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The Body Structure of Wolves

| Updated September 26, 2017

Wolves are the largest of the canids, a family of mammals that includes dogs, foxes, coyotes and jackals. Wolves have dense and muscular bodies. These skilled predators run fast and have heightened senses, allowing them to find, chase down and kill prey with their powerful jaws. Their body structure also plays a role in the wolf pack, helping to establish dominance.


Most wolves have gray fur, though some have white or black. Their fur is wiry, long and dense, with a fluffy undercoat of gray, black or white hairs. The animal's pelt is thick to keep the wolf warm during the winter. Wolves shed their hairs annually in the spring. The hair on the neck and shoulders stands up when the wolf feels aggressive. As wolves age, their pelts lighten. They have thick and bushy tails.


Wolf legs are designed for running, which they use to chase and tire out larger prey. They have narrow chests and hips. Wolves have toes that move individually. Their toes have heavy paw pads to protect them while running. The claws are blunt and do not retract. In contrast, a cat's claws do retract. A wolf's hindfeet have four toes and its forefeet have five. The fifth toe on the forefoot, called the dewclaw, does not touch the ground. Some wolves do not have this toe.


Because wolves need to bring down large prey, their bones are often put under high strain. Therefore, wolves have strong bones. Their bone structure makes their bodies streamlined, including their narrow collarbones and wrist bones. The wolf's forelimbs do not rotate, which adds stability for running. The skull is long and narrow, allowing the wolf to hold onto prey. Wolves have large brains that help them engage in social activities, so they have large skulls.


Wolves have scent glands near the side of the tail closest to the backbone. This gland is located where there is a spot in the fur. They have scent glands near the anal glands, which release an odor used to identify the wolf. Wolves raise their tails when in a dominant position so other wolves know their rank. They will lower their tails when in a submissive position. Wolves have scent glands near the roof of the mouth and between their toes. They have 10 times the ability of dogs to detect odor and 100 times that of people. Wolves have short, blunt and broad muzzles. They use their moistened noses to cool the blood flowing through the muzzle, which helps them avoid overheating.


Wolves usually have yellow eyes, though some have maroon eyes. Baby wolves have deep blue eyes that gradually lighten and then fade as they age. Full-blooded wolves do not have blue eyes in adulthood, but some wolf hybrids do. They are near-sighted. Their eyes effectively detect motion and they have strong peripheral vision. They have better night vision than people. They are partially colorblind. They have a third eyelid that stretches across the eye and releases oil to lubricate it.


Wolves have strong jaws that allow them to bite with twice as much pressure as a German shepherd. Their tongues have projections called papillae that help them groom and rip meat from bones.


Wolf ears are small and rounded. Wolves can move their ears in different directions, letting them hear more effectively. They also use ear motion to communicate with other wolves. Their hearing is 16 times more sensitive than human ears.