L. David Mech is a famous wolf researcher (and a blogger about his research). If you have heard of a concept of “alpha-male” it is because of ideas from an old book of his, about social structure of wolf societies.
However, most of the early research on wolves was done on artificially built groups, e.g., wolves caught in various places all put together in a single wolf pen at a zoo. In such rare and unnatural situations, these stranger-wolves do indeed form social hierarchies (or “pecking order” – a term that arose from studies of chickens). But such situations rarely if ever happen out in nature. A pack of wolves is usually composed of Mother, Father and their (sometimes quite grown-up) offspring: closely related individuals who know each other well.
These days, it is L. David Mech himself who is working the hardest to change the way we think about wolf (and dog) packs and to eliminate the term “alpha male” at least from studies of canid behavior if not from metaphors about human societies (hat-tip to Jim Henley). Decades have passed since his book came out, much research was done in the meantime (including by him and his students) and we now know better. That is how science is supposed to work:
The concept of the alpha wolf is well ingrained in the popular wolf literature at least partly because of my book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981, and currently still in print, despite my numerous pleas to the publisher to stop publishing it. Although most of the book’s info is still accurate, much is outdated. We have learned more about wolves in the last 40 years then in all of previous history.
One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”