The wolf's visual signals consist mostly of body
language. Just as humans and dogs show their emotions through various
facial expressions, so too does the wolf. This is one
reason why a wolf's mask emphasizes facial features so
greatly. Humans smile when they're happy, and our dogs assume a "happy
face" at times. The wolf and dog happy expression
includes an open mouth, tongue hanging loosely, and ears forward.
The emotions that a wolf expresses through body
are suspicion, threat, anxiety, and submission. Threat behavior is
quite different. The threatening animal - dog or wolf -
wrinkles its nose, opens its mouth, bares its teeth,
pulls its lips forward, and erects its ears. Usually this expression is
accompanied by a growl or a snarl. The anxious dog or wolf on
the receiving end of the threat puts on a very different face.
It keeps its mouth closed and its lips drawn way back, lays
back its ears, and whines.
One of the most useful expressions of an alpha wolf is the
"fixed stare," or glare. Often, all an alpha has to do is
stare at a subordinate wolf, and that animal will
immediately cringe, turn, and slink away. The glare is an alpha's way of
controlling subordinate pack members.
A wolf or dog also uses certain tail and body positions to
communicate. For example, a threatening wolf not only
and bares its teeth, but also raises its hackles and tail
and essentially inflates its size. Conversely, the wolf
being threatened pulls its lips back in a defensive "grin", lowers
itself, holds its tail between its legs, and may
even roll over on its side or back, trying to make itself look smaller.
Wolves' fur is many different colors. Even a wolf
that generally appears gray really has a coat of many colors.
White, black, gray, and brown hairs are intermingled, with
darker fur usually predominating along the center of the back
and tail. The wolf's underside, legs, ears, and
muzzle are often tawny. Very old wolves tend to be grayer than younger
The wolf has a double coat of fur and actually has
three capes. Long guard hairs on top, which can be as long as four
inches, work like an umbrella to help shed moisture like a
raincoat. Their underfur keeps the wolf warm in the cold
months and the wolf sheds the undercoat in the summer.
This is particularly useful in locations such as the Mexican desert
where the wolf can withstand temperatures from -60
degrees to 115 degrees. That's a difference of 175 degrees!
The colors of a wolf's fur can make it hard to see in its
natural habitat. The colors of the fur may blend in with
background colors in the habitat and cause a wolf to
"disappear." Wolves that spend a lot of time in dark forests
often have dark fur. In places where the plants are many
different colors, the fur of the wolves is often many
The wolf's mask is made to draw attention to the eyes
since eye contact is so important with the wolf. The way
the fur falls around the eyes accents the eyes, making them look much
larger than they are. The ears are also highlighted to be seen
against a dark or light background. The edge of the wolf's
ears are usually highlighted for contrast against dark, and
the inside of the wolf's ears are dark for contrast
Coyotes are about one-third to one-half the size of the wolf. They feed mostly on rabbits, hares, rodents, and other
small mammals and birds, but they sometimes kill deer and other
large animals, usually young or weakened individuals. Coyotes
live mainly in North America, including most of the range of
A group of baby wolves born at the same time is called a
litter. There are five to fourteen cubs in a litter, but six
is the average. Wolf babies are blind and deaf at birth,
with fine wooly hair and floppy ears. They weigh about one pound.
The babies open their eyes about two weeks after birth and
they can hear after about three weeks. The eyes are
first but change to yellow later on. The cubs can walk by two
weeks of age. A week later, they come out of the den for the
first time and play at the entrance. Wolf parents are
the best animal parents in the world, and the cubs get a lot
of loving care from their parents, including feeding, cleaning
and protection. The mother wolf stays close to the pups.
She usually doesn't have to leave the babies to look for food
because the father and other family members bring the food to
her. In fact, sometimes wolves will carry food more than
twenty miles back to the den for their pups.
