a wolf walking through snow

The Grey Wolf our Dogs Ancestor

The history of the Grey Wolf

The grey wolf or Canis lupus, often known simply as wolf, is the largest wild member of the Canidae family.

It is an ice age survivor originating during the Late Pleistocene around 300,000 years ago. DNA sequencing and genetic drift studies reaffirm that the grey wolf shares a common ancestry with the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Although certain aspects of this conclusion have been questioned, including recently, the main body of evidence confirms it.

A number of other grey wolf subspecies have been identified, though the actual number of subspecies is still open to discussion. Gray wolves are typically apex predators in the ecosystems they occupy. Though not as adaptable as more generalist canid species, wolves have thrived in temperate forests, deserts, mountains, tundra, taiga, grasslands, and even urban areas.

wolf

Though once abundant over much of Eurasia and North America, the grey wolf inhabits a very small portion of its former range because of widespread destruction of its territory, human encroachment, and the resulting human-wolf encounters that sparked broad extirpation. Even so, the grey wolf is regarded as being of least concern for extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, when the entire grey wolf population is considered as a whole.

Today, wolves are protected in some areas, hunted for sport in others, or may be subject to extermination as perceived threats to livestock and pets.

In areas where human cultures and wolves are sympatric, wolves frequently feature in the folklore and mythology of those cultures, both positively and negatively.

Physical characteristics

Grey wolf weight and size can vary greatly worldwide, tending to increase proportionally with latitude as predicted by Bergmann’s Rule. In general, height varies from 0.6 to 0.95 meters (24 to 37 in) at the shoulder. Wolf weight varies geographically; on average, European wolves may weigh 38.5 kilograms (85 lb), North American wolves 36 kilograms (79 lb), and Indian and Arabian wolves 25 kilograms (55 lb).[6] Though rarely encountered, extreme specimens of more than 77 kilograms (170 lb) have been recorded in Alaska, Canada, and the former Soviet Union. The heaviest recorded grey wolf in the New World was killed on 70 Mile River in east-central Alaska on July 12, 1939 and weighed 79 kilograms (170 lb), while the heaviest recorded wolf in the Old World was killed after World War II in the Kobelyakski Area of the Poltavskij Region in the Ukrainian SSR, and weighed 86 kilograms (190 lb).

Grey wolf are sexually dimorphic, with females in any given wolf population typically weighing 20% less than males. Females also have narrower muzzles and foreheads; slightly shorter, smoother furred legs; and less massive shoulders. Gray wolves can measure anywhere from 1.3 to 2 meters (4.3 to 6.6 ft) from nose to the tip of the tail, which itself accounts for approximately one quarter of overall body length.

Wolves have bulky coats consisting of two layers. The first layer is made up of tough guard hairs that repel water and dirt. The second is a dense, water-resistant undercoat that insulates. The undercoat is shed in the form of large tufts of fur in late spring or early summer (with yearly variations).

A wolf will often rub against objects such as rocks and branches to encourage the loose fur to fall out. The undercoat is usually gray regardless of the outer coat’s appearance. Wolves have distinct winter and summer pelages that alternate in spring and autumn. Females tend to keep their winter coats further into the spring than males.

Fur coloration varies greatly, running from gray to gray-brown, all the way through the canine spectrum of white, red, brown, and black. These colors tend to mix in many populations to form predominantly blended individuals, though it is not uncommon for an individual or an entire population to be entirely one color (usually all black or all white). With the exception of Italy, in which black wolves can constitute 20-25% of the entire population, melanistic wolves rarely occur outside the North American continent.

According to genetic examinations, the black coat colour is based on a mutation that first arose among domestic dogs and later migrated into the wolf-population via interbreeding. A multicolour coat characteristically lacks any clear pattern other than it tends to be lighter on the animal’s underside.

Fur colour sometimes corresponds with a given wolf population’s environment; for example, all-white wolves are much more common in areas with perennial snow cover. Ageing wolves acquire a greyish tint in their coats.

It is often thought that the coloration of the wolf’s pelage serves as a functional form of camouflage. This may not be entirely correct, as some scientists have concluded that the blended colours have more to do with emphasising certain gestures during interaction.

Wolves and most larger dogs share identical dentition. The maxilla has six incisors, two canines, eight premolars, and four molars. The mandible has six incisors, two canines, eight premolars, and six molars. The fourth upper premolars and first lower molars constitute the carnassial teeth, which are essential tools for shearing flesh.

The long canine teeth are also important, in that they hold and subdue the prey. Capable of delivering up to 10,000 kilopascals (1,500 psi) of pressure, a wolf’s teeth are its main weapons as well as its primary tools. This is roughly twice the pressure that a domestic dog of similar size can deliver. The dentition of grey wolves is better suited to bone crushing than those of other modern canids, though it is not as specialised as that found in hyenas.

group of wolves

Social structure

Occasionally, single wolves are found in the wild, though packs are more common. Lone wolves are typically old specimens driven from their pack or young adults in search of new territory. Wolf packs in the northern hemisphere tend not to be as compact or unified as those of African Wild Dogs and Spotted Hyenas, though they are not as unstable as those of coyotes.

Normally, the pack consists of a male, a female, and their offspring, essentially making the pack a nuclear family. The size of the pack may change over time and is controlled by several factors, including habitat, personalities of individual wolves within a pack, and food supply.

Packs can contain between 2 and 20 wolves, though 8 is a more typical size. An unusually large pack consisting of 36 wolves was reported in 1967 in Alaska. While most breeding pairs are monogamous, there are exceptions.

Wolves will usually remain with their parents until the age of two years. Young from the previous season will support their parents in nursing pups of a later year.

Wolf cubs are very submissive to their parents, and remain so after reaching sexual maturity.
On occasion in captivity, subordinate wolves may rise up and challenge the dominant pair.

There are no documented cases of subordinate wolves challenging the leadership of their parents. Instead of openly challenging the leadership of the pack leaders, most young wolves between the ages of 1-4 years leave their family in order to search for, or start, a pack of their own.

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