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Inherited Aggression in Wolves

The new research paper in the scientific journal Molecular Ecology examines the heritability of interpack aggression in wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Pairing pedigree information and genetic sampling, researchers poured through records of aggressive behavioral observations across multiple generations of wolves in the park. The result is an examination of the genetic architecture of aggressive behavior in this wolf population.

Livestock producers have long observed and understood the connection between genetic lineages and behavior in livestock. For example, a ringy cow will give birth to ringy calves, and a flightly ewe will beget lambs that exhibit the same behavior.


Likewise, for decades many large carnivore population managers, and animal damage control specialists have pressed the need to eliminate individual predators that display problem behaviors, especially boldness or aggression towards humans. They’ve made this push based primarily on the concern that aggressive behavior may be repeated or escalate, leading to human injuries or death. But another reason has been the suspicion of a link between aggressive behavior and genetics of the individuals involved. Thus, eliminating an aggressive wolf reduces the chances of that behavior being perpetuated within the wolf population.



A new research paper has demonstrated a link between aggressive behavior in wolves and genetics. Although not discussed in the paper, the discovery of this genetic link lends support to the intuitive belief that eliminating individual predators that demonstrate dangerous behaviors decreases the likelihood of that behavior perpetuating within a population.


The new research paper in the scientific journal Molecular Ecology examines the heritability of interpack aggression in wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Pairing pedigree information and genetic sampling, researchers poured through records of aggressive behavioral observations across multiple generations of wolves in the park. The result is an examination of the genetic architecture of aggressive behavior in this wolf population.


Yellowstone researchers have long observed that the leading cause of mortality for wolves in the park is wolves killing other wolves. Aggressive behavior in wild canines like wolves can be correlated with fitness: aggression can significantly impact fitness in individual interactions relating to territory defense, social dominance, predation events, and mate acquisition and reproduction.


Combing through the records and genetic data on 205 wolves in the park, the research team narrowed the field to 141 individual wolves that had at least three interpack interactions documented using an individual aggression score (IAS). The IAS points system ranged from a low of 1, in which the wolf fled, to a high of 10, in which the wolf participated in a physical attack resulting in the death of another wolf.

“Because a single individual score is not a good indication of underlying aggressive tendency, individual scores were then averaged by the total number of observations per individual,” according to the paper’s methodology section.


The researchers concluded: “Overall, we found that aggression is heritable and subject to common environmental effects that are captured by natal pack. Aggression is predicted by breeding status, relative pack size and a small subset of functionally relevant genes.”


The study noted, “Our heritability estimates for aggression in grey wolves are comparable to those reported for domestic animal temperament.”


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