Grey wolf with her pup. ©Getty Images

Grey wolf with her pup. ©Getty Images

The wolf is the largest member of the canine (say kay-nine), or dog, family. Domestic dogs and wolves are related because they share a common ancestor, now extinct. Wolves are wild dogs.

There are two kinds of wolf, red and grey. There are many subspecies (related groups) of each. Confusion sometimes arises because some are known by several names, depending on where they live. For example, the grey wolf is also the gray wolf, the timber wolf and the common wolf.

Wolves can survive in a variety of climates, from the frozen Arctic to hot desert areas. They are intelligent animals.

Arctic wolf©Getty Images

Arctic wolf©Getty Images

The largest kinds are almost a metre tall at the shoulder and weigh over 75kg,  and the smallest kind weigh about 10kg.  Its tail is about one quarter of a wolf's total length.   Their bodies have narrow chests and powerful back and legs, which helps them cover great distances at about 10km per hour, and 40km per hour during a chase. Wolves have powerful senses of smell, sight and hearing. They have two layers of fur: short fur close to the skin for warmth, and an outer layer of longer, coarse hair that repels water and dirt.  Fur colours vary greatly according to the species (kind) of wolf and its habitat.   Their feet are quite large, which enables them to walk on a variety of ground surfaces. Their toes are slightly webbed, which allows them to walk on snow. 

Wolf pack ©Getty Images

Wolf pack ©Getty Images

Wolves live in large family groups groups called a pack, and each pack has a territory in which they live and hunt.  In general a pack is led by one breeding pair, the alpha male and alpha female.  The alphas lead the pack on the hunt for prey, select a territory, and choose a place for a den. They are also the only breeding pair. A den is usually in a cave, or under a rocky cliff, or in holes in the ground sheltered by bushes and trees. Wolves mark their territory with the scent of their urine (pee) and by scratching the ground. In large packs, there will be a pair that are in effect second in command, known as the beta pair, who lead when the alpha pair is absent.  If an alpha wolf is killed, the beta takes over. The alpha pair are the first to feed after a kill, although wolves rarely fight over food. 

Wolves howl to communicate with others. © Getty Images

Wolves howl to communicate with others. © Getty Images

Wolves are famous for their howling. They howl to communicate with other wolves: when they are calling them for a hunt, when a wolf has been separated from its pack, when a pack member dies, to establish a pack's territory. Pack members recognise each other's voices. When a pack member is lost, the pack howls together to guide it home. For safety reasons, wolves howl in a number of pitches and tones so that it is hard to work out how many wolves are in the pack. Wolves also make whimpering noises, barks and growls.

A pack hunts together, although a wolf may hunt alone. Working together, a pack can bring down a much larger animal, and can use different strategies. They eat most of the kill, and do not need to eat every day.  Prey animals vary according to where the wolves live, but animals such as deer, moose, beavers, hares and rabbits are eaten. This is part of a food web : herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat those animals.  This ensures the strongest of the prey animals survive, as predators kill the weaker ones.

Grey wolf pups in a den ©Andrew Perry

Grey wolf pups in a den ©Andrew Perry

Life cycle

About 60 days after mating with the alpha male, the alpha female, and in some cases the beta female also,  gives birth (usually in summer) to 5 or 6 pups, but can be as many as 12. The pups are born blind and deaf and feed on their mother's milk. They stay in the den with their mother for a few weeks before starting to leave the den for longer periods of time to play and fight together, and gradually join the pack at about three months of age.

Information about some kinds of wolf

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Grey Wolf

The grey (or gray, timber or common) wolf is found in North America, parts of Asia and Europe. They are the largest of the wolves, a bit bigger than a German shepherd dog.  In winter a grey wolf's fur is thick and fluffy, but it sheds some fur in warmer months. They have short ears, small paws and long tails. They have large, strong teeth. Grey wolves are close to a metre tall at the shoulder, 1.4 to 2 metres long from nose to the tip of the tail, and can weigh 25 - 59 kilograms. Males are heavier and taller than females. 

