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First published: October 2000

The Wolf

by Michael Sones

There is a haunting beauty to the lonely howling of wolves on a northern Ontario night. [Click here for a wolf howl] It is a sound which captures the imagination just as the wolf has captured the imagination of peoples from different cultures down through the millennia. The wolf figures in many myths, legends and folk-tales. Undoubtedly this is because it is highly intelligent, very sociable, and an object of fear. However, for 99% of the time humans have been in existence we were hunter-gatherers and the wolf was undoubtedly one of our great competitors for food. At times, in the human imagination, the wolf seems to represent the beauty of mother nature in one of its more savage aspects. At other times it seems to represent something very wolf-like within ourselves that we don't want to think about. Just as phobias about snakes and spiders may have their origins in our evolutionary history, when it was once adaptive to be frightened of them, so may the shudder which runs down our spine when we encounter the wolf in folk-tales, myths and stories. The wolf has been exterminated from 95 percent of the United States outside of Alaska.

Wolves are members of the canid family and their ancient ancestors developed about 60 million years ago. Then during the Miocene epoch canines and felines diverged into two separate families. The gray wolf, canis lupus, first appeared about a million years ago in Eurasia and migrated to North America about 750,000 years ago.

The wolf, one of the largest members of the canidae (dog) family, are the ancestors of the many breeds of domestic dogs. It is not clear how long dogs have been domesticated for but one estimate is about 10,000 years. (In a cave in Fontanet in France there are the foot and hand prints of a child chasing a puppy deep into the cave and these date back to the last Ice Age!)

There are essentially three species of wolf a) the grey or timber wolf which has many subspecies throughout the world b) the red wolf which is nearly extinct except for a few in the southeast United States c) the Abyssinian wolf in the highlands of Ethiopia.

 

Characteristically grey wolves have bushy tails and powerful jaws and teeth. Their bite is much stronger than that of a dog and they are more intelligent. Wolves used to roam much of the world, with the exception of the deserts and tropic regions where they were fewer, but hunting and trapping by man, the destruction of the forests, and the diminishing of their typical food supply (wolves prefer large animals such as moose, deer, and caribou and elk) have lead to a great reduction in the number of wolves. The geographical range of the wolf is from Cape Morris Jessup in Greenland (with a population of about 60 wolves) to Ethiopia (with a population of about 500).

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An adult male grey wolf will typically weigh anywhere from 35 to 55 kilograms and be up to 2 metres long.  Female wolves are smaller.  Though 'grey' the wolves can range in colour from white in the arctic to black, brown and red.

Wolves are very adaptable animals and tend to live in packs ranging from a monogamous pairing of two to a group of twenty but there can be solitary 'lone wolves'. These lone wolves are usually young adults looking for their own territories and mates. Wolves are very sociable and caring for other members of the pack. They have been known to bring food to injured members who are unable to get it for themselves. Packs have a hierarchical organisation with both dominant and subordinate males and females who usually fight for higher position particularly during the breeding season which is from late autumn to late winter. Wolves attain sexual maturity at about two years old. Often only one female in the pack mates with one male. She may have to fight other females for this privilege. After this mating the atmosphere within the pack is settles down. The resulting pups number from four to seven and the more subordinate wolves will also help to take care of them.

Wolves are very territorial and if wolves from one pack meet wolves from another there is often a violent fight which can result in deaths. The size of the 'claimed territory depends on things like the size of the pack and the availability of food. Where there is a plentiful supply of large prey animals such as moose and caribou the packs tend to be larger than where the prey animals are mostly deer or smaller mammals. Wolf howling primarily has to do with one pack letting another know where it is so that encounters can be avoided. Sometimes wolf packs do not reply to howling and may launch a sneak attack upon another pack- a wolf war.

They have no real natural predators except for man though there are documented cases of both cougars and grizzlies killing and eating wolves (and wolves killing and eating grizzlies and cougars). Despite our fear of wolves there are no documented attacks of non-rabid wild wolves on humans in North America unlike the bear which has killed quite a few people. Deliberately bred hybrids of wild wolves with domestic dogs have resulted in dangerous pets which have been responsible for fatalities. Wolves have a peculiar relationship with ravens and mutual interspecies play has been observed.

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