Gray wolf facts: The gray wolf, ancestor to the domestic dog, is the largest of the wild dogs. Males weigh up to 175 pounds (80 kilograms). The smoky gray fur is tipped with brown or red hair. The long, bushy tail helps the wolf keep its balance when running, while large, padded paws provide traction (resistance to slipping), especially in snow.
Geographic range: Gray wolves, although sparsely populated, occur in more than fifty countries, including the United States, Canada, Russia, Spain, Portugal, and Italy.
Gray wolf habitat: Gray wolves live in deciduous forests inhabited by their main prey, herbivores (plant-eaters), such as deer, elk, and moose. They also thrive in the tundra and desert, where they prey on small animals.
What does gray wolf eat: Packs hunt large ungulates, or hoofed animals, such as elk and deer, but lone wolves usually hunt smaller animals, including rabbits, beavers, and mice. Wolves also eat carrion and prey on domestic livestock, insects, fish, and berries. In the Arctic, they eat birds, seals, and caribou. An adult eats an average of 5.5 to 13 pounds (2.5 to 6 kilograms) of food per day. If food is unavailable, it can fast for two or more weeks.
Behavior and reproduction: Gray wolves live in packs of as many as thirty individuals, consisting of parents, offspring, and relatives. The top dogs are the dominant male and female, called the alpha pair. They alone breed and feed first. However, younger and more powerful members may replace the leaders at any time. Sometimes, couples pair off and leave the pack.
The pack uses facial expressions, body postures, and vocalizations to communicate. Members show submission by licking the leader’s face or rolling on their back. Howling is used to warn other packs that a certain territory is taken, to announce the start of a hunting expedition, or to summon members to help defend a kill. The pack hunts together, traveling for up to 30 miles (about 48 kilometers) a day.
Gray wolves mate for life, producing six or seven pups a year. Pack members care for the young when the mother goes hunting. Adults feed weaned pups regurgitated (re-GER-jih-tate-ed) food, partly digested food kept in the stomach and brought up to the mouth.
Gray wolves and people: Although humans have always felt threatened by wolves, no attack has ever been reported. In fact, wolves avoid human contact. Some hunters regard wolves as competitors for big game (wild animals hunted for sport).
Conservation status: In 1973, on the brink of extinction from extensive killing, gray wolves were placed under the protection of the newly enacted U.S. Endangered Species Act. They were subsequently reintroduced to the Yellowstone National Park. Some states established programs to protect them. Since then, the gray wolf populations have increased. In 2003, gray wolves (except those in the Southwest) were reclassified as Threatened, or likely to become extinct in the foreseeable future. The IUCN does not list the gray wolf as a threatened species worldwide.