Animal of the Month
December 2020
Name: Gray Wolf

Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Canis
Species: C. lupus
Subspecies: At least 6 alive today, possibly as high as 25 including: Canis lupus familiaris - the domesticated dog!
[Note: The red wolf, Canis lupus rufus is sometimes considered a separate species of wolf.]

Size: Body 36-63 inches long, tail 13-20 inches long.
Weight: Males 70-145 lbs, females 60-100.

Covered in thick, downy fur. Four legged with padded paws on each leg. Long fluffy tail. Two large ears, a pointed muzzle, two forward-facing eyes.
Color(s): Varies, ranges from black to gray to reddish-brown to white. Often mixed colors.
Behavior: Lives in packs with a social hierarchy, works in teams to bring down prey, active day or night.
Preferred Habitat: Mountains, deserts, grasslands, tundra, woodlands, inland wetlands, and shrublands. Also found in livestock pastures.
Range: Across the Northern Hemisphere, including Canada, United States, and Siberia.
Diet: Elk, bison, deer, moose, and many small mammals.
Lifespan: 8-13 years in the wild, 15 years in captivity.

Status: Globally Least Concern, though some subspecies or populations are Endangered or Critically Endangered.

An ecosystem thrives when it exists in balance. If there are too many or too little of a certain kind of plant or animal, the ecosystem will become damaged. Every animal has a role in keeping an ecosystem stable, but one animal that is often overlooked is the wolf! Gray wolves are found all over the Northern Hemisphere of the world. They are not picky about their habitat and are capable of living in forests, plains, tundra, mountains and wetlands.

Wolves are intelligent and social animals. They live in family groups called packs. Each pack is ruled by an alpha male and an alpha female. Pack sizes vary by region; they can be as few as two or as high as thirty individuals! Packs will carve out a territory to roam in, the size of which varies depending on how much prey is available. The less prey, the larger the territory. A territory thus can be up to hundreds of square miles in size!

Wolves are mostly carnivorous. They prefer to hunt in teams to take down large game such as deer, bison, elk and moose, however they will also pursue smaller animals such as rodents, fish and reptiles. Sometimes they eat fruit. A wolf will howl to let its packmates know where it is. After making a kill, the alpha male and female will eat first, and the other wolves will wait for their turn. Perhaps you've heard of the expression "wolfing down your food"? A wolf can eat as much as 20 pounds of meat in a single meal! Talk about an appetite!

It is through their hunting and teamwork that wolves help to keep an ecosystem balanced. Roaming wolves force animals like deer and elk to move more, so an area will not become overgrazed. They also keep the populations of other animals from becoming too numerous. As a result, wolves help plants grow, let other animals flourish, and even redirect the course of rivers!

Usually the alpha male and female are the only wolves in a pack that will mate. On rare occasions, if prey is especially plentiful, other wolves in the pack will mate too. Mating occurs between January and March, and 63 days later a mother wolf will give birth in a den to four-to-six pups. The pups are born blind and deaf, and will nurse for several weeks. At about eight weeks old, the mother will start to feed the pups meat she has swallowed and thrown back up! This is when pups will start to explore outside the den and learn from the other pack members. At six-to-eight months old, pups will start to hunt with their packmates. At one or two years old, many of the pups will go on their own to join a new pack, or to start their own pack.

Wolves have a complicated relationship with humans. On one hand, humans have often persecuted wolves. This is because they were fearful of being attacked by them. It is important to note that while wolf attacks do occur, they are rare and usually happen only when a wolf feels threatened! Sometimes wolves kill livestock, which is understandably distressing for ranchers and farmers. As a result of these issues, some subspecies of wolf have been hunted to extinction in places like Japan and many of the lower 48 States.

On the other hand, many cultures have revered wolves. Some Native American cultures see wolves as symbols of strength and examples to follow (taking care of family, good leadership, and not wasting food). And, thousands of years ago, ancient humans made friends with a group of wolves whose descendants became the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris - our beloved dogs! Though the different dog breeds may seem like different animals altogether, genetically they are still technically a species of wolf!

Scientists debate how many subspecies of gray wolves are alive today. It could be as few as six or as high as twenty-five, depending on how you interpret the research. There are thought to be around 300,000 wolves on Earth, thus their conservation status is considered to be Least Concern. However, as humans expand further into wild lands, certain wolf populations are considered endangered or even critically endangered. The red wolf, for example, is critically endangered. Main threats include loss of habitat, loss of food, and conflict with humans. Recently, wolves were removed from the Endangered Species Act, thus making them more vulnerable to hunting in the United States.

Fortunately, there are many success stories regarding wolves, and more are sure to follow. In 1995, wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park. To this day there is a thriving wolf population there, and the ecosystem has been altered for the better! Other re-introduction programs are also underway or being proposed. The Defenders of Wildlife have been longtime advocates for wolves, and the organization Living With Wolves seeks to protect wolves through spreading education and dispelling misconceptions. As we work to find a balance that is suitable for both wolf and man, it's safe to say that wolves will be roaming our wild lands for years to come.

For a howlin' good time, check out these awesome wolf-minded organizations:

Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Page-Check out what the Defenders are doing to protect wolves!

Living With Wolves-Dedicated to dispelling myths about wolves around the world!

International Wolf Center-Based in Minnesota, this organization provides many educational resources about wolves!


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