Frequently Asked Questions
Welcome to the Wolf Pages of my website! I will be adding lots of information about wolves, and their biology, behavior, evolution, and conservation as I have time. For now, here are a few wolf basics and some links to sites with some excellent information.
Disclaimer: I’ve gleaned this information from several sources (listed at the end of these questions). Where researchers offer differing opinions on things like how far wolves travel or size of wolves and the like, I’ve either included a range or just averaged out the different estimates, depending entirely on my whim at the time.
Wolves are members of the scientific family Canidae, which also includes jackals, coyotes, foxes, dingoes, and, of course, the domestic dog. Although it isn’t known for certain where wolves came from, it’s believed that they evolved from an early canine that lived at the end of the Miocene, about 4.5 million years ago.
Wolves are highly intelligent, highly social carnivores that live in packs and hunt cooperatively. Depending on who you talk to, there are either two or three species of wolf. Everyone agrees on the gray wolf (Canis lupus) which is the one that you see most often in pictures and films, and the red wolf (Canis rufus) a smaller, tawny wolf that was extinct in the wild until reintroduced in North Carolina beginning in 1987. Then there’s the Simien wolf (Canis simensis, aka the Abyssinian or Ethiopian wolf or the Simien jackal) which may be a species of wolf, but probably isn’t. Other wolves that you hear about, like the timber wolf, the Arctic wolf, or the Mexican wolf, are actually considered subspecies of the gray wolf. The term “gray wolf” is a bit of a misnomer since gray wolves can be white, black, brown, or tan, as well as gray. Kaala and her pack most closely resemble today’s gray wolves.
Most of the information on this page is about gray wolves. To find out more about the endangered red wolf (there are now about 100 of them in the wild), visit Defenders of Wildlife’s Red Wolf page.
Teeth to tail, gray wolves are usually between 4.5 and 6.5 feet long and are about 26-32 inches tall at the shoulder. Males are usually larger than females. Gray wolf weight varies widely depending on where the wolves live and what they eat. Females weigh on average between 45 and 85 pounds, while males weigh on average between 70 and 110 pounds. However, gray wolves have weighed in at as little as 40 and as much as 130 pounds.
Red wolves are considerably smaller, weighing on average between 40 and 85 pounds.
Wolves’ preferred food is ungulates (large hoofed mammals like deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and bison). They will also eat smaller mammals like hares, rabbits, beavers, and rodents, and will sometimes catch and eat fish and small birds. Here’s an article and picture of a wolf catching a salmon in Alaska. The wolf is in the upper right hand corner, with a fish in its mouth. Wolves will eat plants and berries though not in great quantities.
Adult gray wolves need an average of about 2 ½ pounds of meat per day to survive. They can eat every day, or they can go for weeks without eating, and their digestive system is designed for a feast or famine existence. When they do catch or find something, they eat as much as they can fit in their bellies—they can consume up to 22 pounds of food at once. You see some of that wolf behavior if you have a dog who bolts his or her food.
Wolves can run up to about 35-40 miles per hour over short distances. Their steady traveling pace over long distances is a trot of about 5 miles per hour. A wolf will travel up to 45 miles in a single day (with some reports of wolves traveling as much as 120 miles in a day) though more often than not they travel 10-15 mile per day.
Wolves have complex social structures, and communication among wolves in a pack and between different packs is vital to maintaining social relationships. Wolves communicate in three primary ways:
Body language: This includes body positioning—such as raised or lowered tail and ears, a play crouch, an arched neck or crouched body—and facial expressions such as bared teeth, a direct gaze or averted eyes, or a contracted or stretched forehead.
Scent: A wolf’s nose is about 100 times more sensitive than a human’s, and scent is a key tool for wolf communication. Wolves sniff packmates to find out where they’ve been or what they’ve done, and sniff strange wolves to find out who they are. Wolves also use scent marks of urine and scat to mark their territories and to leave messages for other wolves.
Sound: Wolves use vocalizations to communicate over short distances and long. Vocalizations include barks, whines, squeaks, moans, growls, and howls.
A wolf pack is usually an extended family, most often consisting of a mated pair, their offspring from the year before, and the current year’s pups. However many packs also include adjunct members who have joined the pack. Pack size varies and is determined by things like geography, number and size of other packs in the area, the size, type and availability of prey, and mortality rates of pups. Average pack size is 6-8 wolves though a pack can have as few as two or as many as 30 wolves. Large packs usually split up at some point. Pack size also fluctuates as wolves leave and return, and wolves can also survive on their own.
Territory size varies widely and is influenced by pack size, the presence of other packs, and the availability and distribution of prey. Wolves usually do not tolerate non-pack members in their territory and defend their home ranges and the resources within them. Territories can be as small as a few square miles or as large as 1600 square miles.
Wolves in the wild live on average 6-8 years, though some live as long as 13 years. In captivity, wolves have lived as long as 17 years.
Wolves usually have between 4-7 pups. Usually, in the wild, 30-60% of these pups will not survive their first year.
Very. Wolf pups weigh about 1 pound at birth. At four weeks they weigh about 5 pounds and at two months old they weigh 20 pounds. In their first fourteen weeks of life, pups put on between 2.6 and 3.3 pounds per week. At six months old it’s hard to distinguish them from adults, and by one year of age they are close to their adult size. By the age of two, a wolf is fully mature.
Both wolves and ravens have the ability to form social attachments and they seem to have evolved over many years to form these attachments with each other. Ravens often scavenge from wolf kills, but it’s also believed that ravens lead wolves to carcasses or possibly even to live prey. Ravens and wolves have also been observed playing together.
Yes! For many years people thought that dogs might have evolved from jackals or from several different early canines. But DNA research has made it clear that wolves and dogs are the ones that share the common ancestor. Some people even classify the dog as a subspecies of the wolf.
Thanks to the efforts of wolf advocates, scientists and conservationists, wolves have made great progress in the last 10 or so years. However they still need your help. Go to the What You Can Do to Help Wolves page for more information about wolf conservation and on what you can do help wolves.
Check out the Wolf Links and Reading page for more information about wolves.
Sources: Wolves: Biology, Ecology and Conservation, edited by L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species, by L. David Mech, The Wolf Almanac, by Robert H. Busch, The Way of the Wolf, by L. David Mech, The Mind of the Raven, by Bernd Heinrich, The International Wolf Center, Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Park.