Gray Wolf – Everything You Need To Know


I hear gray wolves howling around my house a lot and wanted to study them to understand them better. The wolf has always been a tradition in America forever.

In some Native American tribes, the wolf was known as a spirit animal to many people, Some tribes such as the Quileute and the Kwakiutl tell stories of their first ancestors transformed from wolves into men.

The wolf is a highly intelligent, social creature. They can run fast, work in packs to take down large prey, and have a very complex social structure.

If you want to know more about the wolf, then I am sure you will learn a thing or two with the research I have done.

Etymology

The word wolf comes from one of the most common Anglo-Saxon names, Wulf. Surnames like Lovett, Lovel, and Lowell, are derived either from Anglo-Norman nicknames such as wolf cub or son of a wolf. The name is prevalent, with the Louvre museum once called Lupara, as the owner intended it to be a wolf kennel. The word Lupara is derived from Lupus, meaning wolf.

What is a Male Wolf Called?

A male wolf is simply called “male wolf”. Unlike most mammals, they do not have a specific name or term to distinguish them. A male wolf that is breeding is called a stud or brute. The male canines can be called “sire” if breeding.

What is a Female Wolf Called?

Again, a female wolf does not have a specific term to name them. Female canines are generally called a bitch.

What Other Names are There for Wolves?

Wolves can be known by their place in the wolf pack. They can be alpha, beta, gamma, omega, stud, brute, pup, juvenile, adolescent, or adults.

Range

Which U.S. States Have Wolves?

Wolves can be found in Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. They can also be found throughout Canada.

Where Do Wolves Live in Canada?

Wolves can be found in the provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Labrador, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and the Yukon.

Distribution

The distribution of the wolf is spread across the regions of North America. There a lot of places where wolves used to roam, but are no longer found.

The population of wolves in the United States and Canada is as follows:

Which State has the most Wolves?

Alaska has a larger population of wolves than any other state in the country. Behind Alaska, Minnesota has the second-highest population of wolves.

Seasonal Distribution

  • Spring: The winter can reach subzero temperatures during the night, and even sometimes during the day. In Yellowstone National Park, the average winter temperatures are between zero and 20 degrees Fahrenheit at higher elevations.
  • Summer: Summer can be extremely beneficial for the wolves, with New Mexico and Arizona reaching temperatures up to 92 degrees. These warmer temperatures allow for an increase in animals such as white-tailed deer which are great prey for the wolves in the region. In colder climates like Alaska, the wolves experience temperatures up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit but dropping to the 40s during the night.
  • Fall: Fall is the ideal time for the wolves to start putting on weight and fat reserves for the winter. With temperatures of 60 degrees throughout their range, the wolves are free to hunt throughout most of the day and night.
  • Winter: Winter can be harsh for the wolf with temperatures in Alaska reaching -50 degrees. The wolves must have enough fat reserves from the previous seasons to be able to last in the cold freezing conditions.

In other parts of the country where it doesn’t get as cold, wolves will still conserve energy where possible. This can include using tracks that have already been made, with the alpha at the front and the wolves following a single file behind.

Habitat

The wolf is very special in that it has adapted to most habitats including icy tundra, forests, grasslands, and even deserts.

Arctic wolves in Alaska and Canada live in freezing conditions, down to -40 degrees, whereas the Mexican wolf can live in the Southwest in a habitat of desert and brush.

Their habitat has to include a broad area that can supply them with large populations of animals to feed on. The habitat must also include protection from persecution by humans, and areas that are suitable for taking shelter and for digging dens for their pups.

Wolves prefer to stay in forested regions, but only as long as the habitat suits their purpose. They have adapted to most conditions and can live comfortably in most.

Populations

How Many Wolves are in the United States?

The total number of wolves residing in North America is approximately 20,000. Of these, 12000 live in Alaska, with the remaining wolves being spread between eight other states.

How Many Wolves are in Canada?

Approximately 50,000 wolves are residing in Canada. The subspecies living here are the eastern wolf, northwestern wolf, and the arctic wolf.

Species

There are only one species of wolf throughout North America. This is the gray wolf (Canis lupus).

The only other species of wolf in the world is the red wolf (Canis lupus rufus). The red wolf is a genetic mixture of the gray wolf and the coyote.

Subspecies

There are five subspecies of the gray wolf currently living in North America. The table below shows these and where they can be found.

For more information on the subspecies of wolves that live in North America, I have written a complete article here.

Behavior

What is the Behavior of a Wolf?

Wolves live in packs and are very social animals. Wolves are led by an alpha male and alpha female. The alphas will decide when it is time to move and when it is time to hunt.

