What are wolves?
Wolves are large, predatory canids once common throughout North America, Europe, Africa and Asia, now living mostly in remote wilderness. They are the largest living members of the canid family, which also includes foxes and coyotes. Wolves are the ancestors of all domestic dogs.
There are two species of wolves in North America. The smaller species is the red wolf, Canis rufus, which has shorter, redder fur than the gray wolf. The gray wolf, Canis lupus, has thicker fur which is more gray or golden, and is larger than the red wolf. The gray wolf lives in the northeastern United States, Canada, and Europe. The red wolf lives in the southeastern United States.
There are many subspecies of the gray wolf, such as the arctic wolf, a white subspecies which lives in Alaska and northern Canada, and the Mexican wolf, a smaller subspecies which has been recently reintroduced in parts of the southwestern United States.
What do wolves look like?
The gray wolf can actually range in color from pure white to solid black, but the most common shade is a tawny brown in which the wolf’s guard hairs are banded with black, white, gold and brown. This banded coloration is known as agouti, and is found in a number of wild species.
Wolves have two layers of fur: the outer, guard layer is composed of long, coarse hairs which shed water and snow and contain pigments which give the wolf’s coat its color. The inner layer is thick, soft gray “wool”, which traps air and insulates the wolf from the elements. These layers are so warm that wolves can comfortably tolerate temperatures far below zero. Snow does not melt when it falls on wolves’ fur! In the spring, the inner layer of wool is shed to help keep the wolf cool during the summer.
An adult male wolf usually weighs 75 to 120 pounds; females weigh between 60 and 95 pounds. This may be smaller than some breeds of dog! Wolves lose some insulating fat and shed much of their fur in the summer, and weigh less then. Also, wolves which live in the cold north are generally larger and heavier than wolves which live in warmer climates.
Wolves’ eyes range in color from gold to orange, and may even be green. They are blue at birth, changing color at around eight weeks of age. Wolves’ jaw muscles are twice as powerful as those of German shepherd dogs, and can produce pressure of 1500 pounds per square inch. Wolves have 42 teeth.
Wolves have long, slender legs and narrow chests. They are adapted for running fast to catch moving prey like deer and elk. The bones (the radius and ulna) in their forearms are fused so their front legs are strong for running. They can reach speeds of up to 45 miles per hour for short distances. Wolves have four toes on each paw, with two “dewclaws” — small, vestigial toes — on each forefoot. Their claws are like our fingernails, and grow throughout their lives. The claws do not retract.
Where do wolves live?
Gray wolves once lived all over North America, Asia, and Europe. They still roam these areas, but in much reduced ranges and numbers. Today, about 3,000 wolves live in the wild in Minnesota, around thirty on Lake Superior’s Isle Royale, about 500 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, 500 in Wisconsin, and about 1500 in the northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. An occasional wolf is seen in Washington state, and in North or South Dakota. In Alaska, there are between 5,900 and 7,200 wolves. Mexican wolves are being reintroduced to Arizona and New Mexico. There are approximately 100 red wolves in the wild in North Carolina.
Wolves live in all kinds of terrain, from desert to tundra. They prefer areas with cover (places to hide such as brush, shrubs, or trees), near water, and near large congregations of prey (herds of deer or caribou, for example).
source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
What do wolves eat?
Wolves primarily eat meat. Their favorite prey is large ungulates (hoofed mammals) such as deer, elk, moose, caribou and bison. Since many of these animals are larger than wolves, the only way wolves can catch them is to live and hunt in groups. Wolves will also catch and eat rabbits, mice, birds, snakes, fish and other animals. Wolves will eat non-meat items (such as vegetables), but not often.
Even working together, it is hard for wolves to catch their prey. Healthy deer can easily outrun wolves, and large animals like moose or bison often stand their ground until the wolves give up. Some studies have shown that when wolves hunt deer, an average of 84 to 87 out of every 100 deer escape. The ones caught are usually old, sick, or very young, rather than healthy animals in the prime of life.