There are about 35 different species of wild dogs. Besides the
wolf, coyote and fox are the bush dog,
fennec, jackal, dhole,
raccoon dog, African wild dog, and dingo to name a few. Wild
dogs have adapted to more different places in the world than
any other group of predators. For example, wild dogs that live
in grasslands may be tall so they can see over tall grass. A
few wild dogs live where there is a lot of brush, so they have
short legs for running through it. Some living in forests are
good tree climbers, and those that live along rivers are good
swimmers. No matter where they live, the main reason wild dogs
can survive in so many places is that they eat almost
anything. If they can't find one kind of prey, they will
hunt something else. And when meat is scarce, they eat plants and
The very first wild dogs lived in North America. These dogs
were excellent hunters and adapted quickly to new climates and
surroundings. Over thousands of years, they spread to every
continent except Antarctica. Their bodies gradually developed
in different ways to survive in different parts of the world.
These changes led to the different species of wild dogs that
Wolf packs have a special way to keep members of the
from fighting each other. It's called a dominance order. Every
member of the pack has a place, or rank, within this order.
When a wolf with a higher rank has a disagreement with a
wolf of a lower rank, the lower-ranking wolf usually
gives up without fighting. This is very important, because wolves are
powerful animals with sharp teeth. If they didn't have a
way of preventing fights, they could hurt each other badly.
Very early in life, young wolves may start to establish a
dominance order among themselves. When they are only about 30
days old, the pups in a litter may start fighting with each
other. They may fight every day for a number of days. In the
end, one of the pups will roll over on its back to show that
it gives up, and the other raises its tail to show dominance.
The wolf, whose scientific name is Canis lupus, evolved
from a more generalized carnivore that roamed the earth about 100 to
120 million years ago. The hoofed mammals, or ungulates,
probably all evolved from a common ancestor that lived a few
hundred million years ago. Both types of animals became
adapted to swift long-distance running on open plains, both
developed relatively high intelligence, and both descended
from forest-dwelling ancestors. Probably they evolved in long
association with one another, since the wolf and its
ancestors gradually developed better and better adaptations for killing
and eating hoofed animals; and at the same time, the hoofed
animals became better adapted to defending themselves against
The primitive group of meat eaters, known as creodonts,
originated in the northern hemispere, and it is thought that
the dog family itself developed in North America and gradually
dispersed from there.
Approximately fifty-five million years ago, a mammal with
partly specialized "flesh teeth," or carnassials, came to
be. During the next ten million years a large number and variety
of these creatures flourished, and one of them, known as
Miacis, was similar to members of the dog family of today.
Miacis is a member of the family Miacidae, from which all the
present families of meat-eaters eventually arose: the dogs,
cats, bears, weasels, raccoons, civets, and hyenas.
Thirty to forty million years ago, Miacis gave rise to types
of mammals that can be traced through two series of fossils to
the dog and bear families. The predecessor to the dog family,
Cynodictis, had the same number of teeth as the wolf. It
was much smaller than a wolf, however, and its body was
long and flexible like that of a weasel; its legs were of moderate
length. In the next fifteen million years, the raccoon family
branched from this group and developed separately.
Later, fifteen to thirty million years ago, a strong trend
occurred toward the characteristics of present-day wolves,
from Cynodictis through the animals Cynodesmus and Tomarctus.
The creature's legs became longer, the feet longer and more
compact, the inner digit became vestigial on the hind foot and
much reduced on the fore foot, the tail became shorter, and
the entire proportions began approaching those of the wolves
and the foxes.
From Tomarctus, both the wolf and the fox
arose and began developing separately about fifteen million years ago.
Although the fox did not change much in size, the wolf grew larger and larger. A closely related type, the dire
wolf (Canis dirus), also branched off. Some of them were
much larger than present-day wolves, but they are now extinct. By
one or two million years ago, the wolf was much as it is
Wild dogs evolved from wolves as they began to
depend on humans, probably thousands of years ago, when people lived as
wandering hunters. Wolves may have followed the roaming bands
of hunters so they could eat scraps of food that people left
behind. They slowly overcame their fear of humans and drew
closer to their camps. Gradually, people realized that wild
dogs could help them. With their superb senses, wolves could
lead them to prey and warn them whenever danger was
near. So people began to take young wolf pups from the
and raise them. Before long, there were enough pet
wolves to provide a growing number of new puppies.