Only the alpha male and female mate, with other wolves looking after the offspring. Mating occurs between January and March. The young will typically leave at the age of two or three and will look for a new pack.

The average home range of a wolf in the Rocky Mountains is approximately 104 km (65 miles). This differs wildly from the wolves in Alaska and Canada which have a home range between 485 km (300 miles) and 1600 km (1000 miles). The average home range of the wolf in Alaska is approximately 950 km (600 miles).

Wolves spend a lot of their time traveling. With their territories being so vast, wolves spend almost a third of their day traveling. If the prey is low in their area and they are hungry, they may travel up to 160 km (100 miles) in one day but will average 30 – 50 km (20 – 30 miles) per day.

Wolves will communicate with each other using howls, barks, and yips. The communication is used to warn their pack of predators, to inform other wolves to stay out of their territory, and to signal to other members their location.

Wolves will use dens to give birth to their young. The young can not travel when first born and will spend their first three to four weeks in the den.

Dens are usually dug into south-facing slopes to avoid the wind and cold. Wolves typically try to have some protection at the entrance, such as a boulder, hollow logs, or tree roots.

Wolves do not bring any bedding into the den, although the bones of past prey may litter the den.

Dens are approximately 20 inches high, 40 inches deep, and 50 inches wide, with the entrance tunnel as long as 18 feet.

If you wanted more information on how wolves communicate, I have written a complete article here.

How long and how far can a wolf run?

Wolves are excellent hunters and have the speed to take down their prey such as white-tailed deer. Wolves can run at speeds up to 70 km/h but only in short bursts while chasing prey.

Although these distances of sprinting are usually quite short, the wolf’s endurance allows them to pursue prey for long distances at a slower pace. Their long, muscular legs aid the wolf to sprint.

In addition to their sprinting speed, wolves can travel for long distances at a slower pace. Wolves will trot at a pace of 8 km/h and can keep this pace for a considerable time.

How Long do Wolves Live?

Wolves live between six and eight years in the wild, but this depends on several factors. Members of the canid family, it is thought that wolves would be able to survive in captivity for the same length of time as dogs, up to 16 years.

However, in the wild, there are many pitfalls for the wolf. In captivity, they would enjoy regular veterinary care and food.

The biggest killer of wolves in the wild is starvation. Starvation kills a majority of pups before their first winter has ended. If they can survive the first winter and the next, then the pups have a good chance at survival.

It is estimated that with starvation, collisions, and other dangers in the wild, only 40-60 percent of pups will make it through the first couple of years.

Fatal injuries from collisions can hurt their chances of reaching their full potential as are fighting with other wolves due to the territory.

Their prey can often fight back, with moose and bison inflicting injuries with both antlers, claws, and hooves.

Anatomy

What is the Pelage of the Wolf?

The fur of a wolf can be many colors and will depend on the species of the wolf, with not all gray wolves being gray. They can range from black, brown, grey, ocher, cream, and various shades of blonde.

  • Arctic wolf – Arctic wolves coats are ideally suited to their environment, and give excellent camouflage. The arctic wolf is almost entirely white in winter, with yellow, grey, and black hair in places.
  • Northwestern wolf – The northwestern wolf is most commonly gray or black but can have a tan, white, gray, and sometimes almost look an icy blue.
  • Mexican wolf – The Mexican wolf has a mixture of fur colors, including gray, white, red, brown, and black.
  • Eastern wolf – The eastern wolf is generally gray or grayish brown, with a slight red color in some parts.
  • Great Plains wolf – The Great Plains wolf can have a reddish tint with gray or black being the primary color of the coat.

If you are unsure how to tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote, I have written an article you may find interesting. You can find the article

Fur

The wolf has two sets of fur; underfur and guard hairs. The guard hairs are long and help to conserve heat. Guard hairs can be between 60 to 100 mm long, and up to 150 mm on the mane. Wolves can function in temperatures down to -40 degrees.

The hair on the back of the wolf are darker than the rest and also longer. Wolves will start shedding their fur in late spring.

Paws

Wolves have five toes on their front feet, but only four on their hind feet. The front contains a dewclaw towards the body, with four toes pointing forward.

Stomach

Wolves can eat up to 9kg of food, which is the capacity of their stomachs. Wolves do not chew their food but swallow it after biting it into manageable sizes. Wolves will eat almost all of their prey, including the bones which they get the marrow from.

Jaws

The wolves have immensely powerful jaws with a pressure of 1,500 pounds per square inch. This is almost double what the crushing pressure of a German Shepherd, the closest looking dog would be.

Teeth

Wolves have twenty-two teeth. These teeth are approximately 1 inch long and are sharp, strong, and curved. The teeth allow them to grab their prey.