Some documentaries show hunting wolves growling or snarling at their prey with their hackles raised. Wolves do not do this. Growling and snarling are part of social aggression — expressions of an intention to fight, used between wolves. Wolves do not growl or snarl at their prey. It would be like a human getting angry at an ice cream cone he or she was about to eat! Wolves who are hunting look very excited and happy, even “friendly”. Their tails wag, their ears are up, and they are quiet. They stare at their prey and look very focused.
After catching and killing their food, wolves may eat up to 20 percent of their body weight. That is like eating 80 quarter pound hamburgers at one sitting! Wolves in the wild may not get to eat every day and must gorge when they get the chance.
The alpha male does not always eat first. In fact, the hungriest wolf usually eats first. Even a low-ranking animal can defend food until it is done eating, and whoever wants the food most usually gets it. An exception to this is the omega wolf, a very low-ranking, “scapegoat” wolf who lives on the fringes of the pack. Omega wolves usually eat last.
At first, wolf pups suckle milk from their mothers. Adults feed puppies who are too old to nurse but too young to hunt for themselves by regurgitation. Puppies beg for food by following the adults, whining, and pawing and licking at the adults’ mouths. This stimulates the adult wolves to throw up food which is in their stomachs. The puppies then eat the regurgitated food. (Since wolves have no hands, the easiest way for them to carry food to puppies is in their stomachs. Also, since they have already chewed and partially digested the food, it is nice and soft for the young puppies to eat.) Both male and female wolves, and even wolves who are not the pups’ parents, will regurgitate to feed the puppies.
How do wolves live together?
Wolves live in groups of between two and twenty (averaging about six to eight) animals. These groups are called packs. Each pack of wolves maintains an area, called a territory, which belongs to it and which it defends from other wolves. Within this territory, the pack hunts, sleeps, plays, and raises pups. Territories range in size from 50 to 1,000 square miles, depending on how much prey is available. Packs also vary in size depending on what kind of prey is available. Wolf packs which hunt deer as a primary source of food will have fewer wolves than packs which hunt bison or moose. These large animals are harder to catch and kill, and can also feed more wolves once caught.
Wolves have a linear rank order, or hierarchy, which helps keep peace within the pack. There is a separate line of rank for each sex: one for males and one for females. At the top of the rank order is the alpha male and female. The beta male and female are next highest in status. At the bottom of the rank order is the omega “scapegoat” wolf, which may be either male or female. In the rank order, each wolf has a set place. When two wolves from the same pack cross paths, one is always dominant to the other, or higher in status than the other wolf. The lower-ranking wolf is said to be submissive to the higher-ranking, dominant wolf.
The alpha wolves are not necessarily the strongest, the fastest, or the smartest. High rank has more to do with attitude and confidence than size or strength. Dominance also does not favor gender — either the alpha male or the alpha female may be the overall “leader of the pack”.
While dominant wolves generally act more self-confident than lower-ranking ones, wolves do not walk around constantly displaying their status. They most often adopt a neutral pose, changing their expression towards dominance or submission depending on which other wolves are around. (A wolf will show dominance to a lower-ranking animal, and submission to a higher-ranking one.) A wolf displaying dominance stands up tall, looks directly at the other wolf, puts its ears forward, and will lift its tail (usually not much higher than its back, unless it is very excited). A wolf displaying submission crouches down to look small, lowers or even tucks its tail, looks away from the other wolf, and puts its ears down and back. This is usually all that happens when two wolves meet: wolves cannot afford to spend all their time fighting, and these subtle displays are all that is needed to maintain social stability.
Wolf communication involves a lot of signals like these. The postures and facial expressions used will vary in intensity, or strength, depending on the context: an alpha wolf will often simply look hard at a wolf to send it a dominance message, and a submissive wolf will often just look away from a dominant wolf to give the appropriate response. An excited alpha may give a stronger dominance message, and growl at a lower-ranking wolf or even hold it down. Stronger submission signals include whining and pawing at the dominant wolf. Mostly, signals just get louder and stronger the more excited the wolves get, and fighting rarely occurs.
