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Wolf Info
Gray Wolf

Class:
Mammalia

Order:
Carnivora

Family:
Canidae

Genus and Species:
Canis lupus


Description: Gray wolves are the largest of the canine, or dog family. Gray wolves generally weigh between 60 and 110 pounds, with the females slightly smaller than the males. Their average body length is 5 ½ feet from the tip of their nose to the tip of the tail, and they reach 26 to 32 inches high at the shoulder. There is a wide range of coat colors which may vary geographically. A typical gray wolf's coat is gray mixed with tan, yellow, brown, and black markings, but , some wolves may vary from solid black to buff white. Wolves have a blocky muzzle and snout and smallish, round ears. When wolves are walking or running, they often hold their tails straight out.

Range and Habitat: At one time, gray wolves were among the widest-ranging land mammal, found on every continent except for Antarctica and Australia. Red wolves, another species of wolf, were historically found in much of the southeastern United States and are currently found only in North Carolina. In North America, gray wolves are currently found throughout Alaska and Canada, and in a few areas in the lower 48 United States. Wolf populations exist in the Western Great Lakes states of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, the Rocky Mountain states of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming and a few remote areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Wolves are extremely adaptable, living from arctic tundra to mountains and grassy plains. They are able to survive almost any climate or terrain where sufficient food is available. Basically, wolves can survive where there is enough prey for them to eat and where humans will tolerate them.

Image of a Gray Wolf
Behavior and Communication: The wolf pack is one of nature's most sophisticated social orders, as well as one of the most intensively studied. A wolf pack is usually a family group of five to eight animals, usually consisting of a pair of breeding adults and their young of 1 or 2 years old. The breeding pair is likely to be the oldest, largest, and strongest wolves in the pack. They are known as the dominant wolves and are usually the only members of the pack to produce pups. Any wolf can become dominant. To do so, it must find an unoccupied territory and a member of the opposite sex with which to mate. Or, more rarely, it moves into a pack with a missing dominant wolf and take its place, or perhaps kills the dominant wolf and usurps its mate.

Wolves use body language to convey the rules of the pack and rule number one says that the pack is made up of leaders and followers. The dominant male and female are in charge of the pack. To communicate dominance, they carry their tails high and stand tall. Less dominant wolves exhibit submissive behavior by holding their tails down and often lower their bodies while pawing at the higher-ranking wolves. The pack has a complex social hierarchy maintained through a variety of vocalizations, body postures, and scent marking.

Wolves have keen senses of sight, hearing, and smell and can travel at approximately 5 miles per hour for long periods of time while hunting or traveling within their territory. A wolf pack may spend 8 - 10 hours a day on the move and may cover 40 miles a day during winter hunts. Wolves can reach a top speed of about 40 miles per hour for short periods of time.

Diet: Wolves evolved as a predator of large hoofed mammals. A tightly organized social structure enables them to work cooperatively to bring down prey that are much larger than themselves. They are opportunistic and usually kill what is easiest to catch such as the weak, sick, injured, old, and very young. Wolves also scavenge carrion, and take healthy, strong animals when possible. Living in a "feast or famine" world, wolves often go several days without successfully making a kill, but can gorge themselves and sometimes consume 20 pounds when a hunt has been successful.

In the wild in North America, gray wolves prey primarily on large, hoofed mammals such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, elk, caribou, bison, Dall sheep, musk oxen, and mountain goat. Medium-sized mammals, such as beaver and snowshoe hare, can be a important secondary food sources. Occasionally wolves prey on birds or small mammals.

Breeding and Maturation: The pack's social structure generally determines which wolves breed, usually only the dominant wolves or breeding pair mate and produce a single litter of pups. However when prey in winter is abundant, a wolf pack may occasionally have multiple litters born that spring. In northern climates such as Minnesota, the mating season is usually early January through late February, with a litter of 4 to 6 pups born 63 days later in a den. A den may be located in a rock crevice or a hole dug by the parents or even a tree stump. The pups are born deaf and blind, but can hear within a 12 to 14 days. After 3 to 6 weeks, the pups usually leave the den and begin to investigate their surroundings, staying close to the safety of the den. As the pups mature, the pack moves to a more open area or "rendezvous site" within their territory. By fall the pups are large enough to travel and hunt with the pack. Wolves generally reach adult size by six to eight months of age and are usually sexually mature by 22 months.

Miscellaneous: The natural causes of wolf mortality are primarily starvation, which kills mostly pups, and death from other wolves due to territorial disputes. Diseases such as mange and canine parvovirus can be a concern in small and recovering populations. Injuries caused by prey also result in some deaths. Human-caused mortality including legal, illegal, and accidental causes can be high in some populations. Pup mortality rates are highly variable, but 40 to 60% of wolf pups die each year. Few wolves live longer than 4 or 5 years in the wild; in zoos, they may live for 12 to 14 years. The maximum longevity for a wolf in the wild may be up to 13 years and in zoos wolves have lived to be 18 years old.

For more information about gray wolves, please visit the International Wolf Center: www.wolf.org


Where to see a Gray Wolf in the U.S.


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