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Grey Wolf
Status Lower Risk
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Canis lupus
Linnaeus, 1758

The Wolf or Grey Wolf (Canis lupus) is a mammal of the Canidae family and the ancestor of the domestic dog.

Wolves once had an almost worldwide distribution, but are now limited primarily to North America, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Their preference on habitat ranges among Forests, Tundra, Taigas, Plains and Mountains. In the northern hemisphere, human encroachment on their habitat and persecution of the animals themselves have drastically reduced their range. The wolf is today frequently in the line of fire in conflicts between many different interests: Tourism/Industry, City/Country as well as Conservation/Exploitation.

As the wolf is a top predator the state of the wolf can frequently be seen as a state of the land where it lives.

Table of contents
1 Anatomy
2 Social structure
3 Hunting
4 Communication
5 Reproduction
6 Mortality
7 Taxonomy
8 Human Attitudes towards Wolves
9 Wolf hunting
10 Subspecies of the wolf
11 Timeline
12 See also


Wolves are about 100–150 cm (40–60 in) long with the tail roughly a third of their body size and weighing 25–60 kg (50–130 lbs), males larger than females. The coloration runs from grey to grey brown but can vary through the canine spectrum of white, reddish, brown and black. The coat usually lacks any clear patterns except for paintings around the eyes. In areas where the ground is snow covered white wolves are far more common. Very old wolves get a greyish tint in their coat.

The wolf anatomy differs on several points from the dog. Most obvious is a pre-caudal gland on the over side of the tail, close to the base, that is not present on dogs. The wolf usually has golden-yellow eyes, longer legs, larger paws and more pronounced jaws.

The body of the wolf is built for long distance running, with a rather thin chest and powerful back and leg muscles. Wolves can move over great distances and the wide paws makes sure deep snow hampers them less than their prey.

A wolf often seems more massive than a dog of comparable weight due to the extra bulk of the coat. The coat is built up of two layers, with hard guard hairs to repel water and dirt and a thick woolly undercoat to keep it warm. The wolf changes coat two times a year, during spring and autumn. Females tend to have a thicker winter coat and keep it further into the spring than males.

The wolves and most larger dogs share the same tooth configuration: The upper jaw has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 8 premolars, and 4 molars. The bottom jaw has 6 incisors, 2 canines, 8 premolars, and 6 molars. The canines are by far most important, as they are used to catch and hold prey. One common reason for wolves to starve is tooth damage after being kicked by larger prey.

Wolves live 6–9 years average in the wild, although in captivity on average they live 16 years. See mortality for more information.

Social structure

Wolves function as social predators and hunt in packs organised according to a strict social hierarchy and led by an alpha male and alpha female. This social structure allows the wolf to take prey many times its size. The size of the pack changes during the year and is controlled by factors such as mortality and food supply. Generally it's between 2 and 12, although packs with more than 30 have been recorded. The hierarchy of the pack is strict, with the alpha on top and the omega at the bottom. The hierarchy controls all activity in the pack, from which wolf eats first to which is allowed to breed (generally only the alpha pair). Between the extremes of the alpha and the omega there is usually a beta pair, contesters for the alpha position that will take it if any of the alpha wolves are killed. When an Alpha male or female is becoming old and decrepit, a younger, stronger animal, usually one of the beta pair, challenges the dominant animal. The loser of the fight is frequently chased away from the pack, or killed if it can not escape fast enough when the rest of the wolves turn on it. This kind of dominance fight is more common in the spring months, when mating occurs. All the wolves in the pack assist in raising the wolf pups. Some pups stay in the original pack to reinforce it and help rear more pups while other disperse.

New packs are formed when a wolf leaves its birth pack and claims a territory. Wolves searching for other wolves with which to form packs can travel very long distances in suitable territories. If there is a high wolf population, they must avoid the territories of other wolves because such intruders are chased away or killed. This probably explains wolf predation of dogs. Most dogs do not have much of a chance against a wolf protecting it's territory from the unwanted intrusion. Packs frequently break apart when the alpha pair is killed.


The wolf is somewhat opportunistic and will eat what it comes across as long as it is reasonably fresh. Packs of wolves hunt any large herbivore in their range, while lone wolves are more prone to take eat anything the come across, including rodents. The hunting methods ranges from surprise attacks on smaller animals such as rabbits and rodents to long lasting chases. Wolves can chase large prey for several hours before giving up, but the success rate is rather low.

Livestock predation

As long as there are enough prey animals, wolves seem to avoid taking livestock. However, some problem animals can specialize in hunting livestock. Sheep are frequently the most vulnerable, while horses and cattle are at less of a risk. Wolf-secure fences and the killing of problem animals are today the only known methods to effectively stop livestock predation.


Wolves communicate with a wide range of sounds, from yips and growls to howls. Howls are frequently used to summon the pack to a location, announce their presence to other packs or simply to reinforce the bounds in the pack. Wolves howl more frequently when they have something to protect, such as a freshly killed prey or a border of their territory, and less frequently when avoiding conflicts with other packs.


Normally, only the alpha pair of the pack breed. This kind of organisation also occurs in other pack-hunting canids, such as the Dhole and the African Hunting Dog. Mating usually occurs in February to May and wolves, unlike dogs, only mate once a year. Another interesting fact about the social economy of wolves is that they are monogamous: the alpha pair will mate exclusively with each other so long as they both remain alphas. The gestation period is 61–63 days and the pups are born completely dependent on their mother. The wolf is sexually mature at two years old.


