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Wolves 101: Habitat, Diet, Communication, and Conservation

Addison is an online writer and full-time student that enjoys everything to do with research.

Learn the basics about wolves here.

Learn the basics about wolves here.

Taxonomy

The wolf, or Canis lupis, is a member of the Canidae family. They are the largest taxonomic members of the family ahead of coyotes, foxes, jackals, and others. Wolves' subspecies are mostly subjective, as scientists have not been able to agree on whether there are as many as 24 distinct groups or as few as 3 in North America. According to some sources, there are as many as 38 subspecies worldwide as of 2005.

The seven most commonly known groups based on subspecies categorization and/or location are the gray wolf, arctic wolf, red wolf, Himalayan wolf, Indian wolf, Eastern wolf, and Ethiopian wolf. These categories can be broken down further based on minute details, and the distinctions are still argued by scientists today.

This map shows gray wolf distribution by subspecies.

This map shows gray wolf distribution by subspecies.

Habitat and Range

Wolves are versatile creatures, and populations exist in many locations around the world. Depending on subspecies' dietary habits, wolves can survive in many places beyond the stereotypical dense forest regions they are often associated with. Examples include the frigid arctic, high mountain tundras, and dry deserts.

Research has found they can travel up to 10 hours a day through their home range, which can be anywhere from 20 to 3852 square miles. Their ability to adapt allows them to travel for survival, which is why it is rare for them to stay in one place for an extended period.

Because they are so adept at moving from place to place, some are able to avoid deforestation and other hazards. Most wild wolf populations today are located in remote arctic or tundra areas that don't experience much human contact.

When wolves hunt in packs, they can take down larger mammals like elk.

When wolves hunt in packs, they can take down larger mammals like elk.

Diet and Hunting

Wolves are carnivorous hunters and scavengers. What they hunt for varies based on availability and can range from small rodents to larger animals, such as caribou and oxen. Without help, a single wolf can hunt smaller animals, but a pack working together can bring down larger ones.

They tend to target older and sicker animals from herds, which is beneficial, as their passing leaves more resources available for younger and healthier members of the prey population. Pack hunting is a method that assures prey will be caught. Wolves are not known to be the fastest hunters, so they rely on strength in numbers and sensitive senses such as hearing and smell.

After locating their target, their endurance allows them to hunt for as long as is necessary. Wolves can eat 20 to 25 pounds of meat per meal if enough is available. Pups eat meat regurgitated by older wolves until they are old enough to eat raw meat on their own.

Wolf packs have strict hierarchies, and occasionally, members will battle for dominance.

Wolf packs have strict hierarchies, and occasionally, members will battle for dominance.

Pack Hierarchy

A group of wolves living together is known as a pack. These social animals work together for survival and defense of their common territory. A pack usually consists of between 3 to 20 wolves, each with a different rank and role in the pack hierarchy.

Alphas

At the top of the hierarchy, a breeding pair known as the alpha male and alpha female serve as the leaders of the pack. Typically, these two are the only wolves permitted to mate, and their pups are cared for not only by them but also by the pack's other members. The role of the alphas is to lead hunts and keep the pack in order. They are typically the first to eat after a kill unless their own pups are of age to begin eating raw meat. The alpha male earns his position through aggressive dominance. Other wolves may challenge him to a fight, and the victor will either become or remain the alpha.

Betas

When the alphas are not around, the responsibility falls into the paws of the betas. The beta male and female are second in command and submit only to their alphas, while the other pack members must submit to them. If the alphas were to die, the betas would step up to become the leaders.

Subordinates

The majority of the pack consists of subordinates. Since packs are more or less wolf families, these are the adolescent offspring of the alphas. They average between one and four years of age and eventually leave the pack to search for a mate. Once they find one, they settle down and begin a pack of their own.

Omegas

At the bottom are the omegas. They are also known as the scapegoats and are picked on by the other wolves. They are the last ones to eat (if the alphas allow them to), and they submit to all other members of the pack. The presence of scapegoats allows the other wolves to use them to relieve stress rather than taking unnecessary action against higher-ranking members in anger.

The howl is the wolf's most iconic vocalization, but like domestic dogs, they whimper, bark, and growl as well.

The howl is the wolf's most iconic vocalization, but like domestic dogs, they whimper, bark, and growl as well.

Communication

Humans have two main types of communication—verbal and nonverbal. Wolves essentially use the same methods with some added bonuses. They use body language, vocalization, and even scent to converse. Communication is vital for them to maintain their statuses in the pack and demonstrate dominance or submission.

Body Language

Wolves use their bodies to communicate by positioning their tails, ears, face, and posture in a way that conveys their intention. The alphas must maintain dominant stances, while lower-ranking members are expected to show submission.

Vocalization

Vocalization aids wolves' body language. Howling is their general form of communication. Howls can display a wide variety of emotions and can range from mating calls to mourning cries for former pack members that have died.

The other three main forms of vocalization are barking, whimpering, and growling. Barking is the least common and is usually meant as a warning. Growling can be an alarm but is usually used to show aggression or frustration as a defense. Whimpering can vary between presenting friendliness or anxiety.

Scent Marking

Scents are used to mark territory or show where an individual has traveled. Wolves are able to tell which wolf left a particular marking since each one has their own personal scent. Pheromone glands sit behind their tails and between their toes and produce the scents that allow them to leave markings.

Wolves became endangered through both hunting and habitat loss.

Wolves became endangered through both hunting and habitat loss.

Conservation Status

Wolves are considered endangered, especially in North America. Humans have contributed to their decline in many ways. Between hunting to deforestation, people have been killing them off for the last few centuries. The fear and superstition surrounding them was the original factor that led to this destruction.

Bounty hunting back in the 1800s brought upon the deaths of over a million wolves. From there, people continued to see them as a threat to themselves and their livestock. Habitat loss has driven them out of their territories and left them with few places to turn to. Due to their remoteness, cold mountain tundras have become wolves' primary natural sanctuary, and some wild populations are slowly recovering.

If the population is to ever recover fully, measures must be taken to protect the wilderness. Consider donating to conservation efforts to help save these wonderful creatures and their habitats. The Wolf Conservation Center is reliable and was named the top-rated conservation center in 2019.

Resources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Addison Wrights

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