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Timber wolf. The timber wolf lives in forests of northern Asia, Europe, and North America. Most timber wolves have fur that is brown or gray or a mixture of those colors, but some have jet black coats. Leonard Lee Rue III, Keystone.Wolf is one of the largest members of the dog family. Wolves are expert hunters and prey chiefly on large hoofed animals, such as caribou, deer, elk, and moose. Many people fear wolves. They believe wolves attack human beings, and the animal's eerie howl frightens them. But wolves avoid people as much as possible.

Almost all wolves belong to a species called the gray wolf. There are two chief types of gray wolves, the timber wolf and the tundra wolf. The timber wolf lives in wooded, subarctic regions. The tundra wolf, also called the Arctic wolf or white wolf, makes its home on the treeless plains of the Arctic. Some zoologists believe that there is a separate species of wolf called the red wolf. This animal once lived throughout the Southern States. Today, however, only a few hundred red wolves remain, most of them in captivity.

Wolves can live in almost any climate, though they are seldom found in deserts or tropical forests. In ancient times, they roamed throughout the northern half of the world. But wherever large numbers of people settled, they destroyed wolves. As a result, wolves have disappeared from many areas. Today, most wolves live in sparsely populated northern regions, such as Alaska, Minnesota, Canada, China, and Russia. Small numbers of wolves still inhabit wilderness areas of Greece, India, Mexico, Spain, and other countries.

The body of a wolf

Wolves look much like large German shepherd dogs. But a wolf has longer legs, bigger feet, a wider head, and a long bushy tail. Most adult male wolves weigh from 75 to 120 pounds (34 to 54 kilograms). They measure from 5 to 61/2 feet (1.5 to 2 meters) long, including the tail, and are about 21/2 feet (76 centimeters) tall at the shoulder. Female wolves are smaller than the males.

The fur of a wolf varies in color from pure white on the Arctic plains to jet black in the subarctic forests. Most wolves have gray fur. Wolves of the northern and Arctic regions grow long, thick winter coats that protect them from the bitter cold.

A wolf has excellent vision, a keen sense of smell, and fine hearing. These three senses help the animal locate prey. A wolf can see and smell a deer more than a mile (1.6 kilometers) away.

A wolf has 42 teeth, including four fangs at the front of the mouth that are used to wound, grab, and kill prey. The fangs may measure up to 2 inches (5 centimeters) long from root to tip. The small front teeth are used to nibble and pull at skin. The sharp side teeth cut easily through tough muscle. The flat back teeth crush thick bone so it can be swallowed.

The wolf has a large stomach and can eat as much as 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of food at one time. However, a wolf can go without food for two weeks or longer.

The life of a wolf

Wolves live in family groups called packs. Most packs have about 8 members, but some may have more than 20. Zoologists believe the members of a pack remain together because they have strong affection for one another. Some wolves leave the pack and become lone wolves. A lone wolf travels alone until it finds a mate. These two may have pups and form their own pack.

Habits. Each wolf pack has a social order called a dominance hierarchy. Every member of the pack has a certain rank in the hierarchy. High-ranking members, called dominant wolves, dominate low-ranking members, known as subordinate wolves. A dominant wolf and a subordinate wolf show their rank almost every time they meet. The dominant wolf stands erect, holds its tail aloft, and points its ears up and forward. It may show its teeth and growl. The subordinate wolf crouches, holds its tail between its legs, and turns down its ears. It may also whine.

A pack lives within a specific area called a territory. Studies indicate that the size of the territory depends mainly on the availability of prey. If prey is scarce, the territory may cover as much as 800 square miles (2,100 square kilometers). If prey is plentiful, the area may be as small as 30 square miles (78 kilometers).

Wolves claim a territory by marking it with their scent. The leader of the pack urinates on rocks, trees, and other objects along the boundaries of the area. Other wolves then know where the territory is located. A pack does not allow other wolves to hunt in its territory. If wolves from another pack trespass, they may be attacked.