The alpha wolves are not necessarily “in charge” or “leaders of the pack” at every moment. They may decide where and when to hunt or they may not. An alpha wolf is not always a leader so much as a wolf who has the right to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. Since they have so much social freedom to do what they like, alpha wolves often have more opportunity than lower-ranking wolves to start hunting or to choose a resting place. The rest of the pack will then often follow and join in. But when in home range, often younger wolves will take the lead on an outing.
The omega wolf ranks lower than any other wolf. It usually sleeps away from the other pack members and may not engage in much social behavior, like howling or greeting. The other wolves may make a “game” of picking on the omega wolf, biting it and driving it away from food. At other times, the omega may be tolerated or even accepted into group activities. This wolf may be able to eventually work itself back higher in the rank order or it may eventually choose to leave and form a new pack.
Rank order is not always linear and may be somewhat flexible in certain circumstances. Puppies and yearlings, for example, have a rank order, but this order may change from month to month, week to week, or even from day to day in the case of young puppies. (The rank order for adult wolves is usually more stable.) “Playing” wolves, who are engaging in behaviors such as chasing and running for fun, may “switch” rank temporarily, and a lower-ranking wolf will be allowed to mock-dominate a higher-ranking one. Some rank orders may be circular, with wolf A dominating wolf B who dominates wolf C who dominates wolf A, but this is rarely permanent. Also, low-ranking wolves of one gender may be able to dominate high-ranking wolves of the other, without changing their rank in the social order of their respective sex.
How do wolves communicate?
Wolves communicate via many media. The most common are body postures, gestures, and soft sounds, such as those described earlier when a dominant wolf meets a submissive one. The meaning of these postures may vary in context — that is, their meanings change depending on which other postures, sounds or gestures are used by the wolf at the same time.
For example, there is an expression called an agonistic pucker. A wolf with this expression has its lips retracted, baring its canines and incisors. It may or may not be doing other things: it may have its tail up or down, its ears forward or back, it may be crouching or it may be standing up tall. Looking at the other signals the wolf is giving, an observer can get a clearer picture of what the agonistic pucker signal means. A puckering wolf which is also crouching with its tail down and its ears back is probably frightened and defensive — it is being submissive but warning that it will fight if pressed. A puckering wolf which has its tail up and its ears forward and is standing tall is probably self-confident and is trying to do something like guard food from another wolf.
Wolves also communicate by scent. Wolves mark the boundaries of their territories with their urine and feces and can smell these substances to determine just who left them there, and maybe even their age and gender. Wolves urinate on, or mark, things they regard as their property (such as food) and want to come back to later. Wolves can tell by scent whether female wolves are ready to mate. Wolves have many scent glands, including between their toes, and 1/4 of the way down the top of their tail (you can see the scent gland on the top of the tail as a dark spot part of the way down) to help spread their smell around.
An unusual behavior, scent-rolling, involves a wolf who finds something strong-smelling (often manure or a carcass) getting down and rolling in it, coating themselves. Some dogs also scent-roll. No-one is sure why wolves scent-roll, but it may be that they are bringing the smell back to the rest of their pack, which might then follow the wolf’s scent trail back to the thing that smelled interesting.
Of course, the most famous way in which wolves communicate is by sound. In addition to the whimpers, whines, growls, squeaks, squeals, shrieks, yips, barks, pants and miscellaneous noises which merge with body postures and gestures to form wolves’ primary means of communication, the wolf is capable of producing one spectacular and familiar sound: the howl.
A wolf’s howl may be heard up to ten miles away depending on weather conditions and terrain. There are several different kinds of howl, and each has a different meaning depending on the context in which it is used. The chorus howl, where three or more wolves howl together, is used both to call the pack members together and to warn other packs of the presence of the howling wolves. The solo howl, howled by one wolf, is primarily used to attract a mate or to relocate a pack from which the lone wolf has been separated. Duet howls, by two wolves, have different meanings depending on whether the wolves are howling simultaneously or alternately, and on the histories of the two wolves.
Chorus howls may become rallies, where the howling wolves and sometimes the whole pack come together in a mob of wagging tails and sniffing noses. The wolves greet each other during a rally and act very excited. Lower-ranking wolves will often rally to higher-ranking wolves, directing their greeting behavior primarily toward the dominant animals and following them around as they howl, offering them submissive greetings and affirming their higher status. Sometimes rallies end in small arguments as the greeting ceremony brings two wolves who would rather not be near each other into close contact as they greet others in the group.
