Dispersal in a wolf pack is a defining trait and a critical tendency of pack dynamics. The dispersal of individual wolves allows for diversity in packs and the formation of new packs. Wolves disperse from their natal pack between 9 and 36 months of age (Mech et al., 1998). The dispersing wolf is often called a floater. This lone wolf may travel great distances looking for a new pack to join, or perhaps a lone wolf of the opposite sex to mate with and establish a new pack. Studies have shown that floaters occupy home ranges larger than those of resident wolves, and their range overlaps broadly with several pack ranges (Siller-Zubiri, 1994). In one instance, a female wolf left a study area in Minnesota and was shot by a farmer in Saskatchewan, five hundred miles away (Steinhart, 1995).
Dispersal is a great risk for a wolf. Dispersing wolves lose the support of the pack for hunting and killing large prey, and also must avoid attack or injury from other wolf packs as it wanders. Lone wolves often travel through buffer zones, which are neutral barriers between neighboring wolf pack territories. The buffer zone is 25-40% of a region, and it is the periphery zone of a territory. Wolves do not spend great amounts of time in these areas, and their insecurity and anxiety at the edges of their territory is evident in the great increase of scent marking. It is in the peripheral strip that many wolves will fight and try to kill each other (Mech, 1977).
The nature and extent of dispersal in wolves appears related to wolf density and prey availability (Schullery, 1996). The natural competition between individual wolves, often over breeding status or resources, may result in one wolf leaving the pack. If there is a shortage of food in the pack's territory, low prey density, a wolf may decide to leave the pack and travel to other territories in search of food. A subordinate wolf may choose to leave the pack in search of another pack in which it would have better breeding status. If a wandering wolf does not join a new pack, it may return to its natal pack and assist in raising the pups. In a study of dispersing Ethiopian wolves, 57% of dispersing females died or did not find residence in studied populations (Siller-Zubiri, 1994). A wolf study in the Brooks Range of Alaska found that males tended to disperse more than females, and that some of these male dispersers traveled over two hundred miles (Steinhart, 1995). However, in a study on dispersal of Ethiopian wolves, male wolves remained in their natal pack and 63% of the females studied dispersed at or before sexual maturity at 2 years old (Sillero-Zubiri, 1994). Within the same studied wolf population, 70% of 30 copulations were between the dominant female of one pack and a male from an adjoining pack (Sillero-Zubiri, 1994). This study of a saturated wolf habitat with limited dispersal shows evidence for extra-pack copulations as a means of inbreeding avoidance.
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