It depends who you ask! Wolf taxonomy has long been the subject of a lengthy, ongoing scientific debate. Some members of the scientific community argue that there are two species of wolves in North America: the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). However, recent genomic research supports a three species model recognized by Canada, which promotes the eastern (Algonquin) wolf (Canis lycaon), previously considered a subspecies of gray wolf, to a distinct species.
There are two universally recognized species of wolves in the world: the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the red wolf (Canis rufus). There is debate about whether the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), sometimes referred to as the Abyssinian wolf, is a member of the wolf or jackal family (Canis aureus). There is also debate about whether the eastern (Algonquin) wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf (Canis lupus lycaon), or a distinct species (Canis lycaon).
The red wolf and gray wolf are two different species of wolf. The red wolf is smaller than most gray wolves. Red wolves range in size from 45 pounds to 80 pounds. Red wolves are mostly brown and tan with black along their backs and red behind the ears while gray wolves can be entirely black, white and any natural combination in between. Red wolves have pointier facial features than gray wolves. Red wolf howls are higher in pitch and more screechy than those of gray wolves. The red wolf diet is made up of a combination of white-tailed deer, raccoons, rabbits and other rodents such as mice and nutria. The gray wolf diet includes elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bison, caribou, mountain goats, beaver, rabbits and musk oxen from the Arctic. Both red wolves and gray wolves are shy and elusive and stay away from humans. Wild red wolves live only in the United States where gray wolf populations occupy diverse lands in the earth’s northern hemisphere. The red wolf is listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Only Mexican gray wolves, a subspecies of gray wolf, share this same status.
There are five subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus) in North America.
- Canis lupus baileyi - the Mexican wolf or lobo.
- Canis lupus nubilus - the Great Plains or buffalo wolf.
- Canis lupus occidentalis - the Canadian or Rocky Mountain wolf.
- Canis lupus lycaon - the eastern or Algonquin wolf. Some scientists believe this wolf is a separate species, Canis lycaon.
- Canis lupus arctos- the arctic wolf.
The red wolf is listed as an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act but with exceptions as a nonessential experimental population. Historically, red wolves once numbered in thousands. They ranged from Pennsylvania to Florida and Texas. By 1970 there were fewer than one hundred red wolves living in a small area of coastal Texas and Louisiana. To save the species from extinction, the remaining red wolves were brought into captivity. Only 14 of these animals were considered true red wolves and they became a part of the captive breeding program. In 1987, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) released four pairs of red wolves into the wild at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina. Red wolves remain among the world’s most endangered species. As of July 2021, 9 red wolves are known to remain in the wild.
Gray wolves were once the most widely distributed wild mammals. They inhabited most of the available land in the northern hemisphere. Due to the destruction of their habitat and persecution by humans, they now occupy only about two-thirds of their former range worldwide, and only about 10 percent of the continental 48 United States. Additional information about the current population and legal status for U.S. wolves.
Gray wolves in the U.S. were striped of federal protections on January 4, 2021. They are now no longer listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. Learn more.
Adult wolves have 42 teeth, the same amount of teeth a dog has. A wolf’s teeth are highly specialized to hunt and cut through meat. The smaller front teeth, the incisors, are used to nibble meat off the bone. The longer canine teeth are used to grasp and hold their prey. The black teeth, the carnassials, are extremely sharp and used to cut through meat like a knife.
The gray wolf has a very strong bite and has the largest bite pressure of any canid - ranging 400 - 1200 lbs/square inch. Muscles above the skull control the powerful jaw and enable wolves to crush the large bones of their prey.
The size of a wolf varies depending on what subspecies of gray wolf they belong. In general, male wolves of a given subspecies will be larger than their female counterparts. Male gray wolves of the western Great Lake states average between 70 and 110 pounds and females in that population between 50 and 90 pounds. Male wolves in parts of Canada and the northern Rocky Mountain states average 85 to 115 pounds and those females between 70 and 95 pounds. Mexican gray wolves are smaller, the adult males usually weigh in between 60 and 80 pounds and females between 50 and 70 pounds. Red wolves range in size from 45 pounds to 80 pounds. The average adult female red wolf weighs 52 pounds, and the average adult male weighs 61 pounds.
