Latest painting of a gray wolf or grey wolf (Canis lupus), also known as the timber wolf or western wolf, is a canid native to the wilderness and remote areas of Eurasia and North America. It is the largest extant member of its family, with males averaging 43–45 kg (95–99 lb), and females 36–38.5 kg (79–85 lb). Like the red wolf, it is distinguished from other Canis species by its larger size and less pointed features, particularly on the ears and muzzle. Its winter fur is long and bushy, and predominantly a mottled gray in color, although nearly pure white, red, or brown to black also occur. As of 2005, 37 subspecies of C. lupus are recognized by MSW3.
The gray wolf is the second most specialized member of the genus Canis, after the Ethiopian wolf, as demonstrated by its morphological adaptations to hunting large prey, its more gregarious nature, and its highly advanced expressive behavior. It is nonetheless closely related enough to smaller Canis species, such as the eastern wolf, coyote, and golden jackal to produce fertile hybrids. It is the only species of Canis to have a range encompassing both the Old and New Worlds, and originated in Eurasia during the Pleistocene, colonizing North America on at least three separate occasions during the Rancholabrean. It is a social animal, traveling in nuclear families consisting of a mated pair, accompanied by the pair’s adult offspring. The gray wolf is typically an apex predator throughout its range, with only humans and tigers posing a serious threat to it. It feeds primarily on large ungulates, though it also eats smaller animals, livestock, carrion, and garbage.
The gray wolf is one of the world’s best known and well researched animals, with probably more books written about it than any other wildlife species. It has a long history of association with humans, having been despised and hunted in most pastoral communities because of its attacks on livestock, while conversely being respected in some agrarian and hunter-gatherer societies. Although the fear of wolves is pervasive in many human societies, the majority of recorded attacks on people have been attributed to animals suffering from rabies. Non-rabid wolves have attacked and killed people, mainly children, but this is rare, as wolves are relatively few, live away from people, and have developed a fear of humans from hunters and shepherds.
Social and territorial behaviors
The gray wolf is a social animal, whose basic social unit consists of a mated pair, accompanied by the pair’s adult offspring. The average pack consists of a family of 5–11 animals (1–2 adults, 3–6 juveniles and 1–3 yearlings), or sometimes two or three such families, with exceptionally large packs consisting of 42 wolves being known. In ideal conditions, the mated pair produces pups every year, with such offspring typically staying in the pack for 10–54 months before dispersing. Triggers for dispersal include the onset of sexual maturity and competition within the pack for food. The distance traveled by dispersing wolves varies widely; some stay in the vicinity of the parental group, while other individuals may travel great distances of 390 km, 206 km, and 670 km from their natal packs. A new pack is usually founded by an unrelated dispersing male and female, traveling together in search of an area devoid of other hostile packs. Wolf packs rarely adopt other wolves into their fold, and typically kill them. In the rare cases where other wolves are adopted, the adoptee is almost invariably an immature animal (1–3 years of age) unlikely to compete for breeding rights with the mated pair. In some cases, a lone wolf is adopted into a pack to replace a deceased breeder. During times of ungulate abundance (migration, calving etc.), different wolf packs may temporarily join forces.
Wolves are highly territorial animals, and generally establish territories far larger than they require to survive in order to assure a steady supply of prey. Territory size depends largely on the amount of prey available and the age of the pack’s pups, tending to increase in size in areas with low prey populations or when the pups reach the age of 6 months, thus having the same nutritional needs as adults. Wolf packs travel constantly in search of prey, covering roughly 9% of their territory per day (average 25 km/d or 15 mi/d). The core of their territory is on average 35 km2, in which they spend 50% of their time. Prey density tends to be much higher in the territory’s surrounding areas, though wolves tend to avoid hunting in the fringes of their range unless desperate, because of the possibility of fatal encounters with neighboring packs. The smallest territory on record was held by a pack of six wolves in northeastern Minnesota, which occupied an estimated 33 km2, while the largest was held by an Alaskan pack of ten wolves encompassing a 6,272 km2 area. Wolf packs are typically settled, and usually only leave their accustomed ranges during severe food shortages.
Wolves defend their territories from other packs through a combination of scent marking, direct attacks and howling. Scent marking is used for territorial advertisement, and involves urination, defecation and ground scratching. Scent marks are generally left every 240 meters throughout the territory on regular travel ways and junctions. Such markers can last for 2–3 weeks, and are typically placed near rocks, boulders, trees or the skeletons of large animals. Territorial fights are among the principal causes of wolf mortality, with one study concluding that 14–65% of wolf deaths in Minnesota and the Denali National Park and Preserve were due to predation by other wolves.