The wolf is a carnivorous animal of the genus Canis, and consists of a single species, the gray or timber wolf (Canis lupus) of the northern hemisphere. Wolves are known for their intelligence, social structure, and hunting skills, yet despite being the primary ancestor of the domestic dog, the wolf has been the subject of persecution throughout history as a pest of livestock, a killer of humans, and the subject of evil in many tales of folklore, often without a basis in fact.
The word "wolf" has its origins with the Old English word wulf; which apparently came from Old High German. The words "rapacious", "ravenous", and "voracious" were associated with this animal since at least the 12th century if not earlier, and often used to describe the lustful desires of both men and women.
Several other canids are also known by the name "wolf". The red wolf (Canis rufus) of the southeastern United States continues to have some debate on whether or not it is a subspecies of the gray wolf or a distinct species in its own right. The coyote or prairie wolf (Canis latrans) of North America and the South American maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) bear the name as well but are not considered true wolves. Additionally, an extinct Australian marsupial, the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) has also been called the Tasmanian wolf due to its appearance.
Basically, the wolf resembles a large domestic dog, the body being longer compared to similarly constructed domestic dogs and the chest is higher, but narrower. Wolves are comparatively slim with long legs. The head is relatively large, with a broad forehead, a long muzzle, and short, upright ears pointing forward. The eyes set obliquely and are also oriented towards the front. The bushy tail has about a third of the head-trunk length.
The wolf stands about 3 feet at the shoulder, and is about 5 feet in length from nose to tail; its weight is between 70 and 120 pounds, with some specimens reaching 170 pounds. Females are slightly smaller than males, and wolves in higher latitudes are generally larger than those further south. The coat is bushy, generally grey in color, although some wolves have brown or red tinges. The abdomen, legs, and muzzle are usually much brighter. Northern populations show larger proportions of black and white animals. According to genetic investigations, the black fur color in wolves is based on a mutation which first appeared among domestic dogs and later penetrated the wolf population.
There have been as many as 37 declared subspecies of the gray wolf since Linnaeus published his classification system in 1758; they are still recognized as valid by many authorities. Mammalogists Ronald M. Nowak and Nick E. Federoff challenged this assertion and reduced the number considerably, basing their analysis on detailed skull comparisons.
- Canis lupus arctos, arctic wolf
- Canis lupus baileyi, Mexican wolf
- Canis lupus lycaon, eastern timber wolf
- Canis lupus nubilus, Great Plains wolf
- Canis lupus occidentalis, MacKenzie wolf
A paper published in 2000 suggested that the eastern timber wolf should be considered a distinct species (Canis lycaon); others consider it to be, along with the red wolf, a hybrid involving the coyote. A 2011 assessment by the US Fish and Wildlife service proposed only three North American wolf species: the gray wolf (C. lupus) the eastern wolf (C. lycaon), and the red wolf (C. rufus).
- Canis lupus albus, Tundra wolf
- Canis lupus arabs, Arabian wolf
- Canis lupus campestris, Steppe wolf
- Canis lupus chanco, Tibetan woolly, or Mongolian wolf
- Canis lupus hattai, Hokkaidō wolf (extinct)
- Canis lupus hodophilax, Japanese wolf (extinct)
- Canis lupus italicus, Italian wolf
- Canis lupus lupaster, African wolf
- Canis lupus lupus, Eurasian wolf
- Canis lupus pallipes, Indian wolf
- Canis lupus signatus, Iberian wolf
- Canis lupus dingo, Australian dingo
- Canis lupus familiaris, Domestic dog
Both of these subspecies were at one time considered full species in their own right. The dingo may have been brought by Sulawesi hunter/gathers to Australia some 4,000 years ago and have since gone feral, while the domestic dog is believed to have been bred from wolves in Europe.
Wolves live in a wide range of habitats, from arctic tundra to forest to prairie; they are absent from high mountain ranges above the tree line and deserts. Historically, the wolf ranged over much of the northern hemisphere, from central Mexico to the high arctic in North America, much of Europe, and much of Asia north of the Himalayas - one of the most widely ranged land mammals on earth. Human persecution has reduced this range considerably, but greater understanding of the wolf and the role it plays in the ecosystem led to protections in many countries, and hence an increase in wolf numbers.
The pack is the basic social unit for wolves, and it is the pack which takes up much of their lives. The pack consists of some eight to ten animals - sometimes as low as two, or as high as thirty-six - and at one time they were thought of as having a dominance hierarchy led by a pair of "alphas": the alpha male and alpha female. This belief stemmed from a paper published in 1947 by animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel; his studies during the 1930s-1940s at the Zoo Basel in Switzerland established the belief that wolves must fight for dominance within the pack, the winners crowned the "alphas".
