Owing to their once-vast distribution, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) is known by many names. People refer to individuals of the species, or various subspecies, as tundra wolves, plains wolves, Mexican wolves, timberwolves, common wolves or just plain wolves. Historically plentiful throughout the Northern Hemisphere, modern wolves live in scattered populations across parts of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Greenland and Eurasia. Owing to their geographic range north of the Arctic Circle, individuals of the Arctic wolf subspecies (Canis lupus arctos) are most likely to be called tundra wolves.
Coats of Many Colors
Despite the colors indicated by their common names, gray wolves and red wolves (Canis rufus) are distinguished not by the color of their fur but by size and build. Gray wolves are typically larger than red wolves, although red wolves have longer ears. In fact, gray wolves need not be gray at all. Their fur color varies geographically and also with age. Arctic wolves sport all-white coats, which helps them blend in with the snowy tundra where they make their homes. This fur is longer and thicker than other wolves' fur, to keep them warm during the cold Arctic winters. Gray wolves further south may be gray, red, brown, black or any combination of those colors.
Power of the Pack
As social and intelligent animals, wolves live in packs with between five and nine members on average—usually made up of a dominant pair and various generations of their offspring. Individual tundra wolves take down smaller prey like Arctic hares on their own. However, wolves prefer eating larger animals like moose and caribou. Musk oxen are particularly favored prey of Arctic wolves. They use planning and teamwork to take their kill—no small feat considering these ungulates typically travel in herds and one individual may be 10 times the size of a single wolf. Using their keen powers of observation, wolves identify and isolate the weaker or younger members of a herd and agree on a target. The pack attacks as one.
A top-down hierarchy governs wolf packs, with the alpha male and alpha female on top. The alpha male holds dominance over every member of the pack. The alpha female is his sole mate, dominant over all other pack members except the alpha male. This dominant pair is the only couple in the pack that breeds, although all members of the pack care for, protect and feed the pups. They mate for life, and if one of them dies another member of the pack will rise to take over the alpha position. If the alpha male in particular is injured or ill, the beta male may take over. When this happens, the deposed alpha male typically leaves the pack, taking on a lone nomad existence.
Apex Predators in Need of Protection
No other animal preys on adult wolves, but due to the fear that wolves would harm livestock, people have killed them for centuries, eradicating the species in many parts of the world. Although wolves occasionally do kill livestock, they prefer wild ungulates to domestic cows and other farm animals. The species as a whole is not considered threatened, but many regional populations are threatened by human persecution and habitat destruction. Struggling populations were brought back from the brink in the continental United States and Greenland, thanks to recovery programs that combine habitat preservation with captive breeding and reintroduction. Arctic wolves fare better than their more southern counterparts because people haven't settled extensively in the inhospitable environment where they live.
Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.