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Arctic Wolf

They are almost completely white, and most are found in Alaska, Greenland and Canada. The outer layer of fur gets thicker as winter approaches. This thick waterproof layer means the animals stay warm even in the most bitter cold.  To further adapt to their cold habitat, their ears are smaller than those of other wolves, which helps regulate their temperature. Their paws are thickly padded for greater grip on the permanently frozen ground. They can use stored body fat for survival, so need to eat less often than other wolves. Prey includes muskoxen and caribou, both large animals that require a pack to hunt together.  The large prey cannot be eaten in one go, but will last several days, so members of the pack remain with it to protect it from other hungry carnivores.

Red wolf ©Getty Images

Red wolf ©Getty Images

Red wolf

Many have a reddish coat, although many are mostly brown. They have white fur around the muzzle, and quite large ears. They were once found right across southeast United States. Small groups are found in the USA in the states of Texas, Louisiana, and now re-introduced into North Carolina and South Carolina from three islands where breeding populations have been established. It is believed that the red wolf often hunts alone, more than in a pack. As a result, they mostly eat small animals such as mice, rats, rabbits and raccoons. When hunting in a pack they can bring down deer, and sometimes cattle, which has brought them into conflict with ranchers.

Indian wolf ©Getty Images

Indian wolf ©Getty Images

Indian wolf

Found in the open lands of India, in areas that are hot desert, their reddish colour and small size make them mistaken for foxes. In the hot climate in which they live, their coats are thinner and shorter than that of other wolves.  The Indian wolf rarely howls, probably because they are not as territorial as other wolves. They mostly hunt alone and their diet is small animals such as rodents and rabbits.  The birth of pups coincides with the rainy season, which is a time of extra food. The mother has several dens and moves the pups often.

Himalayan wolf

Similar in appearance to Indian wolves,  these wolves are found in some parts of India in Jammu and Kashmir,  and in Nepal and the foothills of the Himalayas, as well as parts of China and Mongolia.  They were thought to be Indian wolves, but scientific tests have proved that although closely related, they are a separate subspecies. Packs are small and territories large, so they are not very territorial. They feed on small animals, and the young of larger animals.

Ethiopian wolf ©Getty Images

Ethiopian wolf ©Getty Images

Ethiopian wolf, also known as the Abyssinian wolf

They look quite like foxes or jackals, with long legs and a longer, more pointed muzzle than other wolves. Their tail is shorter and thicker, and their ears more pointed.  Colours are reds, browns and some white. They are found in Ethiopia, in Africa, in only a few places. Rodents and other small animals form the main part of their diet. They do live in packs, but they hunt alone.  Different to other wolves, pairs besides the alpha and beta females breed, and will mate with males not in the pack. Also different is the fact that males stay with the pack in which they were born, and the young females move to another pack.

Conservation Status and Threats

©Getty Images

©Getty Images

Grey wolves are classified as Vulnerable. In North America the wolf was almost extinct, but attempts are being made to protect them in  National Parks. As well as loss of habitat, a big threat to the wolves comes from people who hunt and kill wolves because they aren’t willing to share the environment with these animals.

Arctic wolves are classified as of 'Least Concern'. They are not threatened.

Red wolves are classified as Critically Endangered, one reason being the fact that they kill cattle and are in turn killed by farmers.  Some suffer from fatal heartworm infestations and attempts are being made to prevent this.

Indian wolves are classified as Endangered. They are known to attack humans on occasion, and there is an ancient myth that they steal small children.  In a country where so many people are very poor, it is difficult to get funds to conserve an animal that people fear.

Himalayan wolves are classified as Critically Endangered, with only about 350 left in the wild. 

Ethiopian wolves are classified as Critically Endangered, with less than 500 left in the wild. They are protected by law, but it is very difficult to enforce this.  The wolves are hunted and killed. They have also been affected by a fatal animal disease called rabies.

Read about the various grey wolf species

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Canis_lupus/

Read about red wolves

http://www.defenders.org/red-wolf/basic-facts