COMMON NAME: Gray Wolf
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Canis lupus
GROUP NAME: Pack
AVERAGE LIFE SPAN IN THE WILD: 6 to 8 years
SIZE: Head and body, 36 to 63 in; tail, 13 to 20 in
WEIGHT: 40 to 175 lbs
SIZE RELATIVE TO A 6-FT MAN:
The wolf (Canis lupus), also known as the gray wolf, timber wolf, western wolf, and its other subspecies is a canine native to the wilderness and remote areas of Eurasia and North America. It is the largest extant member of its family, with males averaging 43–45 kg (95–99 lb) and females 36–38.5 kg (79–85 lb). Like the red wolf, it is distinguished from other Canis species by its larger size and less pointed features, particularly on the ears and muzzle. Its winter fur is long and bushy and predominantly a mottled gray in color, although nearly pure white, red, and brown to black also occur. Mammal Species of the World (3rd ed., 2005), a standard reference work in zoology, recognises 38 subspecies of C. lupus.
The evolution of the wolf occurred over a geologic time scale of at least 300 thousand years. The gray wolf Canis lupus is a highly adaptable species that is able to exist in a range of environments and which possesses a wide distribution across the Holarctic. Studies of modern gray wolves have identified distinct sub-populations that live in close proximity to each other. This variation in sub-populations is closely linked to differences in habitat – precipitation, temperature, vegetation, and prey specialization – which affect cranio-dental plasticity.
The archaeological and paleontological records show gray wolf continuous presence for at least the last 300,000 years. This continuous presence contrasts with genomic analyses, which suggest that all modern wolves and dogs descend from a common ancestral wolf population that existed as recently as 20,000 years ago. These analyses indicate a population bottleneck, followed by a rapid radiation from an ancestral population at a time during, or just after, the Last Glacial Maximum. However, the geographic origin of this radiation is not known.
Wolves are legendary because of their spine-tingling howl, which they use to communicate. A lone wolf howls to attract the attention of his pack, while communal howls may send territorial messages from one pack to another. Some howls are confrontational. Much like barking domestic dogs, wolves may simply begin howling because a nearby wolf has already begun.
Population and Conservation
Wolves are the largest members of the dog family. Adaptable gray wolves are by far the most common and were once found all over the Northern Hemisphere. But wolves and humans have a long adversarial history. Though they almost never attack humans, wolves are considered one of the animal world’s most fearsome natural villains. They do attack domestic animals, and countless wolves have been shot, trapped, and poisoned because of this tendency.
In the lower 48 states, gray wolves were hunted to near extinction, though some populations survived and others have since been reintroduced. Few gray wolves survive in Europe, though many live in Alaska, Canada, and Asia.
Wolf Pack Behavior
Wolves live and hunt in packs of around six to ten animals. They are known to roam large distances, perhaps 12 miles in a single day. These social animals cooperate on their preferred prey—large animals such as deer, elk, and moose. When they are successful, wolves do not eat in moderation. A single animal can consume 20 pounds of meat at a sitting. Wolves also eat smaller mammals, birds, fish, lizards, snakes, and fruit.
Wolfpacks are established according to a strict hierarchy, with a dominant male at the top and his mate not far behind. Usually this male and female are the only animals of the pack to breed. All of a pack’s adults help to care for young pups by bringing them food and watching them while others hunt.
Reproduction and development
The gray wolf is generally monogamous, with mated pairs usually remaining together for life. Upon the death of one mated wolf, pairs are quickly re-established. Since males often predominate in any given wolf population, unpaired females are a rarity. If a dispersing male gray wolf is unable to establish a territory or find a mate, he mates with the daughters of already established breeding pairs from other packs. Such gray wolves are termed “Casanova wolves” and, unlike males from established packs, they do not form pair bonds with the females they mate with. Some gray wolf packs may have multiple breeding females this way, as is the case in Yellowstone National Park. Gray wolves also practice alloparental care, in which a wolf pair may adopt the pup or pups of another. This might take place if the original parents die or are for some reason separated from them. In addition to heterosexual behavior, homosexual behavior has been observed in gray wolves.Male gray wolves often mount each other when the highest ranking female in the pack comes into heat.
The age of first breeding in gray wolves depends largely on environmental factors: when food is plentiful, or when wolf populations are heavily managed, wolves can rear pups at younger ages in order to better exploit abundant resources. This is further demonstrated by the fact that captive wolves have been known to breed as soon as they reach 9–10 months, while the youngest recorded breeding wolves in the wild were 2 years old. Females are capable of producing pups every year, with one litter annually being the average. Unlike the coyote, the gray wolf never reaches reproductive senescence. Estrus typically occurs in late winter, with older, multiparous females entering estrus 2–3 weeks earlier than younger females. During pregnancy, female wolves remain in a den located away from the peripheral zone of their territories, where violent encounters with other packs are more likely. Old females usually whelp in the den of their previous litter, while younger females typically den near their birthplace. The gestation period lasts 62–75 days, with pups usually being born in the summer period.