How Good Are A Wolf’s Senses?

Hearing

Wolves have an excellent sense of hearing. On the open tundra, wolves can hear sounds from up to 16 km (10 miles away), whereas in forested areas this reduces to 10 km (6 miles).

Smell

Wolves can detect the smell of prey up to 2.4 km, due to an extended rostrum providing a large olfactory organ. Wolves can smell a carcass up to 20 km away.

Wolves use their noses to locate other members of their pack. In the same way, they can also smell wolves from other packs and other predators in the area.

Sight

Wolves have a fantastic vision with their eyes located on the front of their heads. Although this gives them a disadvantage over their prey, which generally has a 300-degree view, they can quickly detect the slightest movement in front of them.

Taste

Wolves possess four of the taste categories that humans have. These are salty, bitter, sweet, and acidic.

Size

The wolf is the largest wild Canidae family member. Some dog breeds do grow much larger than the wolf.

Are Male Wolves Bigger Than Females?

As with a lot of mammals, the male is slightly bigger than the female. Both their size and weight are more significant than the females, with more mass to their bodies.

How Tall is a Wolf?

The size of a wolf depends on the subspecies and the location of the wolf. The average height for a male gray wolf is 32 inches at the shoulder with the female approximate 25 inches at shoulder height. This height is determined in the first two years of life, with not much height being added after this period.

Northwestern wolves are much larger than other subspecies of the gray wolf. The Northwestern wolf can reach up to 1 meter tall at shoulder height.

The Mexican wolf rarely gets past 81cm at shoulder height.

What Is the Length of a Wolf?

The length of wolves again depends on the location and the subspecies they represent. The length of the average male gray wolf is up to 6.5 feet from nose to end of the tail, whereas the female grows to approximately 6 feet in length.

How Big was the Largest Wolf?

Although no longer alive, the dire wolf was the largest. Dire wolves had a weight of 80 kg (174 lbs).

Their length was longer than gray wolves measuring 5 feet in length.

The largest wolf ever recorded was from Alberta. The wolf weighed in at a whopping 104.3 kg (230 lbs).

The Northwestern wolf is the largest in North America and can weigh up to 50 kg (110 lb). Their height at the shoulders can be up to 91.5 cm.

Weight

How Heavy is a Wolf?

Wolves vary in size greatly depending on their subspecies and location. Northwestern Wolves are much larger than the Mexican wolf.

Gray wolves, the only species in North America can weigh up to 130 pounds, with most wolves between 85 and 115 pounds.

Males weigh more than the females, with the females weighing up to 20 pounds less. The weight of a male adult wolf will be decided on the first two years of life, with minimal weight gain after that. Weight loss can be made, but generally from starvation.

How Heavy is a Wolf Pup?

Pups, when they are first born, are tiny and weigh in the region of a pound. The pup is fed milk from its mother. This happens for the first three to four weeks after birth. Adult wolves will help by regurgitating meat for the pups. The pups will lick the mouths of the adult to get to the regurgitated meat.

Weight and size are put on rapidly for the cubs as they begin exploring their surroundings at three weeks old. Once the wolf has reached six months, then they are almost the same size and weight as the adults.

Diet

Wolves are carnivores and will plenty of meat. This will include large hooved mammals such as moose, elk, bison, and different species of deer including white-tailed deer. They will also eat fish, birds, rodents, beavers.

Food

What is Wolfs Favorite Food?

As wolves are carnivores, meat is their primary food source. The favored diet of wolves is large hoofed mammals such as white-tailed deer, moose, buffalo, and goats.

These large ungulates are the perfect prey for the wolf as they can hunt them in groups, bringing down the much larger prey. The large animals are excellent for the wolves as they may not eat every day, gorging themselves when they get the chance to eat.

Swimming

Wolves have adapted well to the water and are not hesitant to wade or swim through stretches of water. Icy streams are no obstacle due to the wolves’ fur which keeps them from getting wet.

Wolves will often follow their prey into the water, either attacking them while still in the water or waiting until they have got out.

Wolves will also use the water as a way to drink, and importantly, they will also use it to cool down in the hot temperatures of summer.

A breed of wolf called sea wolves lives in British Columbia in Canada. With the sea full of sea lions, birds, salmon, and whales, the food sources are prosperous.

Sea wolves can swim for miles between the islands to feast on animal carcasses and other animals.

Communication

Wolves howl and bark to enhance their societal structure. The communication can indicate to other members of the same pack that they are to regroup or move.

The howls can also be used to signify to other members the exact location of the wolf. The howl can also be used to let other wolves in the area know that they are in enemy territory.