Wolves have relatively poor frontal vision. They may not be
able to recognize members of their own pack beyond 100 to 150
feet. This is possibly one reason why the wolf mask
accents their facial features and ears so greatly.
Their myopia evidently stems from the absence of the fovea
centralis, the tiny pit at the back, center of the retina
which, in humans, primates and some other animals provides the
point of sharpest vision.
Just how clearly a wolf sees when looking directly at an
object is, of course, impossible to know, but it seems evident
that beyond a short distance their vision must be somewhat
blurred, rather like that of a photograph taken with a wide-
open lens at a slow shutter speed, as opposed to an exposure
taken with the smallest lens aperture at a fast speed.
Nevertheless, wolves can see shapes and, especially, movement
over long distances, and their peripheral vision is extremely
They are able to detect even the slightest movements of very
small animals, such as a mosquito, at a distance of more than
ten feet and the movement of larger animals at considerable
There is some controversy as to whether wolves see in color or
black and white. Regardless, it is unlikely that they see the
various hues of the spectrum as humans see them, because the
physical makeup of the eye is different.
Nighttime vision for wolves is many times better than human
vision in the day or night. Wolves can actually see much
better and even much more clearly at night.
The fox is much smaller than the wolf or coyote,
usually weighing about twelve pounds. They feed on small birds,
rodents, rabbits, hares, berries, carrion, and a variety of
other foods. Various similar species inhabit most of the
present range of the wolf.
Wolves have incredibly good hearing and can hear sounds up to
six miles away, including some high-pitched sounds that even a
human can't hear, in the range where bats and porpoises
produce sound. Even when it sleeps, a wolf's ears stand
straight up so it can catch sounds made by other animals at
all times. This helps the wolf catch prey, and lets it know when danger is near.
Their large, pointed ears act like big scoops to catch lots of
sound. Unlike humans, wolves can easily tell what direction
sound is coming from by turning their ears from side to side.
The direction the ears are pointing when the sound is loudest
tells the wolf which direction the sound is coming from,
which can help them locate rodents under a snowpack.
When a wolf pack hunts, the members of the pack
together as a team. The pack combines the strength of many wolves, and
this makes it possible for them to hunt some very large
animals. In fact, wolf packs seem to prefer hunting
In order to capture their prey, wolves often surround the
prey, often hiding behind bushes, and then go in for the
In another common hunting technique, the wolves chase the prey in single file with the front wolf
occasionally moving to
the back, to let the "next in line" lead the way. This single file
technique is particularly helpful in the snow when the first
wolf acts as a "snowplow" leaving footprints that each
wolf will follow in.
Wolves are not always successful at catching the prey
they go after. In fact, many more animals escape than are caught. If
the prey shows that it can put up a good fight, the wolves
will often let it go. After a kill, wolves eat a lot of the
meat, as much as 20 pounds. If any meat is left, the wolves
may come back later to eat it.
Wolves are killed today by illegal hunting, killing to protect livestock, poisoning, traps and shooting from helicopters and planes. A wolf hunter or trapper can earn more than $150 by selling the fur of just one wolf. In fact, out of all the elements of nature, only man has been able to threaten to wipe the wolf off the face of the earth with the use of devices such as traps, pits, corrals, deadfalls, the ice box trap, the edge trap, piercers, fishhooks, snares, den hunting, professional hunting, bounty hunting, poisoning and airplane and helicopter hunting.
There are five toes on a wolf's front paws and only
four on the rear paws. Their paws can be up to 5 1/4" long. Thick,
rugged, and blocky when the toes are together, the foot can
also sprawl, allowing the toes to grasp rocks, logs, and other
uneven or steep surfaces. When walking, the wolf holds its
foot in the blocky fashion, reducing area and friction.
However, during tricky maneuvering, the toes can spread far
apart, much increasing the surface and friction. In order to
walk better in the snow, one wolf will make the initial
trail and all other wolves will follow by stepping in the original
footprints. Wolves run on their toes. This lengthens their
legs and makes it possible for them to run faster - up to 40
miles per hour, in fact.
Contrary to popular belief, wolves are not dangerous to
people. The Superior National Forest of Minnesota has always
been home for two hundred to four hundred wolves. Some
nineteen million visitor-days have been logged in there, yet
not a single soul has been a victim of wolf predation.
