Wolves (Canis Lupus), are related to dogs, or more rightly, dogs are actually related to wolves. Wolves and dogs are quite similar in many ways, however, in most cases, wolves are larger animals. Wolves generally have longer legs than dogs. It is difficult to imagine, however, everything from a pug dog to a doberman comes from the wolf.
The Wolf has developed the capacity to survive in the most inhospitable of climates. The wolves in the high arctic endure several winter months of perpetual darkness. Even in February when sun returns to the north, temperatures of -40°C and bitter winds are common. Other wolves are at home in the desert and the dampness of a humid Gulf Coast swamp.
Wolves are very intelligent creatures whose upright ears, sharp teeth, pointed muzzles, inquiring eyes and other facial features instantly convey this quality.
The weight and size of a wolf can vary greatly worldwide. In general, height varies from 0.6 to .95 metres (26 – 38 inches) at the shoulder and weight ranges from 20 to 62 kilograms. The Grey Wolf is the largest of all wild canids. Extreme specimens of wolf weighing more than 77 kilograms (170 pounds) have been recorded in Alaska and Canada, although they are rarely encountered.
The heaviest wild wolf on record, killed in Alaska in 1939, was 80 kilograms (175 pounds). The smallest wolves come from the Arabian Wolf subspecies, the females of which may weigh as little as 10 kilograms (22 pounds) at maturity. Females in any given wolf population typically weigh about 20% less than their male counterparts. Wolves can measure anywhere from 1.3 to 2 metres (4.5 – 6.5 feet) from nose to the tip of the tail, which itself accounts for approximately one quarter of overall body length.
Wolves bodies are built for stamina, possessing features ideal for long distance travel. Their narrow chests and powerful backs and legs assist their efficient locomotion. Wolves are capable of covering several miles trotting at about a pace of 10 kilometres per hour (6 miles per hour) and have been known to reach speeds approaching 65 kilometres per hour (40 miles per hour) during a chase. While sprinting, wolves can cover up to 5 metres (16 feet) per run.
Wolf Social Structure
Wolves are gregarious animals who mostly live in packs. A pack is made when a male and a female wolf meet each other and stay together. As a mated pair, they find a territory to settle in and raise cubs most years. Their cubs stay with them until they are old enough to leave home, usually by the time they are 3 years old and conditions are right to start a family or pack of their own. You can view a pack as a permanent core of a mated pair plus their continuously dispersing offspring.
The hierarchy in a wolf pack is led by the alpha male and female. This affects all activity in the pack to some extent. In most larger packs, there are two separate hierarchies in addition to an overbearing one. The first consists of the males, led by the alpha male and the other consists of the females, led by the alpha female. In this situation, the alpha male assumes the top position overall in the pack. However, in some cases during the mating season the alpha female takes total dominance even while the pups are still in the den. This is for the rest of the pack to know that she is the one to serve. She also decides were the den will be. With this in the packs mind, they go in search of food and bring it back to the den either for the hungry female or for the pups.
The male and female hierarchies are interdependent and are maintained constantly by aggressive and elaborate displays of dominance and submission. Control of breeding rights is one of the key privileges held by alpha wolves. Alphas are usually the only wolves in the pack to breed and they actively and sometimes aggressively prevent other adult wolves in the pack from breeding. If the other adults want to breed they usually have to leave their pack and set up elsewhere.
Another privilege for the alpha pair is access to food. When a large prey has been captured, they have first rights to eat as much as they want, along with their offspring (pups). In times when food is scarce, the other adults in the pack may do better to disperse and fend for themselves. However, wolves tend to feed amicably when food is ample.
In large packs of wolves there is sometimes a ‘second in command’. These are known as the ‘Beta wolf or wolves’. Beta wolves typically take on the role of raising the alpha pairs offspring, often becoming surrogate mothers or fathers to the pups while the alpha pair are absent. Beta wolves are the most likely to challenge their superiors for the role of the alpha, though some betas seem content with being second and will sometimes even let lower ranking wolves push ahead of them for the position of alpha should circumstances make it necessary for this to happen (death of the alpha, etc.) More ambitious betas, however, cannot wait for the top spot and will challenge the alpha sooner or disperse from the pack to create one of its own. Sometimes, if the alpha is an aging wolf, he will give up his position submissively and allow the beta to take his place.
Healthier alphas will fight his challenger intensely to keep his lead roll, sometimes resulting in each one being injured. The loser is usually chased away or may be killed as other aggressive wolves contribute to the opposition. This kind of dominance encounter is more common during the mating season.
