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Gray Wolf Facts

Amruta Deshpande
Gray wolf, the ancestor of the domestic dog, is the largest member of the canine family. Wolves have always had a close connection to humans and were first domesticated in the Middle East. Learn more about this beautiful animal, its unique characteristics and habitat.
Gray wolf, scientifically known as Canis lupus, is an ice age survivor, that is believed to have originated about 300,000 years ago. Although, it was one of the most widely distributed mammal in the early years, there has been a rapid decrease in the gray wolf population. 
According to Endangered Species Act (ESA) gray wolf population had rapidly decreased in some parts of the world. However, it still has a stable population and relatively widespread range around the world, which means that the species is not threatened at a global level.
It is therefore classified by the IUCN as 'Least Concern'. Gray wolf has several subspecies, namely Tundra wolf, Plains wolf, Arctic wolf, Timber wolf and Mexican wolf.

Gray wolf classification

Scientific Name: Canis Lupus
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Mammalia
Subclass: Eutheria
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canidae
Genus: Canis

Physical Description

● A gray wolf is similar in appearance to a German Shepherd, but has a larger head, narrower chest, longer legs and bigger paws.
● The height of gray wolf ranges between 0.6 to 0.9 meters and an adult gray wolf weighs between 32 and 68 kilograms.
● The length of gray wolf varies from 4.5 feet to 6.5 feet, as measured from the nose to the tip of its tail.
● A female gray wolf weighs about 20% less than a male and is shorter in height too.
● Gray wolves have coats that range in color from grizzled gray or black to complete white. They have a yellowish white fur covering the legs and the belly.
● They have bulky coats made up of two layers. The first layer of the coat consists of tough guard hair while the second layer is dense and water-resistant, acting as an insulator.
● A gray wolf's front paws have five toes each, while the rear paws have four.
● Unlike dogs, a gray wolf carries its head at the same level as the back, raising it only when it is alert.

Population and Range

● The Indian subcontinent is the most likely cradle of wolf evolution, as it is home to three distinct wolf lineages. The most ancient is that of the Himalayan wolf, which is thought to have originated around 800,000 years ago.
● The gray wolf habitat spans Asia, Europe and North America.
● The gray wolf was once the world's most widely distributed mammal, after humans and deer. The species is nearing extinction in much of Western Europe, in Mexico and much of the USA.
● Thanks to the successful wolf reintroduction program, wolves are now back in Yellowstone National Park, USA, after an absence of almost 70 years.


● They are usually gregarious and are often seen in packs that have a highly developed social order.

● The packs are led by the alpha pair, which is the breeding pair of the pack. Other members included in the pack are the alpha pair's offspring and some unrelated wolves.
●The average pack consists of a family of 5 - 11 wolves, sometimes two packs temporarily join forces for a big hunt.

●Wolves are highly territorial animals and generally establish large territories in order to assure a steady supply of prey.
● Scent marking is used for claiming territory or fresh kills. The breeding pair generally urine-marks objects by a raised-leg stance while all the other members of the pack squat.

● Unless they are desperate, wolves avoid hunting outside their territories in order to avoid encounters with neighboring packs.

● Territorial fights often lead to fatalities.


● Gray wolves are carnivores and often prey on animals larger than them, including, deer, elk, caribou, moose, and some smaller animals like beavers, hares, sheep etc.

They are opportunistic feeders and may also feed on livestock, carrion and even garbage.

Sometimes wolves also prey on birds.

Hunting style

Wolves usually hunt in packs and every pack member has an assigned job in the process of the hunt. A pack's hunting style can be divided into 5 stages:
  1. Locate: Wolves use scent to locate their prey. They can smell a prey from miles away.
  2. Stalk: Once the prey is located, the wolves stalk it, trying to get as close as possible.
  • Encounter: Once the prey detects the wolves, it either tries to run or stands its ground. If the prey runs, the wolves chase it and if it stands its ground, the wolves either ignore it, or try to intimidate it so that it starts running.
Isolate: If the prey is in a group, the pack of wolves try to isolate one of them from the herd. This is when the pack work as a team and surround the prey, eventually isolating it.Chase: Once isolated, the wolves chase the prey.
Gray wolves are known for their speed while chasing and can reach a speed of about 40 mph during a chase, however, they rely on their stamina rather than speed while hunting. Wolves have excellent stamina and they tend to tire the prey before killing it.
Wolves usually give up chasing after 0.62 - 1.3 mi (1-2 km), although one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 13 mi (21 km).


● Wolves communicate through body language, scent-marking, barking, growling and howling. Much of their communication is about reinforcing the social hierarchy of the pack.
● Howling is mainly used to assemble the pack and to assert territorial boundaries. Wolves howl to assemble the pack (usually before and after hunts), to pass on an alarm (particularly at a den site), to locate each other during a storm or unfamiliar territory, and to communicate across great distances.
● When a wolf is in battle mode, it looks directly in the opponents eyes, canines bared, with neck arched, body erect and head and tail held high.
● When submitting, a wolf's tail goes between the hind legs, neck is lowered and there is no eye contact.
● A playful wolf dances and bows.


● The average lifespan of a gray wolf is about 7 to 8 years, however, some wolves may live for 10 years or more.
● The gray wolf is generally monogamous. The mated pairs usually remaining together for life, unless one of the pair dies.
● The gestation period is about 60 to 63 days and pups arrive mainly in the months from March to June.
● Wolves bear relatively large pups in small litters compared to other canid species.
● The average litter consists of 5 - 6 pups.

Interesting Facts

● The saliva of the gray wolf has antibacterial properties and helps to heal wounds.
● While artistic renditions have wolves howling at the moon, the truth is wolves howl only when they have to communicate. Wolves howl to mark their territory, call out to their pack, communicate location and to greet other pack members.
● When a gray wolf pup is born, it only weighs about one pound, the same as about four sticks of butter.
● Wolf pups are born blind and deaf, and must be cared for, until they mature at around ten months of age.
● Wolves are frequently mentioned in human folklore. In Roman mythology, the Wolf-Goddess Lupa finds Romulus and Remus, future founders of Rome, as infants and nurses them until a shepherd took them in.
● Wolf tracks can be difficult to distinguish from those of large dogs.
● Wolf and dog DNA differs by only two-tenths of one percent (0.2%).
● Wolves and human beings have a long adversarial history. Although wolves rarely attack humans, both wolves and humans are predators at the top of the food chain.
● People have started domesticating hybrids of wolf and dogs. The current population of hybrids in the United States has been reported to be around 300,000. Kristen Stewart, actress of the famous series "Twilight", also owns a wolf hybrid.
Shaun Ellis, also sometimes known as the "Wolfman", is a behavior expert who conducts research by living with the wolves and becoming a part of their pack. He once stayed in the wild, with a wolf pack for almost 2 years. During this time he started behaving like wolves, howling, licking, snarling and even eating alongside them. He successfully managed to get along with the pack and at the same time, observe their behavior. He has contributed a lot to the study of wolf behavior and is currently handling multiple research projects, one of which is based in Yellowstone National Park.
The wolf has had an influence on the culture, art, and lore of human societies even before historical times. The image of "the big, bad wolf" still prevails in many parts of the world. This perception has led to wolves being hunted to extinction in many parts of the world where they once were plentiful. The WWF is making efforts to have hunting restrictions to prevent the rapid decrease in the population of these beautiful and majestic mammals.