Although Schenkel's observations marked the first serious attempt to study the wolf, the flaw was the fact his studies were conducted on captive wolves; none were studied in the wild. This notion of an "alpha"-dominance leadership was reinforced in a 1970 book The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species by L. David Mech; his further studies proved that the wolf pack is a family-unit, with the role of the alphas taken by the parents of the group. Assumptions previously made about fighting for dominance were replaced by adult wolves forcing their grown cubs out of the pack, where they form their own packs with other disassociated wolves.
Wolves use a great deal of recognizable body language, scent, and sounds to communicate with each other. The position of tails relative to their bodies, lowering and exposure of their necks, the bearing of teeth can indicate submission or dominance to one another. Territories are marked by urine or feces, and packs will defend them from others. Howling is done communally, as a means to assemble, communicate with others, or as a hunting call at dusk.
When the pack is on the hunt, prey generally consists of large mammals - deer, caribou, moose - and the pack will cooperate with one another to catch and kill their target, which usually consists of a weak, old, or young animal. They will also prey on smaller game, such as rodents or rabbits, and sometimes will scavenge carrion when no live prey is available.
Wolves are monogamous, and mate for life   . The parent wolves in the pack do the actual breeding, which occurs in the spring; the pups are born two months later. The average litter size is six, but sometimes more are born. The pups open their eyes after nine days, with a gradual weaning to regurgitated meat within a month. The pups stay within the den for their first six weeks, gradually coming out to explore and play at the end of that period; by their third month they learn to hunt, and are fully adult in eighteen months.
Wolves and people
Attempts were made in the 1930s and thereafter to eliminate these animals as pests in the United States, particularly in Yellowstone National Park, where it had been considered that stray wolves regularly fed upon livestock. By the time they were included in the Red Data Book in 1973, they were severely restricted in range throughout North America and Europe, and classified as an endangered species.
Currently, Alaska is the only state that permits control of wolf populations, due to the prolific reproduction rates in that isolated Arctic area. Under the current policy, it is legal to shoot wolves from low flying airplanes, due to the state's very limited roads. Wolves and bears are very effective and efficient predators of caribou, moose, deer and other wildlife. In most of Alaska, humans also rely on the same species for food. In Alaska's Interior, predators kill more than 80% of the moose and caribou that die during an average year, while humans kill less than 10 percent. Wolves are an important part of the ecosystem, and all Alaska Department of Fish and Game wolf management programs, including control programs, are designed to sustain wolf populations in the future. Currently (2009), five wolf control programs are underway that comprises about 9.4% of Alaska's total land area.
Perceptions of Wolves
To date there has been no known documented case of a healthy adult wolf killing a human being; normally, a pack of wolves are wary of man and tend to stay away. Despite this, wolves have been cast as the villain throughout history, with the European legends of the werewolf, the fairy tales of "The Three Pigs" and "Little Red Riding Hood" being a few examples. Other tales portray the wolf in a more favorable manner: the boy Mowgli being raised by a wolf in Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, and earlier, the twins Romulus and Remus saved and suckled by a she-wolf for many years before one of them founded the city of Rome.
Wolves in the Bible
and Isaiah prophesies the New Earth,
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock: and dust shall be the serpent's meat. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, saith the LORD. Isaiah 65:25 (KJV)
The wolf is the ancestor of the domestic dog; DNA tests on several dog breeds (Alaskan malamute, Siberian husky, samoyed, and others) considered the oldest known revealed that they contained strands of wolf DNA . Since even in the evolutionary view this is considered to have occurred in a relatively short time frame (as "little" as 15,000 years ago) this is one area where the views of Young earth creationists and evolutionists generally overlap.
- Never Cry Wolf - drama about a scientist who proved that wolves can live on rodents
- Coyote or Wolf?, Videos © 2008 Yellowstone Association
- Nowak, et al. pp. 187-203
- Wolf Trust; United Kingdom
- Wonderquest; Animals that mate for life
- The Wild Ones; Gray Wolf
- Wolf Control in Alaska; Alaska Dept. of Wildlife Conservation
- Overview of Relationships Between Bears, Wolves, and Moose in Alaska
- Nowak, Ronald M., and N. E. Federoff. 1996. "Systematics of wolves in eastern North America". Defenders of Wildlife, Wolves of America Conference Proceedings, Albany, NY.