Despite the assertions of popular mythology, the wolf does not howl only during the full moon. Wolves howl during the day, at night, and any time of year, no matter what the moon is doing. Wolves howl most often at dawn and dusk, when they are most active, and during late January and early February, the breeding season. Wolves do not howl to “strike terror” into the hearts of their prey. Prey can smell that wolves are around and do not need to be warned by sound of their presence — and it does the wolves no good to warn the prey that they are hunting. Wolves hunt in silence, and make use of the advantage of surprise whenever they can.
When are the puppies born?
Wolves breed in late January and early February. Usually only the alpha pair — the top-ranking male and female wolf — produce pups. It is hard for a pack to raise more than one litter of puppies, and so the alpha pair will try to prevent lower-r
anking wolves from breeding by dominating them and chasing them away from potential mates. Sometimes, however, the alphas are not successful and the pack will have two, or even three litters. Sometimes, an alpha will have a preference for, and breed with, a lower-ranking animal. Sometimes an alpha will mate with two or three different wolves. While wolves do sometimes practice monogamy, mating only with one particular wolf, in large packs they may not do so.
Pregnant females dig holes, called dens, in which they can raise their pups in safety. The hole may be another animal’s abandoned home or the mother wolf may dig the den herself. The den may be very deep and is usually well-hidden. The puppies will stay in the den until they are about five weeks old. The mother will stay with them almost constantly at first, and the other wolves will bring food to her. Later, she will begin to go out of the den for brief periods to eat.
The puppies are born in late April or early May. There may be up to twelve pups in a litter but usually there are four to six. The puppies are born black, their eyes and ears closed, and they immediately begin to nurse from their mother. They weigh less than a pound and are covered with soft, fuzzy, wooly fur. They cannot walk, but they can squeak, mew, and wriggle. They make lots of noise and root and suck at anything in front of them, hoping it is something they can nurse from.
The pups’ eyes and ears open at around two weeks. They grow very fast and by three weeks they can crawl; by four they can walk. Pups as young as two weeks old have been known to howl! By six weeks they are exploring the area around the den; by eight weeks they are tasting pre-chewed meat regurgitated for them by adult pack members. They will be moved out of the den and stay at “rendezvous sites” out in the open, perhaps babysat by a low-ranking adult wolf, while they wait for the hunting adults to return. The layer of guard hairs which will give their coats their adult color begins to grow in around this time. By nine months old, the pups are eating meat, hunting small prey, and are almost as big as the adults, but they will not be completely adult until they are two years old.
At two years, the pups will be sexually mature, and may choose to leave the pack, either permanently or temporarily, in search of a mate.
While wolves in captivity might live to be 10-15 years of age thanks to veterinary care and a steady diet, wild wolves have a life expectancy of just 3-5 years. Many die before their first birthday from disease or malnutrition, and others die from conflict with other wolves, with humans, or accidents such as getting kicked by an elk.
How are wolves different from foxes and coyotes?
It is very rare to actually see a wolf in the wild, but other species, such as foxes and coyotes, are still common and may be mistaken for wolves at long distances. Some breeds of dog are very “wolf-like” and may also be mistaken for wolves if they are seen running loose.
Foxes are much smaller than wolves — adult red foxes weigh only 10-14 pounds and are not much larger than house cats. They have slit pupils, like cats, so they are able to see well in the dark. (Wolves and coyotes have round pupils.) “Red” foxes range in color from pale orange to dark brown or even black, and occasionally have been seen in white and other colors. Their tail tips are always white. Foxes do not hunt in packs and hunt only small animals such as mice, birds, or rabbits. Foxes do not hunt prey much larger than themselves. They also like to eat plants, vegetables, and insects, which wolves do not eat as often. They can climb trees. Foxes breed around the same time as wolves, producing litters of four to six pups in the spring. They make many noises — they do everything but howl and meow — and they have a varied repertoire of communication, like wolves, but they are not as social as wolves and do not have such a vast array of signals.
