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The Wondrous Wolves

Scientific name:  Canis Lupus

Legendary wolves are the largest of all the wild canines and have long been considered one of the animal world’s most fearsome natural villains.  Wolves have long gotten a bad reputation in the wild, thought they rarely attack humans.  Other than hunting to eat wolves are usually not aggressive.  However, they will fight other animals, and other wolves, to protect their pack. to the American Indians, the wolf is a powerful spiritual symbol and one they have a great respect for.  They consider them to be teachers and pathfinders.  These intelligent, ultimate predators at the top of the food chain are included in many of their stories and artwork.  The wolf is known to be a warrior, defending its home and family against outsiders.

Courtesy of Daniel Cambon - Paris, France

Often confused with Huskies, Malemutes, and German Shepherds, the wolves can range in size from 45-180 pounds, depending on where they live and if there is a good source of prey animals in their range. The average weight is around 95 pounds in most areas.  From the tip of the nose to the end of the tail, wolves are from 4 1/2 feet to 6 feet long.  They have large feet, rounded ears, and a broad muzzle.  The thick tail hangs, unlike a dog’s tail that tends to be held high and is often curly.  Their dense, thick fur ranges in color from white to black and helps them to survive in a variety of climates.   Their bodies are designed for running, catching and killing large animals.  The hair is also used to communicate dominance anger and aggression.  The lifespan is 6-8 years in the wild and up to 16 years in captivity.


Breeding takes place once per year with the mating season occurring in February and March, with a 63 day gestation period.  Wolf pup litters average 4-6 and are born in April and May. At birth they only weigh about one pound and cannot see or hear.  Approximately 1/3 of the wolf’s life is spent roaming in search of food.  Scent marking and spine-tingling howls are used to define the boundaries of their territory.   They also howl to greet one another, communicate with others in the pack or simply because a nearby wolf has already begun. 


Wolves use use facial display in ritual aggression, dominance, submission or fear.  They have a sense of smell that is more than 100 times greater than a human, and extremely powerful jaws capable of generating 1500 psi of pressure.   Fully grown, they have 42 teeth that are sharp, pointed and adapted to puncturing, slashing and clinging to their victims.   The premolars and molars are useful for tearing and shearing flesh once the prey has been killed.  The massive rear molars aid in cracking and crushing bones.  The canine teeth interlock so the wolf and grip and hang onto its struggling prey.  They feed almost exclusively on flesh, bones and other animal matter.  Having a low hunting success rate, wolves must hunt often and test many animals before finding one they can kill.  

The wolf is opportunistic and will kill whatever is the most vulnerable and easy to capture.  They sometimes kill healthy animals but naturally seek out the weak, sick, crippled and old animals and baby ones.   They are also known to attack domestic animals. The diet of choice consists of deer, moose, elk, bison, oxen, beaver and sometimes mice.  They are also scavengers and often eat animals that have died due to starvation or disease.They can consume up to 20 pounds at a feeding.  They can run up to 35 miles per hour and cover distances of up to 125 miles per day.

Besides the occasional lone wolf that has been alienated from its pack, these canines livce in a family-oriented social structure called a pack, which can be made up of two to thirty individuals.  The strict hierarchy in a pack neutralizes conflict and promotes social order. 
The “alpha” wolf is the is the leader and highest ranking individual in the pack. The “beta” wolf is second in command and the “omega” is the lowest ranking individual in the dominance hierarchy. There is a separate hierarchy for males than for females. Contrary to popular belief, there is not constant fighting within a pack to gain top rankings. Instead, this type of social structure helps to keep focus on the survival of the entire pack. They communicate with one another more by harmony and integration rather than by aggression and submission.

When a pair of wolves mates, they will continue to be a pair until one of them dies.  In many instances the pair will have many years together and product many litter of pups.  Young pups will venture out on hunts with the packs at round three months old.  The alpha male and beta female are generally the only two in a pack of wolves that will mate.  All of the adults in the entire pack are responsible for caring for the youngsters.  The mortality rate for wolf pups is only around 50%.  The entire pack must vigorously protect them at all times.  

Arctic tundra, plains, savannahs and forests were all originally inhabited by the wolf, which had an extensive range occuring throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Japan.  The only substantial population at present are two species in North America; the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) and the Red Wolf (Canis Rufus).  Today their range has been reduced to Canada and the United States in Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Mexican wolves can also be found in New Mexico and Arizona. In the United States wolves were once almost hunted to the point of extinction.  At one point in the 1980s they were wiped out completely in the wild.  The only ones that remained were in captivity.  Wolves are now protected by the Endangered Species Act.   Breeding programs with the Red Wolves have allowed them to begin repopulating.  Thanks to the re-introduction of wolves in 1995, the Yellowstone National Park is now one of the most favored places to see and hear wolves in their native habitat. 

According to Defenders of Wildlife there are an estimated 7,000 - 11,200 wolves in Alaska and around 5,000 in the lower 48 states.  Around the world there is an estimated 200,000 in 57 countries.  These numbers are exceptionally low considering that there used to be over 2 million wolves in earlier times.  It is illegal in many areas for the pelts of wolves to be sold, but they were once worth a great deal of money and circulated on the black market.  The main threats to the wolves of today are the loss of their habitats and persecution by humans, especially in Alaska with the Ariel Gunning Program.
  Ironically, while heroic efforts are being taken to restore wolves in the lower 48 states, wolves all over Alaska continue to be persecuted.  Since the winter of 2003/2004, the state has conducted an extensive ariel predator campaign using airplanes with private hunters and pilots to shoot and kill wolves directly from overhead.  This practice is strongly opposed by many and considered to be unethical, unsportsmanlike and nearly impossible to regulate. 

For there to be hope for wolves, humans have an important role to play in protecting their futures.  Programs supporting wolf reintroduction in federally designated areas are needed to sustain viable populations.   Attitudes toward them also must change in order to protect their natural habitats from damage caused by humans encroachment or activities such as logging, mining, hunting and fishing.

Article & most images by Christina Bush


Painting courtesy of Chris Hoy