Reproduction

How Long are Wolves Pregnant?

Wolves are pregnant between 59 and 75 days before giving birth to their pups. Pups are born deaf and blind and weigh about one pound. Their eyes are closed until 12 – 15 days after they are born, and one week later start to walk. After three weeks in the den, the mother may let them outside of the den to explore.

Do Wolves Give Birth Every Year?

Wolves can give birth every year, once they have reached reproductive age. They typically begin breeding once they are two or three years old. The female will enter estrus every year after maturing. Wolves have a small litter once a year of three to six pups. Once the pups have reached two or three years old, they will move into other territories to try to mate.

Societal Structure

Wolves that are traveling on their own will also not howl, leading researchers to understand better the reason for the wolf’s communication.

Wolves that are alone can not take down large prey such as deer and moose. This changes their feeding habits to feed more on small animals such as rodents.

Do wolves have leaders?

Wolves have a rigorous societal structure, and they do have leaders to uphold the rules of conduct.

There are two pack leaders, a male, and a female. These are called the alpha male and alpha female. Alpha wolves are the only wolves in the pack that is allowed to breed and produce pups. Alpha wolves are the most dominant wolves in the pack and will keep strict watch over the group.

Why do wolves hunt in packs?

Wolves will hunt in packs to take down large animals such as deer, moose, or bison. Hunting in a pack allows them to hunt in a much safer and efficient manner against the large mammals.

Different packs of wolves will specialize in hunting certain prey. Some wolves may only prey on white-tailed deer, whereas others may prey on bison. This is generally down to their habitat and environment, but by doing this, they can learn the strengths and weaknesses of their prey.

Wolves hunting in packs may track a herd of large prey for a few days before attacking. They will assess the herd, looking for any weakness among them. Any sick, injured or weak animals will be selected by the alpha wolves to attack as these are easier, and will be less of a risk to any injured or sick wolves.

Wolves will use the conditions to their advantage. In the winter, they understand that hoofed mammals will get stuck in deep snow, whereas the wolves have padded, wide paws that act almost like a snowshoe on top of the ice or snow.

In the summer, the wolves will change their tactics. Wolves have been seen to run the herd of prey into dry riverbeds where they stumble on the stones.

Although the alpha wolves select the target for the wolf pack, this may change. If a different animal stumbles or injures itself, then the alpha wolves will communicate to the rest of the pack to turn their attention to that animal.

Why do wolves travel in packs?

Wolves travel in packs for a few reasons. As discussed, wolves can take down prey that is much larger than them by hunting together. A pack of wolves will attack an animal that is the same or less body mass than the wolf pack combined.

By traveling together, wolves can defend their territory against other wolves and predators.

Can wolves survive alone?

Wolves are social animals and live in packs. Wolves can be on their own when looking for a new pack at the age of two to three years old. Wolves that are on their own have some different characteristics from wolves in packs. Wolves in packs will mark their scent around, and at the edges of their territory, whereas lone wolves will not.

Aggression

Are gray wolves dangerous?

There have been two documented deaths from healthy wolves in North America. Although only two are recorded, there have been at least 30 other people killed by wolves.

There have also been a lot of wolf attacks that have caused severe injuries, but not death.

Predators

Wolves have very few predators in North America, but they do have some. The cougar has been known to attack lone wolves, but would not take on a pack.

Black and brown bears will sometimes attack and kill wolves and wolf pups. Bears have a highly sensitive nose and are thought to have one of the best senses of smell in the world. They can detect a carcass of an animal from as far as twenty miles away, and any intrusion into the wolves kill may cause the wolves to attack the bear.

Vocalization

Wolves will communicate using barks, howls, and yips. Each wolf has an individual style that is not used by any other wolf, allowing the pack to recognize them straight away.

It was once thought that wolves howled at the moon, as they howl with their faces pointed towards the sky. However, this is incorrect. Wolves will howl upwards as the acoustics will travel up to almost 16 km (10 miles) across the plains and tundra. In forested areas, the sound will move at a reduced distance of 10 km (6 miles).

Wolves bark at a frequency between 320 to 904 Hz and growl at a much lower 380 – 450 Hz. The howling lies between 150 and 780 cycles per second (Hz).

Howling can last for between 1 and 11 seconds in length and can range through 10 harmonic overtones. Although the pitch generally stays at a constant pitch, wolves have been known to change the pitch of their howl four or five times.

If you wanted more information on how wolves communicate, I have written a complete article here.

Travel

Wolves move around a lot, which they will generally do at night. The reason for this is that the night temperatures are cooler and this helps them retain energy.

If you would like more details about wolves, I have compiled 101 facts about them here.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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