There are many subspecies of foxes, including gray foxes, fennec, arctic, and bat-eared. Red and gray foxes are the most common species seen in the United States. Gray foxes are smaller than reds, have oval pupils and black (rather than white) tail tips, and spend more time in trees. Their fur is also more gray than red, and their muzzles are smaller and more pointed.
Coyotes are also smaller than wolves, but bigger than foxes. Adult coyotes weigh 28-35 pounds. Coyotes may often be the same color as wolves — agouti — but they are not quite the same shape. Their legs are comparatively shorter, their muzzles more pointed, and their ears bigger. Coyotes do not usually hunt in packs, although in places where wolves used to live, coyotes have taken over the wolf’s old role and may hunt in small packs to bring down slightly larger game. Coyotes eat mice, birds, rabbits, young deer or sheep, and other things usually smaller than themselves. They will also eat vegetables, insects, and carcasses. Coyotes do howl. Their howls are higher-pitched, and contain more barking noises, than the howls of wolves. They have a much wider vocal range than wolves.
How are wolves different from dogs?
How a dog is different from a wolf depends on the breed of dog. Of course, breeds such as the Chihuahua are very different from wolves — they are much smaller, and have big brown pop-eyes, domed heads, etc., which wolves do not have. There are several breeds of dog, including the German Shepherd, the malamute, and the Siberian husky, which look like wolves to some extent. In general, wolves have broader heads, smaller, more rounded ears with fur in them, narrower chests, longer legs, and do not have a clear white “mask” on their faces like malamutes and huskies. Wolves also do not have curled tails (like chows or huskies), floppy ears (like beagles), dark brown eyes, or pink noses.
Wolves also behave very differently from dogs. Dogs have been bred by humans for thousands of years to do a lot of different things that wolves do not naturally do, like bark a lot at intruders (wolves would rather run away) or to herd, rather than chase and kill, sheep. Dogs are also more tolerant of humans touching and petting them, and do not display as much hunting and rank-order maintenance behavior as do wolves. Dogs behave as pets: they orient to humans, regard humans as dominant animals, and usually do not kill domestic animals. Wolves, of course, behave like the wild animals they are.
It can be very difficult to tell whether a wolf-like animal is a wolf or a dog. There are no genetic tests or physical measurements which can tell for sure. The best way is to take the animal to an expert, who will make an educated guess based on the animal’s physical appearance and behavior.
Some people breed their dogs with wolves and make wolf hybrids. These animals come in many shapes and sizes and they are not always very wolf-like. Since breeders can get more money for a wolf hybrid than for a dog, some may sell mixed-breed dog puppies as wolf hybrids. Later on, people who bought dog puppies will buy a real wolf hybrid and get into trouble. Wolf hybrids which act like wolves can be a lot of trouble as pets. They will hunt small animals and other pets, eat furniture, and mark their territory, like wolves, by urinating all over the house. Very dog-like wolf hybrids usually survive longer as pets. But because no two wolf hybrids are alike, it is hard to tell what kind of animal — wolf-like or dog-like — a wolf hybrid puppy will be when it grows up. The owner may end up with a destructive, wolf-like pet instead of a dog-like, friendly animal.
It is very hard to keep a wolf-like wolf hybrid as a pet and many people give up and have to have their animals put to sleep or sent to “rescue” facilities. While some people do keep pet wolf hybrids and enjoy them, generally it is not a good idea to keep a wolf hybrid as a pet. There is already a kind of wolf you can keep in the house: it is called the dog (Canis lupus familiaris).
Are wolves dangerous to humans?
Wild wolves are afraid of humans and usually run away rather than be near people. They may have a flight distance — a minimum distance they can be from something before they run from it — of over 1/4 of a mile, too far away even for them to be seen by us. Healthy wild wolves do not attack people. Pet wolves, and wolf-dog hybrids, may be dangerous to humans because they are no longer afraid of humans. They may hunt small children or pets, who remind them of prey. Wolves that have been habituated to humans by being fed, intentionally or accidentally (as in a dump) can also lose fear of humans and become a danger.