Gray Wolf, largest member of the wild dog family, one of only two species of wolves known in the world. The only other wolf species is the red wolf of the southeastern United States. Gray wolves that live in the treeless plains of the Arctic are called Arctic wolves, and those found in wooded, subarctic regions are known as timber wolves or eastern timber wolves. Scientists recognize only one subspecies of the gray wolf, which is commonly called the Mexican gray wolf.
Gray Wolf picture: The gray wolf, also called the timber wolf, inhabits mountains, forests, taiga, plains, and tundra across northern North America, Europe, and Asia. One of at least 36 species belonging to the family Canidae, which includes the coyote, jackal, fox, and domestic dog, the wolf is characterized by powerful teeth, a bushy tail, and round pupils, and lives and hunts in packs. The family Canidae is believed to have originated in North America 55 million to 38 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch.
The gray wolf has become a symbol of endangered animals. Gray wolves were once the most widespread of all large mammals other than humans, with a range that extended over much of the Northern Hemisphere. Today, gray wolves remain numerous in northern Europe, Asia, Alaska, and Canada; however, in central and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, their range has been reduced to pockets of wilderness.
Timber Wolf picture: In marked contrast to their fond feelings for the domesticated dog, humans have historically feared, hated, and persecuted its ancestor, the timber wolf, also known as the gray wolf, Canis lupus. Indeed, many of the qualities that people value in the dog-its loyalty, its loving nature, its readiness to submit to authority, its ability to learn-derive directly from the cooperative and subtle behavior of the wolf interacting with others in its pack. It is also ironic that people continue to eliminate the wolf in parts of Alaska and Russia at the same time they protect decimated wolf populations in Italy and even seek to restore eradicated ones in the northern Rocky Mountains of the United States.
Gray wolves are powerful animals with doglike faces, large, bushy tails, and long legs ending in large feet. The fur of most gray wolves is smoky gray, but it may have a brownish or reddish tinge. Gray wolves commonly have white chests and abdomens, and black patches on their backs and sides. Some gray wolf populations are pure black or pure white.
An adult gray wolf measures up to 2 m (6.5 ft) in length, including the tail (less than half the body length) and weighs up to 80 kg (176 lb). They have a shoulder height of 0.5 to 1 m (1.6 to 3.3 ft). Females are smaller than males, and southern gray wolves are smaller than northern ones.
Gray wolves form packs of up to 24 members to hunt large herbivores, such as deer, caribou, and moose. Pack members cooperate to drive and ambush prey during hunts that begin in early evening and continue until morning. When hunting alone, individual wolves may feed on mice, rabbits, beaver, and domesticated animals.
Gray wolf packs are social groups that adhere to a strict hierarchy, in which some members are dominant and others are subordinate. When two members of a pack greet each other, the dominant one stands erect, while the subordinate one crouches. One social activity of wolf packs is howling—this vocalization promotes unity within the pack and signals the pack’s presence to other wolves.
Gray wolves usually mate for life. Within each pack, only the dominant male and female, called the alpha pair, reproduce. Gray wolves mate in late winter, and after a gestation of 61 to 63 days, the female gives birth to a litter of four to seven pups. Both of the parents, as well as other adults in the pack, regurgitate food for the pups. Pups are raised in dens, such as underground burrows, rock crevices, hollow logs, and overturned stumps.
Although wolves rarely interfere with humans, humans have a long history of intentionally destroying gray wolf populations. Some wilderness areas have provided havens for wolves, but habitat destruction has caused these areas to dwindle. In 1973, the gray wolf was placed on the United States Endangered Species list. This action provided protection for these wolves within the 48 contiguous United States. It also raised public awareness about the value of these animals.
In 1987 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) initiated a plan to restore wolves to Yellowstone Park and parts of central Idaho. To overcome opposition to the plan, environmentalists and federal agencies agreed to compensate ranchers for any livestock that might be killed by wolves. These reintroduction efforts have been highly successful, and wolf biologists expect that the status of the gray wolf will soon change from endangered to threatened in all lower 48 states.
Advocates for gray wolves have since turned their attention to the Mexican gray wolf, which has been absent for nearly 50 years from its historic territory in the southwestern United States. In early 1998, the USFWS outlined a plan for reintroducing Mexican gray wolves to the Apache National Forest of Arizona.