Wolves bear relatively large pups in small litters compared to other canid species. The average litter consists of 5–6 pups, with litter sizes tending to increase in areas where prey is abundant, though exceptionally large litters of 14–17 pups occur only 1% of the time. Pups are usually born in spring, coinciding with a corresponding increase in prey populations. Pups are born blind and deaf, and are covered in short soft grayish-brown fur. They weigh 300–500 g (11–18 oz) at birth, and begin to see after 9–12 days. The milk canines erupt after one month. Pups first leave the den after 3 weeks. At 1.5 months of age, they are agile enough to flee from danger. Mother wolves do not leave the den for the first few weeks, relying on the fathers to provide food for them and their young. Pups begin to eat solid food at the age of 3–4 weeks. Pups have a fast growth rate during their first four months of life: during this period, a pup’s weight can increase nearly 30 times.Wolf pups begin play fighting at the age of 3 weeks, though unlike young foxes and coyotes, their bites are inhibited. Actual fights to establish hierarchy usually occur at 5–8 weeks of age. This is in contrast to young foxes and coyotes, which may begin fighting even before the onset of play behavior. By autumn, the pups are mature enough to accompany adults on hunts for large prey.
Hunting and feeding behaviors
Gray wolf trotting. The gray wolf generally places its hind paws in the tracks made by the front paws.Although social animals, single wolves or mated pairs typically have higher success rates in hunting than do large packs, with single wolves having occasionally been observed to kill large prey such as moose, bison and muskoxen unaided. The gray wolf’s sense of smell is relatively weakly developed when compared to that of some hunting dog breeds, being able to detect carrion upwind no farther than 2–3 kilometres (1.2–1.9 mi). Because of this, it rarely manages to capture hidden hares or birds, though it can easily follow fresh tracks. Its auditory perception is acute enough to be able to hear up to a frequency of 26 kHz, which is sufficient to register the fall of leaves in the autumn period. A gray wolf hunt can be divided into five stages:
Locating prey: The wolves travel in search of prey through their power of scent, chance encounter, and tracking. Wolves typically locate their prey by scent, though they must usually be directly downwind of it. When a breeze carrying the prey’s scent is located, the wolves stand alert, and point their eyes, ears and nose towards their target. In open areas, wolves may precede the hunt with group ceremonies involving standing nose-to-nose and wagging their tails. Once concluded, the wolves head towards their prey.
The stalk: The wolves attempt to conceal themselves as they approach. As the gap between the wolves and their prey closes, the wolves quicken their pace, wag their tails, and peer intently, getting as close to their quarry as possible without making it flee.
The encounter: Once the prey detects the wolves, it can either approach the wolves, stand its ground, or flee. Large prey, such as moose, elk, and muskoxen, usually stand their ground. Should this occur, the wolves hold back, as they require the stimulus of a running animal to proceed with an attack. If the targeted animal stands its ground, the wolves either ignore it, or try to intimidate it into running.
The rush: If the prey attempts to flee, the wolves immediately pursue it. This is the most critical stage of the hunt, as wolves may never catch up with prey running at top speed. If their prey is travelling in a group, the wolves either attempt to break up the herd, or isolate one or two animals from it.
The chase: A continuation of the rush, the wolves attempt to catch up with their prey and kill it. When chasing small prey, wolves attempt to catch up with their prey as soon as possible, while with larger animals, the chase is prolonged, in order to wear the selected prey out. Wolves usually give up chases after 1–2 km (0.62–1.3 mi), though one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 21 km (13 mi). Both Russian and North American wolves have been observed to drive prey onto crusted ice, precipices, ravines, slopes and steep banks to slow them down.
The actual killing method varies according to prey species. With large prey, mature wolves usually avoid attacking frontally, instead focusing on the rear and sides of the animal. Large prey, such as moose, is killed by biting large chunks of flesh from the soft perineum area, causing massive blood loss. Such bites can cause wounds 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) in length, with three such bites to the perineum usually being sufficient to bring down a large deer in optimum health. With medium-sized prey such as roe deer or sheep, wolves kill by biting the throat, severing nerve tracks and the carotid artery, thus causing the animal to die within a few seconds to a minute. With small, mouse-like prey, wolves leap in a high arc and immobilize it with their forepaws.When prey is vulnerable and abundant, wolves may occasionally surplus kill. Such instances are common in domestic animals, but rare in the wild. In the wild, surplus killing primarily occurs during late winter or spring, when snow is unusually deep (thus impeding the movements of prey) or during the denning period, when wolves require a ready supply of meat when denbound. Medium-sized prey are especially vulnerable to surplus killing, as the swift throat-biting method by which they are killed allows wolves to quickly kill one animal and move on to another.
Once prey is brought down, wolves begin to feed excitedly, ripping and tugging at the carcass in all directions, and bolting down large chunks of it. The breeding pair typically monopolizes food in order to continue producing pups. When food is scarce, this is done at the expense of other family members, especially non-pups. The breeding pair typically eats first, though as it is they who usually work the hardest in killing prey, they may rest after a long hunt and allow the rest of the family to eat unmolested. Once the breeding pair has finished eating, the rest of the family tears off pieces of the carcass and transport them to secluded areas where they can eat in peace. Wolves typically commence feeding by consuming the larger internal organs of their prey, such as the heart, liver, lungs and stomach lining. The kidneys and spleen are eaten once they are exposed, followed by the muscles. A single wolf can eat 15–19% of its body weight in a single feeding.
Rtr. Sethil Muhandiram