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf

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  • $\begingroup$ Do you have a link to this "documentary"? $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Dec 20, 2021 at 16:30
  • $\begingroup$ @MattDMo - yes, it's this one, it does say it was "dramatised", which was fairly obvious, but still wondering how true to the facts it was. Thanks. "BBC Two - The Snow Wolf: A Winter's Tale" bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bwqdbg $\endgroup$
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 20, 2021 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ I'm in the US, so unfortunately I can't watch the program. Usually the BBC is pretty good about trying to get the facts right, but seeing as they heavily emphasize the "dramatised" part, they may have played fast and loose with a few key details. OTOH, I'm an immunologist, not a wolf expert, so I can't really answer your main question. I hope it was at least a good show. $\endgroup$
    – MattDMo
    Dec 21, 2021 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MattDMo - thanks for looking, anyway. I have a feeling I've seen it before, but the last showing had a disclaimer at the end, saying it was filmed using a variety of wild and captive wolves. That disclaimer was not shown this time, if it was the same programme. But, yes, the scenery and film work were spectacular! $\endgroup$
    – TheHonRose
    Dec 21, 2021 at 22:10

2 Answers 2

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Mating with siblings or incestuous relationships (breeding within blood relatives) enhances the chance of expression of disadvantageous characteristics (mostly recessive alleles). Therefore, natural selection for complex animals occurred in such a way they avoid close relation mating. Wolves are no different. One study by Smith et al. 1997 with the samples from 16 wolf pairs showed that wolves rarely mate with their close relatives. However, inbreeding does happen on infrequent occasions. For example, a pair of wolves migrated to Isle Royale through an ice bridge in 1948. They are the first wolf pair on the island (founder population). The ice bridge doesn't happen again. Through the help of inbreeding (population bottleneck), the pack survived, and the population became 50 individuals [Inbreeding Causes Isle Royale Wolf Population Crash]. However, genetic diseases started expressing, and morphological deformity became very common in that wolf population. Therefore it is clear that nature support variation by avoiding inbreeding. And though billions of years of permutations combinations, biological organisms avoid inbreeding in ideal conditions. Parent-offspring pair of Isle Royale wolves photographed in 2015. The pup (left) had spinal deformities and is thought to have died at nine months old.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you, a very informative answer. I do know most animals - including humans - avoid incestuous mating, although it is not unknown. Being more comfortable and with history, I know that brother-sister mating is thought to be responsible for the end of Tutankhamen's line, with two stil-born infants found in his tomb. I did just find the email whole scenario in the programme unlikely. $\endgroup$
    – TheHonRose
    Apr 30, 2022 at 0:09
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I am not a wolf expert, unfortunately, but was able to find an article focused on just this question with grey wolf packs (1). The article studies relatedness via microsatellite locations in the DNA of mated pairs, and found that incest is seemingly avoided when possible, which supports your Wikipedia finding. Another article on Ethiopian wolves came to similar conclusions- wolves avoid inbreeding where possible, and resort to extra-pack matings when necessary (2).

Reference: (1) Smith, Deborah, et al. "Is incest common in gray wolf packs?." Behavioral Ecology 8.4 (1997): 384-391.

(2) Sillero-Zubiri, Claudio, Dada Gottelli, and David W. Macdonald. "Male philopatry, extra-pack copulations and inbreeding avoidance in Ethiopian wolves (Canis simensis)." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 38.5 (1996): 331-340.

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  • $\begingroup$ wow! Great find, thank you :-) $\endgroup$
    – TheHonRose
    Jan 11, 2022 at 23:50

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