Gray wolves are canines with long bushy tails that are often black-tipped. Coat color is typically a mix of gray and brown with buffy facial markings and undersides, but the color can vary from solid white to brown or black depending on location. Gray wolves look somewhat like a large German Shepherd. 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 wolfs 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 (aided by their large liver that secretes bile to help break down fats), and digests all except hair and bones of prey. Wolves can also fast for up to two weeks while looking for prey.
Wolves are carnivores--they prefer to eat large hoofed mammals such as deer, elk, bison and moose. They also hunt smaller mammals such as beavers, rodents and hares. Adults can eat 20 pounds of meat in a single meal.
Habitat / Distribution
Wolves are highly adaptable to most habitat types except tropical rainforests and arid deserts. Wolves can be found in savannas, taiga, tundra, plains, steppes, and all forest habitats Originally, Gray Wolves had the largest distribution of any mammal except humans. Their geographic range was mainly in the Northern hemisphere spanning from the Arctic towards South America and Southern Asia. Today due to habitat destruction and environmental changes, the Gray Wolf is found only in the United States, Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and Eurasia. Unfortunately, by the mid-1930s, the killing of wolves greatly reduced the Gray Wolf population in the United States to parts of Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming. Today, Minnesota has the largest wolf population of any U.S state! Mexican wolves, a subspecies of the gray wolf, were reintroduced to protected parkland in eastern Arizona and southwest New Mexico. The historic range of the gray wolf covered over two-thirds of the United States.
Reproduction / Social System
The Gray Wolf is a highly social animal and live in packs. Most packs have four to nine members, but the size can range from as few as two wolves to as many as 15. Occasionally, a pack can increase to 30 members until some individuals break off to find new territory and form their own pack. Within the pack hierarchy, there are male and female hierarchies. The alpha male is dominant over the entire pack, both males and females. The alpha female and male are the only ones that breed. Wolf packs usually hunt within a territory. Territories can range from 50 square miles to over a 1,000. Wolves travel as far as they need to in order to find prey. They often travel at five miles per hour but can reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. When the young adults reach the age of three, they can either join the pack or leave to find their own territory. The new territory can be close by if there is a lot of prey. In some areas, young adults travel hundreds of miles to find a new territory. Wolves typically mate for life. In the northern United States, they breed from late January through March. The breeding season is earlier for wolves living farther south. Wolves are pregnant for about 63 days and usually birth four to six pups. The wolf pups are usually born in a den. At birth, they cannot see or hear and weigh about one pound. The pups are weaned at about six weeks. Adult pack members swallow meat and bring it back to the den for their pups. After the adults regurgitate the food, the pups have a hearty meal. The mother wolf moves her pups to new den sites every couple of months until the fall when the pack stops living at den sites. Wolves communicate through body language, scent marking, barking, growling and howling. Much of their communication is about reinforcing the social hierarchy of the pack. When a wolf wants to show that it is submissive to another wolf, it will crouch, whimper, tuck in its tail, lick the other wolf's mouth or roll over on its back. When a wolf wants to challenge another wolf, it will growl or lay its ears back on its head. A playful wolf dances and bows. Wolves bark as a warning. Howling is for long-distance communication to pull a pack back together and to keep strangers away.
The gray or timber wolf's story is one of the most compelling tales of American wildlife. Once, the wolf was widespread across most of North America, but it was hunted ruthlessly and extirpated over most of its range. Today, the wolf is making a successful comeback in some of its former habitat due to strong conservation efforts. The gray wolf is a keystone predator and plays a vital role in the health and proper functioning of ecosystems. In some areas, gray wolfs are classified as endangered, but in most places they are classified as having healthy population numbers.
Wolves vary in size depending on where they live. Wolves in the north are usually larger than those in the south. The average size of a wolf's body is 3-5 feet long. Their tails are usually 1-2 feet long. Females typically weigh 60-100 pounds, and males weigh 70-145 pounds.