What are Wolves?

Wolves are related to dogs.  Their scientific classification is Canis Lupus.  They are similar in many ways to dogs, except that in most cases, they are larger.  Wolves generally have longer legs than dogs.  Dogs are in fact related to wolves.  It is estimated that wolves were first domesticated about 12,000 years ago.  A lot of time has taken place since, allowing plenty of variation.  It is difficult to imagine, but everything from a Pug, to a Pitbull, to a Chihuaua came from the wolf.

    Wolves are wild animals.  They survive by hunting and consuming large ungulate (hooved) animals.  They used to be common to most of the Northern Hemisphere.  Currently, they are found in Canada in the greatest numbers, and also occur in much smaller numbers in Russia, Northern Europe, and some isolated regions in the United States.  Most wolves in the United States are in Alaska and extreme northern Minnesota.  Some wolves are also in the northern Rocky mountains.  There are also a very few (22 as of December 1999) in Arizona.

    The most unique trait of wolves is their intelligence and social behavior.  Wolves are highly social animals, living in family groups called packs.  These packs are tightly knit social groups, with a ranking structure in place, most generally believed for keeping the pack organized for purposes of the hunt and care of the pack.  Wolf packs typically consist of an Alpha pair, the only pair that mates, a Beta, or supporter, subordinates, or other members of the pack, and the Omega, typically a female, who bears the brunt of the pack’s stress.  Each wolf in the pack plays a vital role.  According to general knowledge about wolves, the male and female wolves dictate and control the hierarchy of their own, that is, the males maintain a separate pack order from the females, though all will enforce the position of the Omega.  The Alpha wolves are not always the strongest.  It is thought by many, including the author, that the Alpha pair is a leadership role, one that is characterized by organization and rallying, rather than forceful domination and strength.  This is due to the very nature of the pack.  It is not vital that the pack be as strong as can be, but as organized as possible, so that the hunt can be as successful as possible, putting food in the stomachs of all members.  The Beta wolf usually does the ‘enforcing’ of the pack structure, showing support for the Alpha, and ‘reminding’ the other members of who is in charge.  Typically, the Alpha will be first to eat, and given ‘the best cut’, but not always; pack dynamics are not fully understood.  The Omega wolf plays a vital role.  It bears the stress of the pack, kind of a scapegoat.  Though it does take the abuse of the pack, it is an essential role, as the pack must find a way to relieve stress if the hunt is not successful, or if a pack member is angered or stressed for any other reason.  As unbelievable as it sounds, the Omega finds comfort in it’s position.  The Omega is not always the weakest member of the pack.  It is not unheard of for the Omega to rise to Alpha, even without stepping up through the pack!

Wolves are very family oriented.  In fact, in most cases, wolf packs are families.  Typically, a pair will meet, breed, and form a pack.  Some members of the pack, when old enough, usually around 22 months or so, the age of sexual maturity, will disperse, or leave the pack in search of a new pack, or a mate.  It is these dispersers, when joining, that will form new packs.  A wolf pack can be most accurately described as a family.  This structure is best suited to the needs of the wolf.  They have survived that way for many thousands of years.  Though not typical, incest can and does occur in wolves.  Wolves, unlike most species, are very immune to the effects of inbreeding.  One striking example of this is the Isle Royale pack.  These wolves came to an island on an ice bridge.  The wolves were isolated, and therefore could only survive by continued inbreeding.  It has been more than 25 years, and these wolves still survive, and in fact, are stronger than ever.  This kind of immunity to inbreeding was though impossible, and in fact, during a particularly harsh winter on the island, was thought to be the blame for the sharp decrease in the number of wolves there.  The wolves quickly recovered, and are still on the island today, where they offer a unique opportunity for researchers.

Wolves communicate in many ways.  Primary communication seems to be body language, gesture, and expression.  Wolves do vocalize in the form of howling and other minor ways such as whines, whimpers, yips and sometimes even barks.  Within the pack, especially when they are together in close proximity, most communication is non-vocal.  Wolf packs are very close nit, and contact with each other is an important part of the pack structure.  ‘Mob greetings’, wherein a large number, if not all, of the pack gather and lick and/or sniff each other, are commonplace.  Howling does occur within the pack, for various reasons including rallying for a hunt, mourning, communication with other packs or distant pack members, and other still-unknown reasons.  Territory is enforced using howls.  Communication can also be accomplished through scenting, scent marking, or scat.  Wolves do of course scent mark their territory.  They have also been known to leave scat as some apparent form of warning or indicator to other packs.  This makes wolves easy to track, as this is usually done on common paths or trails used by wolves and other animals.

Wolves’ survival is dependent upon their hunting.  Wolves in North America primarily hunt elk.  They also hunt deer, moose, bison, mountain goats, antelope, boar, and other similar ungulates (hooved animals).  It is documented in many places that wolves tend NOT to hunt livestock, seeming to prefer their usual wild prey.  However, taking of livestock by wolves does occur.