Wolf rank order within a pack is established and maintained through a series of ‘ritualised fights’ and posturing best described as ‘ritual bluffing’. Wolves prefer psychological warfare to physical confrontations, meaning that high-ranking status is based more on personality or attitude than on size or physical strength. Rank, who holds it, and how it is enforced varies widely between packs and between individual animals. In large packs full of easygoing wolves, or in a group of juvenile wolves, rank order may shift almost constantly.
Wolves howl for many reasons. Wolves howl as a way of communicating with other wolves. Wolves howl when they are rallying for a hunt, mourning, communicating with another pack of wolves or when a pack member has become separated – a lost wolf howls and the other members of his pack respond, giving him a sound to guide him home. Pack members recognise each others voices.
Howling can also serve as a declaration of territory or a sign of protection such as protecting a fresh kill.
Large packs of wolves will howl more than smaller packs of wolves. This is because smaller packs do not want to draw un-necessary attention to themselves. Adjacent packs may respond to each others howls, which can mean trouble for the smaller of the two. Therefore, wolves tend to howl with great care.
Wolves howl at various levels of tones and pitches which tends to prevent a listener from accurately estimating the number of wolves involved. This concealment of numbers makes a listening rival pack wary of what action to take. For example, confrontation could mean bad news if the rival pack gravely underestimates the howling packs numbers. People have often guessed, based on listening to howls, that a pack of wolves contained up to 20 individuals, when there were only 3 or 4.
Wolves tend to howl the most during the twilight hours, usually before the adults go and hunt and on their return. Wolves also tend to howl more during their breeding season and throughout rearing of pups. The wolf pups in turn will begin to howl and will be provoked into howling sessions quite easily. Such random howling usually has a communicative intent and has no adverse consequences so early in a wolfs life. Howling becomes less random as wolves learn to distinguish howling pack members from rival wolves.
There are many misconceptions regarding the reasons why wolves howl. Contrary to popular belief, wolves do not howl for the sake of howling at the moon and despite the traditional imagery, wolves do not always sit when they howl – they often remain standing. Under ideal conditions, a wolfs howl can be heard from as far away as 10 miles (16 kilometres). A wolf howl can last between 3 and 11 seconds at a time.
In addition to howls, wolves can also produce whimpers, growls, barks and squeaks. Whimpering tends to serve as either a submissive or friendly greeting sound, since young wolf pups and wolves attempting to appear submissive often whimper. Wolves growl when they are attempting to threaten another wolf or are behaving aggressively. Wolves rarely bark, however, they may do so as an alarm call or during play. Captive wolves who have been exposed to domestic dogs may bark more often than wild wolves or captive wolves who have not been exposed to domestic dogs.
Wolf Diet and Hunting
Wolves usually hunt in packs or sometimes individually. A wolf will nearly always eat what it catches almost completely. Wolves have more advantages when hunting in packs because they are intelligent animals working together and are able to take down animals that are much larger and stronger than an individual wolf. Wolves are strict carnivores and to stay alive, all animals require to eat some sort of food to provide energy and nutrients for their body. Wolves do not kill for sport, but for survival.
Wolves are scavengers and hunters and will eat anything they catch from large mammals to small rodents. Some of the animals wolves hunt and eat include: deer, moose, caribou, elk, bison and musk-oxen as well small animals such as beaver, hares and other small rodents.
Wolves have large stomachs and can devour 20 – 25 pounds of food at any one feeding time. However, wolves are able to survive without food for up to 2 weeks or even longer if prey is scarce. Their digestion is very efficient, with all but 5 percent of large meat feeds able to be digested. Any splinters of bone that are not broken down somehow become wrapped in undigested hair, which protects the intestines from injury.
Pups are fed by the adults who regurgitate fresh meat from their stomachs, or carry back fresh pieces of meat to the den. Wolves play an important role to other animal herds. Because wolves only hunt and eat sick or weak animals, they are actually helping the herds regain strength by ridding them of burden animals.
For example, there is a sick deer in a herd which is eating food that could be used to feed healthy young deer. So by eliminating the sick deer, not only will it reduce the possibility of this deer infecting other deer and weakening the herd more, it will make more food available to needy youngsters and therefore performs an important natural function in the eco-system.
Wolves live and hunt mainly in their own territory. The pack members will guard and defend their territory from other intruding wolves. Territory size depends on the availability of prey. Should prey be scarce, territory size can be as small as 25 – 30 square miles, however, if prey is plentiful, wolf territory can cover up to 80 – 90 square miles. A hunt will begin with pack members gathering, greeting each other and howling. These howls will deter other wolves from entering into the packs territory. The wolves commence their hunt by wading through their territory until they come across an animal for prey.
