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Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) also called the timber wolf, is the largest of about 41 wild species within the dog family, Canidae, of the order Carnivora.

Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf

The largest wild members of the dog family, gray wolves generally have grizzled coats, with gray, black, and light brown fur covering their head and upper body, and yellowish white fur on the legs and belly. Some subspecies not Mexican wolves have pure white or black coats. Thick winter undercoats give them the appearance of added bulk; when they shed in the spring, they look thin. They have bushy tails, legs longer than coyotes’ and dogs’ legs, and oversized paws.

Gray wolves’ head and body length is 40 to 58 inches (1 to 1.5 meters), plus a tail 13 to 20 inches long . Their weight varies greatly by subspecies, ranging from 40 to 175 pounds (18 to 79 kg), with an average between 60 to 100 pounds (27 to 45 kg).

Gray Wolves are carnivores and they hunt individually, in packs, or by stealing the prey of other predators. They are also known to scavenge on carrion. They eat mostly ungulates (large hoofed mammals) like elk, deer, caribou and moose, and their diet depends on the availability and vulnerability of this prey in their area. They also eat beavers, rabbits and other smaller mammals. Lone wolves will usually hunt smaller animals, and packs will take down larger prey. Scavenging supplements their diet, especially during denning and pack activities. Wolves will make full use of the carcass, including hair and bones, and can eat up to 19.8 pounds of meat in one feeding. On a zoo diet, the wolves are fed dog kibble and meat.

Gray Wolf pups

Gray Wolf Pups

During late spring, summer, and early autumn, gray wolves tend to be active at dusk and during the night, returning to their dens near sunrise. If pups are present they may be active during daylight hours. During colder months wolves tend to be active throughout the day and night. Gray wolves are usually highly social animals, and travel in packs. The packs usually number five to eight members, but packs up to 36 animals are recorded.

These large groups are probably temporary associations of several packs. Most packs include a breeding pair and their offspring, as well as a variable number of other subordinate breeding adults. Dens are usually dug in sandy soil in elevated areas, such as hillsides or ridges, near water. The den is typically 1.5-4 meters long, ends in an enlarged chamber, and may have several entrances. Gray wolves may dig their own dens or enlarge ones made by foxes, coyotes, or badgers. Frequently, several dens are prepared throughout the pack’s territory and the pups are moved from one to another as they develop.

Life Cycle: The gray wolf mates for life and lives in packs which can vary in size from 2 to over 15, but are usually from 4 to 7 wolves. The leader of the pack is normally the strongest male, who often determines when and where the pack will hunt, as well as other activities of the pack. Wolfpacks are formed primarily of family members and relatives.

Their territories may cover from 100 to 260 sq. mi, depending on the abundance of food and water. Territories may also overlap, although wolfpacks very seldom confront one another. Some wolves leave their packs to become lone wolves. Loners may start their own packs if a mate and a vacant area can be found.

Gray wolves

Gray Wolves

Breeding season can vary from January in low latitudes to April in high latitudes. A wolfpack will alternate between a stationary phase from spring through summer and a nomadic phase in autumn and winter. The stationary phase involves caring for pups at a den or homesite. During summer, most movements are toward or away from the pups, and adults often travel and hunt alone.

By autumn, pups are capable of traveling extensively with the adults, so until the next whelping season the pack usually roams as a unit throughout its territory in search of prey. Though often only the highest ranking male and female in a pack will breed, all members of the pack are involved in raising the young. Mortality factors affecting wolves include persecution by humans, killing by other wolves, diseases, parasites, starvation, and injuries by prey. Most wolves probably live less than 10 years in the wild.

Adaptations: The gray wolf is an excellent runner and its body and limbs are well adapted for this purpose. Wolves are digitigrades, so when they walk only their toes touch the ground. The front foot has 5 toes; the first toe is rudimentary and does not touch the ground, while the hind foot has 4 toes. Their canine teeth are also perfect for puncturing and slashing flesh, picking meat off of bones, and their premolars and rear molars are capable of crushing bones.

The wolf’s large, simple stomach is also better adapted to storing food than quick digestion. It allows wolves to eat up to 20 pounds in one feeding period to take advantage of unpredictable prey availability. The food is digested mainly in the small intestine, and digests all except hair and bones of prey. Wolves can also fast for up to two weeks while looking for prey: can you imagine doing something like that

Gray Wolf

Gray Wolf

Conservation: Wolves play an important role in ecosystem functioning by controlling natural prey populations. As human settlement increased in the U.S., however, wolves were seen as a threat to livestock and were hunted to extirpation (local extinction) in much of the United States. Today, there are only 2,600 gray wolves in the U.S., 2,000 of which live in Minnesota. However, the main cause of recent population decline is habitat destruction by humans.

There have been many programs to reintroduce wolves into protected land and this has greatly increased their chance for survival in North America. In Canada and Alaska, the wolf population has remained stable. Canada has 50,000 wolves handled by provincial governments, and Alaska has between 6,000 and 8,000. In Western Europe, populations have been mostly eradicated, with isolated populations surviving in Poland, Russia, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

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