Wolves are the largest of the wild canids, which include jackals and coyotes. They are ancestors of dogs and rank with bears and large cats such as cougars and snow leopards as the largest predators in their ranges. They are the only animal that can routinely bring down large mammals several times their size such as moose and elk. [Source: Douglas Chadwick, National Geographic, May 1998, William Stevens, New York Times, January 31, 1995; David Nevin, Smithsonian magazine]

Wolves live above 15 degrees north latitude around the globe. They are found in Europe, Asia and North America, ranging from the Arctic to as far south as Mexico, India and Turkey. For thousands of years they were the most widespread carnivores after human beings. There are 10 sub species of wolf. Before there were 24 species in North America and 8 in Eurasia. There are currently about 400,000 wolves in the world, compared to 400 million dogs.

Dogs and canids (wolf-like and dog-like animals) evolved from hesperocyons, predators that looked somewhat like jackals and lived 37 million years ago in North America. They had distinctive pairs of shearing teeth and ran down prey. Some regard the first canid as Prophesperocyon wilsoni , a creature that lived in what is now southwestern Texas about 40 million years and had teeth that were evolved towards a more shearing bite. It ancestors had more elongated limbs and toes packed close together which facilitated running faster. As their prey began runner faster they too adapted by running faster themselves They also developed the ability to crack and eat bones, which suggests that regularly scavenged carcasses.

Early canids reached Europe about 7 million years ago. The Eucyon, a species that arose 7 million years and moved west 6 million to 4 million years ago, gave birth to most modern canids, including wolves, coyotes, jackals and dogs.

Book: “Never Cry Wolf” by Farley Mowatt. “The Wolf” by David Mech a research biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and regarded as the world's most knowledgeable person about wolves

Wolf Characteristics

Wolves generally weigh between 35 and 55 kilograms (80 and 120 pounds), with males typically weighing between 43 and 45 kilograms (95 and 100 pounds) and females between 35 and 37 kilograms (80 and 85 pounds). The largest wolf on record weighed 78 kilograms (172 pounds).

Wolves may stand one meter at the shoulder and live an average of five years or so in the wild if they reach maturity at age two or three. Under ideal conditions they can reach 15 years of age. Wolves come in a variety of colors including pure white, jet black, cream, grey, buff, tawny, reddish and even bluish. Those that live full time in the Arctic are often white.

Wolves have fur up several centimeters (inches) thick to keep them warm in winter and jaws powerful enough to crack open bones to extract the marrow. The have huge paws, that can make a print 10 centimeters (four inches) across in the snow. There long and thin legs make them look somewhat awkward when standing still but these legs are ideal for bounding through grasslands, brush and forest and through snow in the winter.

Wolves often die of hunger, especially when they are young. They are also affected by distemper, parovirus, heartworm, and intestinal parasites. As they get older their teeth wear down. Old wolves often have to rely on other member of the pack to tear off hunks of meat for them.

Wolf Behavior

An average wolf day consists of "sleep, bouts of play and social interaction lasting up to two hours, a daily hunt by most of the adults, and feeding the pups whenever possible." Wolves roams dozens of miles everyday with a tireless trot. They work particularly hard when they are in the hunt and rejuvenate themselves with an average of 12 hours of sleep a day.

Wolves have been observed smelling flowers. They can plat tag for hours at a time, this helps them get in shape for demanding chases of moose, caribou and other prey. Wolves, dholes, jackals and African wild dogs defecate in communal latrines in fixed places.

Wolves have many of the same behavior characteristics of dogs. They lower their forequarters and wobble their head when the want to play and lay on their backs and role around as a sign of submission. Wolves wag their tail. Their hair stand erect on their back when they felt threatened or are aggressive.

William Stevens wrote in the New York Times, "Removed from the pack, a wolf pup, like a dog, will bond to a human. Wolves smile at each other, lick each other's faces, engage in tail-wagging, play and sometimes snuggle.” Researchers have “observed wolves lying close to each other and putting their paws around each other's shoulders as if hugging. But they can instantly jettison playful affection to become aggressive killers. They show no hesitation in dispatching a strange wolf that happens to intrude on their territory, not to mentions strangers of other species."