The oldest recorded free wolf was 16 years old. There has been reports of captive wolves reaching 20 years (not much unlike dogs). However the mean age of wolves is rather low. The mortality among pups is high; few survive the first winter. The most important mortality factors for grown wolves are hunting/poaching, car accidents, conflicts with other wolves and wounds from hunting. All diseases that affect dogs also affect wolves, including mange and rabies, and can from time to time wipe out the wolf population in an area. Wolves adjust rather well to fluctuations in prey populations, so mass starvation is unusual.

Wolves can sustain their population under a heavy pressure, as long as the alpha pairs are not killed.


Relation to the domestic dog

Much debate has occurred over the relationship between the wolf and the domestic
dog. Most authorities see the wolf as the dog's direct ancestor, but others have postulated descent from the Golden Jackal. Because the canids have evolved recently and different canids interbreed fairly readily, untangling the true relationships has presented difficulties. However, molecular systematics now indicate very strongly that domestic dogs and wolves are more closely related than either is to any other canid, and the domestic dog is now normally classified as a subspecies of the wolf, Canis lupus familiaris.

Classification of the grey wolf

The classification of wolves and closely allied creatures offers many challenges. Although taxonomists have proposed many species over the years, most types clearly do not comprise true species. Indeed, only a single wolf species may exist. Scientists have proposed a host of subspecies. Many of these seem unlikely to stand. Further taxonomic clarification may well take decades.

Human Attitudes towards Wolves

The relationship between people and wolves has had a long and troubled history. Historically, humans have often viewed wolves as a danger or as nuisance to be destroyed. An opposing view suggests that wolves form a valuable part of the ecosystem and require protection. Often these views occur simultaneously and cause conflicts among differing groups of people, as one sees when a wildlife service or organization attempts to preserve vanishing wolves or to reintroduce wolves to a habitat.

Changing attitudes

In the late 20th century an increased awareness of the beneficial nature of wolves arose, encouraged by books like Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat and nature documentaries as well as by classification of the species as endangered. Accordingly, while the stereotype of wolves still has influence, a significant portion of the public has gained a positive opinion of wolves as interesting, valuable and even noble animals. Thus parks with a visible wolf population have often become popular tourist attractions. For instance, visitors to Yellowstone National Park can often see wolves from the roads.

Such organizations as the International Wolf Center attempt to educate people about the true nature of wolves, such action being helpful to the reintroduction process, especially in places such as Yellowstone National Park.

In other parks, tourists often participate in wolf howls, trying to make wolf-like howls in hopes that the resident wolves will answer. In fact, some nature-lovers have complained that this popularity has drawbacks since tourists sometimes intrude into wolf habitats and disturb them.

The large amount of research done on the wolf in the past half century has also helped to educate people and make them realize how sociologically similar humans are to wolves, and how we really have nothing to fear from these shy, majestic animals. Biologists such as L David Mech and Luigi Boitani have been major leaders in wolf research.

Nature documentaries have played a role changing attitudes. For instance, the film evidence of the wolf being a very social animal who is also a devoted parent to its young enlightened and charmed many viewers to a softer side to the feared predator.


In the United States wolves are making a comeback; not only are they slowly but surely coming back autonomously from the north, they are also being successfully reintroduced like in Wyoming. It is curious to note that farmers prefer reintroduction as this often allows for culling when livestock are imperiled while truly wild animals are protected by law.

Where wolves are reintroduced after a long absence, it has a marked influence on the coyote population. As they started to fill in the niche of the top predator, they started to grow bigger. With the return of the wolf these bigger coyotes are hunted down by wolves and go back to their previous niche.

In Sweden there is a long and ongoing conflict where some groups claim that the wolf has no place in the nature and that it has been secretly introduced by the government with some kind of secret agenda.

Wolves in folklore

In many ancient myths, the wolf was portrayed as brave, honourable, and intelligent. The best examples of these myths can be seen in those of the Native Americans.

In more modern western folklore, the wolf is a creature to be feared. The iconic examples of this image are the werewolf and the Big Bad Wolf. In Norse mythology, Fenris (Fenrir, Fenrisúlfr) is a giant wolf beast that is feared by the gods: he is the eldest child of Loki and the giantess Angrboda, and a prophecy stated that one day Fenrir would be responsible for the destruction of the world. For more info about Fenris, see: [1]

Human fear of the wolf is responsible for most of the trouble the species has received, and the reason it was nearly hunted out of existence. However, in the 20th century, with the new knowledge of wolves and the growing respect for Native American folklore, the animal has been generally depicted much more positively.

Despite their often negative image, wolves have variously been credited, in mythology, fiction and reality, with adopting, nursing and raising human Feral children. The most famous examples being Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, and Mowgli of The Jungle Book.

Wolf hunting

Wolves are hunted for the pelt and to control the numbers. Previously anything was used to kill wolves, including large amount of poisons. Some of the more diabolic creations of mankind have been used to kill wolves during the extermination campaigns in Europe and America. Today most of the hunting is done on the ground or from helicopters, either with shotguns or rifles. Hunting from airplanes or helicopters is usually only legal for state officials. Wolves are considered hard to hunt, and can go far after being shot.


Wolves are frequently trapped, in the areas where it is legal, using snares or leg hold traps. The economic value of wolf pelts is limited, so it is mainly a recreation activity. Wolf trapping has come under heavy fire from animal rights groups and is used to attack other form of trapping and hunting. Trapping, using the right tools and equipment, can probably be considered as humane as hunting. However, unskilled trappers can create a lot of pointless suffering.


Wolves are farmed in a few locations. They are rather problematic animals to farm, and combined with the low value of the pelt it has driven most of the farms to change to other animals, such as fox.

Subspecies of the wolf



courtesy of the
International Wolf Center

See also