Gray wolf

Canis lupus

TAXONOMY

Canis lupus Linnaeus, 1758, Sweden. Twenty-six races are recognized. The largest races live exclusively on large ungulates while the smallest are from the desert regions. Two genetically distinct stocks appear to occur in North America, with wolves in the western part of the continent perhaps representing a separate colonization from Eurasia.

OTHER COMMON NAMES

English: Timber wolf; French: Loup; German: Wolf; Spanish: Lobo.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

The gray wolf is the largest of the canids with males weighing up to 132.3 lb (60 kg) while females are typically 10-15% smaller than males. Shoulder height is from 26.0-31.9 in (66-81 cm). In the small desert wolves, e.g. the Mexican wolf, males weigh 66 lb (30 kg) or less. Coat color is typically an agouti brown but can vary from pure white (in the Arctic) to black, and shades of rusty color. The belly and chest is white; the fur is long with a bushy tail. The skull and teeth are large, but are less specialized for eating flesh than those of the dhole and the African wild dog.

DISTRIBUTION

Wolves occur where suitable densities of prey, usually ungulates, can provide food. This includes Arctic ice flows and the Sinai desert and all habitats in between.

HABITAT

The species used to inhabit the whole of North America, south to central Mexico. It also lived throughout Eurasia including the Sinai peninsula, but excluding the southern third of India and the southern portions of Southeast Asia. It has been exterminated from most of the U.S. except for a population in northern Minnesota, and a newly expanding population in the northern Rockies. A few Mexican wolves have been reintroduced to New Mexico in the United States. Wolves were wiped out in most of western Europe by 1750. Three small populations remain in the Iberian peninsula, the Apennines in Italy and south central Norway. Wolves have also been eliminated from the eastern two-thirds of China.

BEHAVIOR

Most wolves live in small social groups of two to six individuals, sometimes with pups. Packs are thought to consist of related individuals and females typically join males that have an established territory. However, many wolves such as those living in less productive areas are only seen solitarily or in pairs and packs themselves are fluid. Groups may split in the summer while individual pairs breed and then come back together

■ Canis lupus H Canis simensis H Chrysocyon brachyurus into larger groups in the winter. The size of the pack seems to be related to the size of the prey killed. A large group can obtain a meal from a large carcass. Little is known about the social behavior of wild wolves. However, information from many captive packs reveals a rather dictatorial society in which the alpha male exerts his authority by clasping the muzzle of the subordinates in his mouth. The other wolves show elaborate active submission rubbing their mouths against his head and licking his muzzle in a gesture derived from infantile begging. Alpha males have been seen to pick up a bone, with no food left on it, and drop it among the subordinates as a gesture of their dependence on his food provisioning.

FEEDING ECOLOGY AND DIET

Ungulates from 44.1-220.5 lb (20-100 kg) form the core of the wolf's diet. However prey up to the size of a moose (1543 lb; 700 kg) and as small as a mouse are included. Members of the deer family are the most common prey from the caribou of northern latitudes to the mule deer of the SW United States. Beavers are commonly killed in North America. Italian wolves raid human trash and some predation on livestock has been reported. There are no authenticated reports of wolves killing humans in North America, and no recent reports from Europe. Poor people in Europe and northern Asia may have been attacked by wolves in the past and there are a few reports of infants being taken by wolves in India.

REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY

Monogamous. Packs or pairs breed annually with young born from March-July depending on latitude. Gestation is 61-63 days and young are born blind in an underground den. The mother nurses her young and licks them to stimulate defecation and urination which she consumes so as to keep the den clean. Eyes open at about 14 days and young crawl to the surface a few days later. All members of the pack feed the pups with regurgitated food, and may carry some food items back to the den. The pups spend an increasing amount of time out of the den usually playing. As the pups become more mobile, adults may become less tolerant of their sharp teeth and frequently lunge at the pups to keep them at bay, but without inflicting any serious bites. By three months, the pups are starting to follow the pack, and will leave the area of the natal den. However, they usually cannot keep up with the hunts and are left alone or with a babysitter. The young are not fully mature until about two years old.

CONSERVATION STATUS

As indicated above, the wolf has been exterminated from a considerable portion of its range. It is a very rare animal in the United States (outside Alaska) and is listed as endangered in the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Recovery efforts have included protection and habitat acquisition in Minnesota, captive breeding and reintroduction of the Mexican wolf and reintroduction in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Wolves, without help from humans, have recolonized parts of the northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana. The remnant populations in Europe are being managed. The wolf does not survive in areas of settled agriculture but in the wilder parts of its immense range, it appears to exist in low numbers despite human persecution and some trapping for its fur. The gray wolf is not listed as a threatened species globally by the IUCN.

SIGNIFICANCE TO HUMANS

Wolves have been a potent force in human culture both economically and culturally. Wolves are still hunted through much of eastern Asia where people still herd their sheep and goats for a living. In Alaska they were killed using helicopters be cause they were blamed for depressing the caribou herds hunted by sportsmen. For people living a long way from wolves, the species and its howl represents the essence of wild-ness and it is a mark of machismo to own the dangerous and semi-wild wolves and wolf hybrids. ♦

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