Young. Wolves mate during the winter. The female carries her young inside her body for about 63 days. She then gives birth to 1 to 11 pups in a sheltered area called a den. The den may be in a cave, a hollow log, an abandoned beaver lodge, or underground.

Wolf pups weigh about 1 pound (0.5 kilogram) at birth and are blind, deaf, and helpless. At first, they live on only the mother's milk. When they are about 3 weeks old, they begin to eat meat and to leave the den for short periods. Adult wolves provide the pups with meat. An adult eats much meat after killing an animal. To get some of this meat, the pups lick the mouth of the adult wolf. The adult coughs up the meat, and the pups eat it.

Wolf pups leave the den permanently when they are about 2 months old. The pups move to an unsheltered area that is called a rendezvous site, and they remain there during the summer while the adults hunt and bring back food. In the fall, the quickly growing pups and the adults begin to hunt together as a pack.

How wolves hunt. Wolves eat almost any animal they can catch. Many of the animals they hunt, such as caribou and elk, are faster and stronger than wolves. Therefore, wolves must be quick, tireless, and clever to catch them.

Wolves hunt at any time of the day or night. When the members of a pack gather to begin a hunt, they greet each other with howls. Their howling may become very loud, and it warns other wolves to stay out of the pack's territory.

Wolves roam through their territory until they find prey. They then choose a particular animal and move in on it by traveling toward it in the direction opposite that from which the wind is blowing. This method prevents the animal from smelling the wolves. The wolves quietly inch closer to their prey, perhaps in single file. Then they break into a run, and the chase begins.

Wolves hunt and chase many more animals than they can catch. If wolves can catch their prey, they attack the rump or sides of the animal. They try to wound the animal and make it bleed until it weakens. Then they grab the victim by the throat or snout. Wolves can usually kill a large animal in only a few minutes. But the entire hunt may take several hours. The wolves may give up the chase if the animal is very strong, such as a healthy moose. They also may abandon the hunt if the animal is exceptionally fast.

Sick, injured, or aged animals that lag behind their herds make easy targets for wolves. The wolf helps strengthen the herds of its prey by killing such animals. An old or unhealthy animal can be a burden to its herd. For example, an aged caribou eats food that other caribou need to raise their young. A sick elk may infect other members of the herd. By eliminating such animals, wolves perform an important natural function.

Wolves and people

Many people despise the wolf because it kills other animals. Wolves provoke farmers and ranchers by destroying sheep, cows, and other livestock. Many hunters dislike the wolf because it kills game animals, such as elk and deer. These hunters mistakenly think that wolves wipe out game in certain areas.

Folklore also has contributed to the wolf's bad reputation. In many old sayings, the animal is a symbol of badness or evil. For example, "to keep the wolf from the door" means to prevent hunger or poverty. "A wolf in sheep's clothing" describes a person who acts friendly but has evil intentions. Fables and other folk tales pass on the misleading notion that wolves attack people. In the story of Little Red Riding Hood, a wolf threatens to eat a little girl.

Hatred and fear of wolves have led people to destroy large numbers of them. In the United States, organized hunts have killed thousands of wolves. Bounties (rewards) have been offered for their pelts.

The United States government has classified the gray wolf as an endangered species in every state except Alaska and Minnesota. This wolf is a threatened species in Minnesota. The red wolf is classified as endangered in all the Southern States. Gray wolves have been reintroduced into the wild in Wyoming and Utah, where they once roamed in great numbers. Red wolves have been reintroduced into the wild in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Scientific classification. Scientific classification . Wolves belong to the family Canidae. The scientific name for the gray wolf is Canis lupus. The red wolf is C. rufus.

Contributor: L. David Mech, Ph.D., Wildlife Research Biologist, U.S. National Biological Survey.

Additional resources

Busch, Robert H. The Wolf Almanac. Lyons & Burford, 1995.

McIntyre, Rick. A Society of Wolves: National Parks and the Battle over the Wolf. Voyageur Pr., 1993.

Simon, Seymour. Wolves. HarperCollins, 1993. Younger readers.

Steinhart, Peter. The Company of Wolves. Knopf, 1995.

FEBRUARY, 27, 2003



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