There are several cases of wolves in other areas of North
America possibly attacking people. One involved a scientist
trying to break up a fight between a wolf and his sled
dogs; the man ended up with a torn arm when he tried to grab the
wolf by the back of the neck. In Minnesota, a wolf
apparently mistook a deer-scent-soaked hunter for a deer and knocked him
over. When the wolf realized its mistake, it fled. There
have been a few similar events.
If a single wolf, or a pack, wanted to kill someone, it
probably do so without trouble. When killing prey, wolves
are swift and silent. Wolves, though, are so afraid of man that in
one incident they wouldn't even cross over snowshoe tracks.
Each family pack has a hunting territory of its
own, and the pack wanders around the territory looking for prey.
They sometimes travel 40 to 60 miles a day looking for food. But
most of the time they don't have to go that far before they
find something. By having territories, wolves also spend less
time fighting other packs, which gives them more time to raise
young and hunt for food. Territory sizes range
from 50 to 150 square miles or more. Wolves leave fresh scent posts, or
messages, marking the boundaries of its territories, by
As breeding season approaches, members of the alpha pair
become increasingly friendly to each other. They sleep closer
and closer together, and the male tends to stay close to the
female as they travel. Both alphas threaten competitors from
within the pack with stares, growls, and grimaces. Meanwhile,
male and female groom each other, place forepaws over the
other's shoulders, and touch each other more and more.
Often, when about to copulate, individual mated pairs move out
of the main pack for a few days. This is probably to avoid
interference from other pack members. Sometimes pack
associates try to get in on the mating, or they harass the
mated pair during copulation.
Wolves copulate like dogs, the male mounting the female from
With the tense period of mating over, the pack animals' former
affability and friendliness toward one another resumes. Now
their attentions turn back to the task of selecting and
preparing a den site for the pregnant alpha female.
Female wolves have complex courtship, pair-bonding, and
reproductive behavior as well as complex hormonal
characteristics. They are capable of a reproductive state
called "pseudopregnancy." Apparently, once a female matures
sexually, she either becomes pregnant or pseudopregnant each
year. During pseudopregnancy, the wolf's hormonal state is
precisely the same as if the animal were pregnant even though
she is not. This includes the ability to produce milk and
possibly even to nurse the offspring of another female. Dogs
also become pseudopregnant.
The period from conception to birth is about sixty-three days.
During that time the pack will clean out an old traditional
den or find a new location and help the alpha female dig a new
one. Usually, the site will be higher than the surrounding
ground, allowing the pack to watch over a large area. The site
will also be near water, for the female will rarely travel far
from her den after her pups are born, at least until they are
a couple months old.
The entrance to the den is usually quite small, allowing
passage to only the pregnant female. The passageway may extend
from a few feet deep to as far back as twenty feet. At the end
will be a hollowed-out area barely larger than the tunnel
itself. It is here the expectant mother will bear her young.
The wolf's sense of smell is about 100 times better than a
human's. It uses its sense of smell more than anything else to
find prey, with the ability to smell prey before it can
see it, more than a mile away if the wind is right. A wolf's
nose can smell things that your nose can't. Like your nose, the
inside of a wolf's nose contains moist surfaces
smells in the air. The wolf's nose has about five
more surface area than yours does, so it can catch more smells from
the air than you can. It can even sense the presence of an
animal three days after it's gone! The nose itself is not five
times larger than a human nose. For all the extra smelling
surface to fit inside, it must be wrapped and folded many
Wolves hunt many different kinds of animals, and
some of their prey is small. Beavers are an important source of food when
larger prey is not available. Some wolves hunt
rabbits and squirrels. Others chase ducks, geese, and other birds. When
prey is really hard to find, wolves may eat mice. The smaller
prey may be important when raising pups. This is because
younger and less experienced wolves in the pack can hunt
smaller prey and help feed themselves and the pups when food
demand is especially high. When they can get it, wolves prefer
larger prey. They may hunt deer, elk, or
Most of these animals are a good deal larger than wolves, and they
can be hard to catch. They can often run fast, and some of
them are excellent mountain climbers. Some animals that wolves
hunt may be well defended against attack. Deer and elk
have hard hooves that can crack a wolf's bones. Big-horn
sheep and musk oxen are very strong and aggressive.