The largest wolf ever recorded was shot dead in northwestern Bulgaria in 2007 and weighed in at 176.4 lbs. The largest wolf recorded in Yellowstone National Park (2011) weighed in at 148. Both of these large gray wolves were male.
All wolves are meat eaters - carnivores. Wolves are gorging animals meaning they can eat great amounts of meat in a single sitting (for gray wolves - about 20 pounds) and then go for days and even weeks without food at all. Adult gray thrive on an average of 7 pounds of food per day but can survive on an average as little as 2 pounds per day. Red wolves thrive on an average of 2-5 pounds of food per day.
Wolves are not known for their speed but they can achieve top speed around 35 mph in short bursts in pursuit of prey. Wolves do have great endurance. They can travel very long distances at a lope around 5 mph.
Wolves live in family units called packs. Wolf packs usually consist of the breeding pair or parents and their offspring of varying ages. It is not uncommon for unrelated wolves to join a family or pack.
The parent wolves in a pack are often referred to as the “alpha pair”, consisting of an alpha male and alpha female. While “alpha” is still widely used, most scientists prefer to identify the parents of the pack as the breeding pair or simply as the pack parents.
Wolves are social animals that live in family units called packs. Every pack will be unique but most consist of a breeding pair and their offspring of different ages. Between the ages of 2 and 3 yrs old, most males and some female offspring will leave the pack in order to start a pack of their own. During this period, wolves often live alone for days, weeks or longer until they find a mate or join an existing pack.
Wolves in North America are born during the months of April, May and the first week of June in the far north.
The gestation period (length of pregnancy) for wolves and dogs is 63 days.
For gray wolves, the average litter size is 4 – 6 pups. Different environmental pressures can determine the litter size. In areas where the prey density is low, the average litter size is smaller.
Wolves are “mono-estrus,” breeding just once a year between the months of January and March.
Wolves howl to communicate with one another over long distances. Wolves can hear one another howl up to 10 miles away in open terrain. Wolves can howl to locate other wolves, advertise the size of their pack or territory, to warn other packmates of danger, or simply to sing. Each wolf has a unique howl and when every member of the pack joins in, the individual howls and their harmonies give the listener the impression that the pack is larger than it actually is.
Wild wolves and wolves associated with a recovery program are often identified with alphanumeric names. The Mexican gray wolves and red wolves are both a part of federally run recovery programs. These two kinds of wolves are given an identification number recorded in an official studbook that tracks their history. Capital letters (M = Male, F = Female) preceding the number indicate adult animals 24 months or older. Lowercase letters (m = male, f = female) indicate wolves younger than 24 months or pups. The capital letter “A” preceding the letter and number indicate breeding wolves.
SSP stands for Species Survival Plan. The SSP program was developed in 1981 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to manage and conserve a select and typically threatened or endangered species population with the cooperation of AZA-accredited Zoos and Aquariums, Certified Related Facilities and Approved Non-Member Participants. The Wolf Conservation Center is a participant in 2 separate SSPs, one for the Mexican gray wolf and the other for the red wolf.
An ambassador wolf is an exhibit wolf tasked with inspiring adult and children to understand the importance of wild wolves. At the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC), the ambassadors are raised by a dedicated group of staff and volunteers from early in their puppyhood. Because the WCC’s ambassadors will never live free in the wild, staff and volunteers strive to thank them every day for helping people better understand their wild “brothers and sisters.” Gratitude can be in the form of enrichment items and challenges to keep the ambassadors happy and healthy inside and out.
|Kingdom||Animalia (all animals)|
|Phylum||Chordata (animals with notochords)|
|Subphylum||Vertebrata (animals with a skeleton of bone or cartilage)|
|Subclass||Eutheria (placental mammals)|
|Family||Canidae (dog family)|
|Species||lupus (gray wolves); rufus (red wolves); simensis (Abyssinian or Ethiopian wolf, which some scientists think is a jackal)|
Other Canid Species
|latrans (coyote); aureus (golden jackal); mesomelas (black-backed jackal); adustus (side-striped jackal); dingo (dingo); familiaris (domestic dog)|