The wolf will approach the prey in the opposite direction of the wind to avoid the animal from detecting the wolf scent and running away. The wolves will close in slowly, sometimes in single file. As soon as their prey is aware it is being pursued and tries to escape, the chase begins. The wolves chase their prey and once caught, bite their animals by attacking the rump or sides. Large animals with horns are usually attacked this way so the wolves avoid being injured by the horns which are used as weapons against the wolves. Once down, the animal will be weakened and killed with a bite to the throat or snout. Then it is dragged away for all to feed upon.
Wolf hunts can either last minutes or hours depending on whether attacks are successful or not. If an attack fails, the wolves will continue to hunt until they are successful. It is a matter of survival.
The mating season of wolves can occur anytime between January and March. Only the alpha male wolf and female wolf in a pack mate. (This is to prevent over-population).
The alpha female wolf has only 5 to 7 days of estrus (when she is able to conceive). During this time, the alpha pair will sometimes move out of the pack temporarily to prevent interruption from other pack members.
If other adult wolf members of the pack mate, the alpha female wolf will be aggressive towards the other female wolf and usually the alpha male wolf will chase the other adult male wolf out of the pack. It is common for one litter of pups to be born to one pack of wolves. It is rare for two litters to occur unless the alpha male has mated with another subordinate female. This is usually when the alpha female wolf gets aggressive. The alpha female will try to prevent this by aggressively dominating other females and physically separating them from the alpha male wolf during the mating season.
When breeding season arrives breeding wolves begin to get more affectionate with each other. This occurs in anticipation of the females ovulation cycle. When the female finally goes into a period called ‘estrus’, the alpha male and alpha female wolves spend a lot of time together usually in seclusion. Pheromones in the females urine and the swelling of her vulva, tell the male she is ready to mate.
During the first 5 days of estrus, the female will shed a lining of her uterus and will be unreceptive to the male. Following this, she will begin ovulation and mating will occur.
During the period of mating, the two wolves become physically inseparable for anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, during which time the male wolf will ejaculate multiple times.
The mating ordeal is repeated many times throughout the females brief ovulation period, which occurs once per year per female (unlike female dogs, with whom estrus usually occurs twice per year). It is believed that both male and female wolves can continue to breed in this manner until at least 10 years of age.
Once the alpha pair have mated, the gestation period lasts from 60 – 63 days. Wolf pups are born blind, deaf and completely dependant on their mother. There can be between 1 – 14 pups in one litter, with the average number being 4 – 6 pups. For the first 8 weeks, the pups will stay inside the den in which they were born.
The den is usually on high ground, near and open water source. During this time, the pups will grow and become more independent. The wolf pups will begin to explore the area just outside the den, gradually roaming up to a mile away from it.
At 4 weeks old, the pups milk teeth have appeared and they begin to eat regurgitated food. At 6 weeks old they are weaned. During the first few weeks the pups are developing, the alpha mother will stay with them alone. Eventually, the rest of the pack will join in with the rearing of the pups in some way or other. The wolf pups stand a better chance of surviving when more wolves contribute to their care, such as bringing them food and guarding them from danger.
At 2 months old, the wolf pups will be moved to a safe place which they will reside in while some of the adult wolves go hunting. One or two adult wolves will of course stay behind to watch over the pups and keep them safe.
After a few more weeks of development and growing, the wolf pups are sometimes allowed to join in on the hunts. The wolf pups are only allowed as observers, however, until they are about 8 months old, by which time they are large enough to actively participate. The wolf pups receive first rights on anything killed regardless of their low rank within the pack.
Letting the wolf pups fight for the right to eat, results in a secondary ranking being formed among them and lets them practice the dominance and submission rituals that will be essential to their future survival in pack life.
Wolves typically reach sexual maturity when they are around 2 – 3 years old. At this time, a wolf may feel the need to disperse from its pack, find a mate and start a pack of its own in its own territory.
Wolf Conservation Status
Wolves were mistakenly viewed as a pest species and almost exterminated. We are more enlightened today, although this opinion still remains among farmers. Through the efforts of ecologically-minded people and with the Endangered Species Act funding, the wolf is being reintroduced in parts of North America.
With an increasing number of animals throughout the world either in a critically endangered situation, becoming endangered or a threatened species, wolves are no exception. Many projects are being carried out to reintroduce many wolf species such as the USFWS in North America and the International Wolf Centre.
Things You Can Do to Help Wolves
Learn more about wolves by looking at Wolf Web sites and reading more about them in books. You will find lots of information about them on the internet and on personal web pages.
Tell your friends and other people what you know about wolves, and how important they are to this world and how important it is to save a place for them in nature.