Perhaps the favorite prey of wolves is the moose. And these
animals can be very big. An average male moose weighs over
1,000 pounds. It may stand over 6 1/2 feet tall at the
shoulder. The hooves of a moose can kill a wolf. For this
reason, wolves try to find a moose that has been weakened by
sickness - or one that is bogged down in deep snow. Wolves
don't always catch the prey they go after. In fact, many more
animals escape than are caught. Wolves can achieve speeds
above 30 miles per hour, but if they can't capture running
prey within about 1,000 yards, they usually abandon the chase.
Alpha - The leaders of a wolf pack are the alpha male and the alpha female, often distinguishable by their raised tails.
Being parents of most of the other pack members, the alpha pair hold the allegiance of the rest of the pack. They maintain this allegiance by continually asserting themselves over their offspring from birth through maturation. For example, on small kills, yearling and other subordinate pack members can only feed by deferring to the alpha pair and often begging from them. Alpha animals are usually mature adults, and they can hold their alpha position for as long as eight years. When traveling, the alpha male usually heads the wolf pack and chooses the route, but the alpha female is close to him in line.
Beta - A beta male lowers his head and tail when around the alpha pair to let them know he will obey them.
Subordinate - These are usually young animals, but occasionally are former alphas who have lost their positions.
If they remain with the pack, subordinates play a strong and important role in helping care for and feed the pups. An unknowing observer watching subordinates around a den would be unable to distinguish their behavior from that of the actual parents. At times, the nurturing by these subordinate helpers may even allow more pups to survive.
Omega or Scapegoat - In large packs of wolves, there is often a lowest-ranking member who becomes the focus of the pack's social aggression. Referred to by behaviorists as the "omega" wolf, this animal seems to be a scapegoat and may actually become an outright outcast. This may be part of the process by which pack members disperse and become independent, rather than remain at the bottom of the pecking order or on the fringes of the pack. A scapegoat keeps its fur and ears flattened, its body close to the ground and its tail often tucked between its legs.
Lone Wolf - A young adult which has left the pack. It may
find a new, suitable place to live and mate.
Out of the wolf's forty-two teeth, forty help the
securing its prey. There are six incisors on the top and
six on the bottom, two canines on the top and two on the bottom,
eight premolars on the top and eight on the bottom, and four
molars on the top and four on the bottom. The largest teeth
are the canines, or fangs, which may reach two and a quarter
inches in total length, including the portion imbedded in the
jaw. These are the tools that help the wolf hold onto its
prey. The cutting and chewing is done by the carnassials, or
flesh teeth - the fourth upper premolar and the first lower
molar. These specialized teeth are much like a pair of self-
sharpening shears and function well in cutting tendons and
tough flesh. The massive molars help crush bones.
Wolves make four types of sounds: howl, bark, whimper, and
Howling is the most familiar wolf vocalization to
everyone. When wolves howl together they harmonize, rather than howl the
same note, creating an impression of more animals howling than
actually are. Wolves don't need to stand to howl. They can
howl lying down or sitting. Apparently, wolves howl to
assemble the pack, especially before and after the hunt; to
pass on an alarm, especially at the den site; to locate each
other in a storm or in unfamiliar territory;
and to communicate across great distances. There is no evidence that
wolves howl at the moon, or more frequently during a full
Wolves only infrequently bark, and it is a quiet "woof" more
often than a dog-type bark. They do not bark continuously like
dogs but woof a few times and then retreat, as for example
when a stranger approaches the den. Barks reported from the
field are associated with a pack's being surprised at its den
and an animal, usually the female, rising to bark a warning.
Growling is heard during food challenges and, like the
bark, is part of threat behavior or an assertion of rights in some
social context. Growling is more common among pups when
they're playing. Pups also growl when they jerk at the ruff of
a reclining adult, and comically will even try to growl adults
off a piece of food. Another type of growl is a high-pitched
one that begins to sound like a whine and often precedes a
snapping lunge at another wolf.