Wolf Communication

Communication between pack members allows wolves to care for and feed of their young, defend their common territory, and cooperatively bring down prey larger than could individual wolves on their own. Dogs and wolves share similar means of communications. Tail waging is a sign a friendship. Bowing is an invitation to play. When a dog lays on it back and exposing the stomach it is making itself vulnerable as a display of trust and affection. Licking is an expression of affection and submission. Wolf puppies lick their mothers to encourage them to regurgitate food. Dogs and wolves express submission by lowering their body and head, tucking back their ears, diverting their eyes, and tucking their tail between the legs. Anger and aggression is expressed by holding the tail high, baring the teeth and staring directly ahead.

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: “A great deal of the communication among wolf pack members involves body language. Specialized behaviors and postures have evolved that help reduce aggression between individual animals within the pack. Body language helps the pack live together more agreeably. Facial expressions are often used to express emotions. Wolves may indicate dominate behavior by baring teeth and pointing erect ears forward. Subordinate behavior may be indicated by closed mouths, slit-like eyes, and ears pulled back and held close to the head. Wolves also use tail positions to communicate emotion. Wolves expressing threatening signs hold their tails high, almost perpendicular, while submissive wolves lower themselves before dominant pack members, tails tucked between their legs. [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org ***]

“A wolf’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times greater than humans’. Under good conditions a wolf can smell something a mile or more away. Scent is a very effective means of communication for wolves. Wolf packs are highly territorial. Scents are used to clearly mark the boundaries of territories, to claim and defend that territory from other packs, to mark food ownership, and to act as a sort of road map for the pack itself. Scent is a way for a pack to make its presence known long after it has moved to another part of its territory.Urination is the most common form of scent marking for wolves. Wolves produce scent from glands between their toes.” ** Wolf Howls

Howling is one of many noises produced by wolves. Wolves make dog-like barking noises and moan, yipe, yowl, whine and wail. Wolves howl to mark their territory, search for other members of their pack, call meetings, announce their presence and announce they had found food. When a wolf hears a howl it will answer and often go to investigate. When a pack howls together the sound is quite awesome.

Wolves define territory by howling. They do howl when there is full moon but the moon has nothing to do with why their howling. “Wolves do not howl at the moon," William Stevens wrote in the New York Times, "Howling is a means by which competing packs warn each other of their presence and, within the pack, of bonding socially; group howling sometimes seems to be something like a community sing."

Describing a wolf call, David Nevin wrote in Smithsonian, "He caught a breath and went again, striking a mid note, then high, then low, and again, starting high, a pealing, soaring note that deepened to a lower register, thoughtful and inviting.” Humans who imitate wolf calls in wolf country are sometimes answered by wolves. When a wolf answered his call, David Mech, a research biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told Smithsonian, "Pups I think at a rendezvous site. They'll make themselves sound like adults when they're left alone and they hear another wolf."

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: “Although all the functions of howling are not known, scientists believe that wolves may howl to assemble their pack, to claim territory, to warn intruders away from a home site or kill, or to identify other wolves. Wolves also howl in the evening and early morning, in the summer when pups are young, and during the mid-winter breeding season. It is a myth that wolves howl at the moon, but they do point their snouts toward the sky to howl. Projecting their call upward allows the sound to carry farther. Wolves have excellent hearing, and under certain conditions can hear a howl as far as six miles away in the forest and ten miles away on the open tundra. [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org ***]

“A wolf howl is a deep and continuous sound from about half a second to 11 seconds long. The pitch usually remains constant or varies smoothly. A howling session by a single wolf lasts an average of 35 seconds, during which the animal howls several times. A howling session by a pack lasts an average of 85 seconds. It is initiated by a single wolf, and after its first or second howl one or more others may join in. Except for the high-pitched yapping of pups, wolf howls almost never include barking. Whines are used often at the den site, primarily by the adult female. They are thought to be sounds of affection. Growling conveys aggressiveness and usually comes from a threatening dominant male. ***

