1. We contrast the value of four different models to predict variation in territory size as follows: resource density (the ideal free distribution), population density, group size and intruder pressure (relative resource-holding potential). In the framework of the resource dispersion hypothesis, we test the effect of resource abundance and spatial variation in resource distribution on the age/sex composition of social groups.
2. We explore these drivers of territory size and group size/composition in Ethiopian wolves Canis simensis in the Bale Mountains, Ethiopia, using fine-scale distribution maps of their major prey species based on satellite-derived vegetation maps.
3. The number of adult males is correlated with territory size, while prey density, wolf population density and intruder pressure are not associated with territory size. On average, each additional adult male increases territory size by 1·18 km2.
4. Prey abundance increases with territory size (average biomass accumulation of 6·5 kg km−2), and larger territories provide greater per capita access to prime foraging habitat and prey.
5. The age/sex composition of wolf packs is more closely related to territory quality than territory size. Subordinate adult females are more likely to be present in territories with greater proportions of prime giant molerat Tachyoryctes macrocephalus habitat (i.e. >80% of Web Valley territories and >20% in Sanetti/Morebawa), and more yearlings (aged 12–23 months) occur in territories with greater overall prey biomass.
6. Wolf packs with restricted access to good foraging habitat tend to defend more exclusive territories, having a lower degree of overlap with neighbouring packs.
7. The greater per capita access to prey in large groups suggests a strong evolutionary advantage of collaborative territorial defence in this species, although the relative costs of territorial expansion vs. exclusion depend upon the spatial distribution of resources. We propose a model whereby territory size is determined by the number of adult males, with the presence of subordinate females and yearlings dependent on the quality of habitat, and the abundance and distribution of prey, incorporated within territory boundaries.