Perhaps the most interesting sounds are the whines and high-
pitched social squeaks associated with greeting, feeding the
pups, play, pen pacing and other situations of anxiety,
curiosity, and inquiry. They are the sounds of intimacy.
The wolf is the largest member of the dog family, averaging
from 80 to 100 pounds. Wolves often eat animals much larger
than themselves, including moose, big-horn sheep, musk oxen,
deer, and elk. They also eat smaller animals such as beavers,
rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, and other birds, and on some
rare occasions they might eat mice. Currently wolves inhabit
only North America and Western Europe.
In the very early periods of human existence, there was
probably little real conflict between wolves and people. The
Plains Indians of North America shared their hunting
territories with wolves and respected the skill and strength
of these fellow predators. Inuit share their homeland with
wolves and hunt the same prey.
when humans begin to produce their own food instead of hunting wild
animals and gathering wild plants. Wolves have no choice but
to continue their predatory way of life, but now they might
not find their prey since humans have domesticated the
wild animals, sheep, and cattle for their own use. Therefore,
humans believe the wolves are dangerous predators. The human
change from hunting and gathering to farming and herding began
about 12,000 years ago and there has been a human/wolf
conflict since. With hunting or trapping in pits and other
devices, wolves were completely wiped out in England by the
early 1500's. Scotland got rid of its last wolf in the mid-
1700's. Other European countries eventually wiped out the wolf as well. An estimated 1 to 2 million wolves died in the
western part of the United States in the last half of the 19th
Although wolves are ancestors to all dogs, foxes and
coyotes, wolves are still wild animals, and no wild animal makes a good
pet, especially when well-meaning people adopt a young wild
being and treat it as though it were a cat or dog.
Wolves and wolf hybrids (the offspring of wolves bred with
dogs) are dangerous as pets because they don't know whether to
be a dog or a wolf. Dogs have been domesticated for 15,000
years and wolves have been wild. Wolves cannot be disciplined
the same way as a dog. A wolf owner must understand the
wolf hierarchy and deal with the animal on its own terms.
Wolves and hybrids will respond poorly to being tied up or
being kept in small enclosures with cement floors and no
trees. The animals might become very fearful or very
It must also be remembered that wolf pups begin to become
wary of strange individuals at the age of three months and that in
the wild they probably fear all strangers after the age of
five months. Thus, tame wolves cannot always be expected to
behave toward everyone as they do toward those people who
In addition, these animals should never be allowed to play
with small children. There have been many tragedies in that
situation. In March 1990, in Anchorage, Alaska, a four-year-
old girl was attacked by a hybrid while her parents were
nearby. She was grasped by the head and shaken violently. Much
of her scalp was ripped away and her face was bitten. Also in
the spring of 1990, again in Alaska, a hybrid that was thought
to love children attacked a four-year-old boy, broke his arm,
and mauled his chest and face.
According to the Humane Society, seven children were killed
between 1986 and 1992 by pets classified as hybrids.
During the past two centuries, more and more people have
spread out across the world. Wolves need especially large,
wild areas to live in, with plenty of food. Today, loss of
living space is a major problem. People have taken over what
used to be wild spaces, and less wild space means fewer
wolves. People's misconceptions and misunderstandings of
wolves have increased their hate and fear of the animal,
leading to the attempt to rid the world of wolves, including
the passage of laws that encouraged people to kill large
numbers of wolves throughout America, Europe, and Asia.
Today, the wolf is classified as an endangered species in
all parts of the United States except Minnesota and Alaska. The
endangered classification means that the killing of wolves is
strictly controlled by federal law.
The skull of the wolf is large and long and tapers
forward, averaging nine to eleven inches long and five to six inches
wide. Massive jaws form the foundation to which the strong
masseter, or chewing, muscles attach. Wolves survive by using
their legs and their teeth.
The wolf is a coursing predator, so its eyes are on the
front of its skull. The ears are large to capture sounds and they
can be moved to scan and focus on sounds from different
directions. The jaws have canines, sharp carnassials for
cutting meat, and molars for crushing bone with very strong
All these characteristics are reflected in the skull.