“Alpha wolves usually display a lower-pitched howl and will howl more frequently than those with a more subservient social standing. Pups practice howling as they mature, mimicking those of adult wolves. Lone wolves may not howl as much to hide their position from other residential wolf packs. Alpha wolves usually display a lower-pitched howl and will howl more frequently than those with a more subservient social standing. Pups practice howling as they mature, mimicking those of adult wolves. Lone wolves may not howl as much to hide their position from other residential wolf packs.” ***

Wolf Packs

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: Wolves are highly social animals that live in packs. A pack is an extended family group comprised of a breeding (alpha) male and female and their subordinate offspring from one or more years. The alpha wolves decide when the pack will travel and hunt, and normally are the first to eat at a kill. [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org]

Wolf packs are generally made up of ten to 12 wolves (although ones with 36 member have been observed) that are related to one another. Large packs are necessary to bring down large mammals such as moose and elk. Most wolf packs are led a breeding pair—an alpha male and alpha female—who care for pups, defend the pack, lead and orchestrate the hunts and get first dibs of the meat from a kill.

In small wolf packs only the alpha male and female mate and most members of the pack are offspring of the alpha male and female. As the pack grow, tension and stress increase until some members are forced to leave. Even when food sources are plentiful, wolf pack members often fight among themselves in turf battles. Wolves who are not members of a pack often bond quickly after an "initial ritual of biting and posturing."

Wolf Social Behavior

Wolves are loyal, affectionate and curious. They are sociable animals with a family structure not unlike that of humans. "Wolves," writes Stevens, "are as various in their personalities as dogs, their lineal descendants—and as humans. Their social life within the pack is a mixture of dominance and what people would call affection." Wolves disturbed while eating flash a "keep your distance" look. They have been observed eating meat of hungry, begging pack mates and not sharing and seeming to gloat over it.

New wolves are sometimes admitted to the pack but they must show the proper respect towards the alpha pair and other members. The same as true for pups who become adults and want to remain in the same pack. Some wolves are forced to leave the pack and fend for themselves. Successful loners find their own mates and start their own packs. Lone wolves often patrol on the fringes of a pack’s territory. Lone wolves have a high mortality rate. But if a disease ravages a pack they play an important role taking over their territory and starting a new pack.

Scapewolves are peripheral members of a pack or social outcasts. They are often on the edge of being thrown out the pack and survive on leftovers and bones. When times are hard and food is in short supply they are generally the first to go.

Wolf Pack Pecking Order

A wolf pack is a highly structured hierarchy with the alpha male and female at the top and close social bonding among other members, which in large packs may include other breeding males and females. Usually these other breeders have to be removed from the pack.

The other members of the pack are generally younger than the alpha male and female. The subordinate animals have their own hierarchy and sometimes ranking is based on winners in play activities that date back to puppyhood. Sometimes members of the pack are pups that have grown up. Some members may stay with the pack for up to eight years.

The alpha male and female don't always get their way. Sometimes if another members protest the leader will capitulate. A subordinate females sometimes experience hormonal changes that are similar to those of a real pregnancy. Her belly swells and she produces milk which she may offer to the offspring of the alpha female.

Wolf Pack Territory

Wolves can survive in a variety of habitats, including forests, tundra, mountains, swamps and deserts. Wolves spend about 35 percent of their time traveling. They often travel 20 to 30 miles per day, but may cover over 100 miles in a day when prey is scarce.

A wolf pack with ten animals controls a territory of between 100 and 150 square miles. Wolves mark their territories with urine. The scent is stronger than that that of a dog and and has been liken to "sour woodsmoke." Wolves also define territory by howling. They often wander outside their territory and have been found as far as 600 miles from their home territory. Packs usually respect each other territories. When they don't fights often ensue in which animals can be badly injured or killed. In some places the leading cause of death among wolves is other wolves.

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: Wolf territories usually vary in size from 200 to 500 square miles, but may range from as little as 18 square miles to as much as 1,000 square miles. One wolf per every 10 square miles is considered ideal for wolf health. Territory size is typically based on the density of prey but is also influenced by pack size, presence of neighboring packs, and human land use. Wolves will aggressively defend their territories from other packs.[Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org]

Wolf Mating

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: Generally, only the male and female alphas of the pack will mate. Wolf packs typically have one litter of pups per year unless the younger females also breed. Mating typically occurs between January and March. Wolves begin breeding between 2 and 3 years. [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org]

Wolves are generally monogamous. Mating usually takes place between a couple after winter until one member. After a two month gestation period pups are born around May. A female generally give birth to anywhere from one to six pups in a den in the ground, a cave or hollow log, or in a hole dug out by another animals such as a badger or fox or under a sun-heated ledge.

After mating the male removes his forelegs from around the female's back but his penis often remains inside her. Sometimes the pair will remain stuck for a half an hour or more. This is because just before ejaculations the base of the penis swells into a bulb and is unable to withdraw.

Wolf Pups

During their first few weeks of life, wolf pups are like puppies. Their eyes are closed and they nurse from their mother’s teats. If necessary the mother moves the pups very gently with her mouth. When the litter is several weeks old, parents move out in a clearing and go off to hunt mice. The pups learn to wait for the pack to return with food.

Pups are weaned when they are around seven weeks old and afterwards are fed largely through regurgitation (wolves don't have hands and their stomachs are the only place they can carry food). Some bones, chunks of meat or whole hares or lemmings are given the pups to feed on. When an adult bears its teeth among pups it isn't a sign of aggression but rather its means they are about to regurgitate.

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: “During the first 3 weeks, pups nurse every 4 to 6 hours and need help regulating their body temperatures. The mother usually stays with her young in the den, eating food brought to her by other members of the pack...As pups begin eating more solids, they are moved to one or more “rendezvous sites,” where they spend the remainder of the summer learning proper pack behavior and etiquette.” [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org]

Wolf communities collectively raise their young. This frees individual females to collect food and helps the community as a whole prosper. After birth, the mother takes care of the pups while the other members of the pack hunt, bring back meat, and regurgitate it for the mother and pups. Usually only one female is raising young at a given time and the packs stays fixed to one area while the pups are growing up. When the pups are six months old the pack goes on the move, ranging over an area up to hundreds of square miles.

Wolf pups are pampered, communally defended, reared and defended by the pack. The pups cozy up and muzzle any member of the pack as they would their parents. These wolves are obligated to regurgitate whatever food is in the stomachs for the pups.

Wolf Pups Grow Up

Adults regularly play and socialize with their pups but also occasionally pin them down apparently to keep their aggressive instinct from getting them into dangerous situations. When approaching an adult, pups whine, wag their tails, crouch, bend their backs and lick the mouth of the adult in subservience.

Pups constantly play and rough house partly to develop their hunting skills. Sometimes adult attempting to sleep give pups a carcass to play with to keep them pacified. At about seven weeks they begin venturing short distances with the adults in the pack. Their first kill is generally a ground-nesting bird, a hare or a lemming. As they get older they enter more and more into hunts of the pack.

Wolves become sexually mature at about the age of two or three years and can begin breeding at that time. When wolves pups mature they decide whether to subordinate themselves to the dominant members of the pack or strike out their own. Some pups that become independent return to the pack several times before setting off for good.

According to Western Wildlife Outreach: “Once sexually mature, most wolves leave their birth pack to search for a new territory or to join an existing pack. Dispersing wolves roam 40 to 70 miles on average, and sometimes more than 100 miles, depending on gender, available habitat, and presence of other packs. [Source: Western Wildlife Outreach westernwildlife.org]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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