Wolf, a doglike mammal of the Northern Hemisphere. The wolf has a broad head with a long muzzle, slanted eyes, and erect ears. Its canine teeth are curved. It has a bushy tail that hangs down and a thick coat composed of two layers of hair—an inner layer of soft, insulating hair and an outer layer of stiff, protective hairs called guard hairs.Wolves communicate by yelping, growling, and howling.
The wolf is an intelligent, social animal. It communicates with other wolves by whining, yelping, growling, or howling. It lives in a pack of 5 to 15 individuals, led by an adult male. The wolf is a skillful hunter with a keen sense of smell, acute hearing, and great stamina. It works together with other wolves in the pack to kill such prey as moose, caribou, and deer. The wolf also feeds on small rodents and birds, insects, crayfish, and berries.
Wolves usually mate for life and both parents take care of the young. They make dens in caves, in hollow logs, or in burrows in stream banks or sandy knolls. After a gestation period of 63 days, the female gives birth to four to seven pups. The pups stay with the parents for up to two years. A family group often forms a pack. Wolves normally live 10 to 18 years.
Wolves are closely related to dogs, and can interbreed with them. Most biologists believe that dogs were bred from wolves and that this breeding occurred about 12,000 years ago.
Wolves have been the subject of many superstitions and legends. The wolf appears as a villain in such fairy tales as "Little Red Riding Hood" and "The Three Little Pigs." Although wolves are often portrayed as vicious, they rarely attack humans.
There are two species of wolves—the gray, or timber, wolf and the red wolf. The gray wolf is 26 to 38 inches (66 to 97 cm) high at the shoulder and up to 80 inches (2 m) long, including a 14- to 20-inch (36- to 50-cm) tail. It weighs 60 to 130 pounds (27 to 59 kg). Its coat is typically light gray sprinkled with black but may be pure white in the Arctic. Once found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, gray wolves had the greatest range of any land mammal. As civilization spread, humans exterminated gray wolves from all but a fraction of this range. In North America gray wolves are now most commonly found in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Alaska, parts of the United States Northwest, and parts of Canada. A desert subspecies, the Mexican wolf, is found chiefly in parts of Mexico.
The red wolf is about 16 inches (40 cm) high at the shoulder and up to 65 inches (1.7 m) long, including a 13- to 16-inch (33- to 40-cm) tail. It weighs 40 to 90 pounds (18 to 41 kg). It has a reddish coat with tawny areas on the muzzle and ears, and black at the tip of the tail. The red wolf is closely related to both the gray wolf and the coyote and may have developed from crossbreeding between these two species. The range of the red wolf once extended from North Carolina to Texas. By the late 1970's its range was reduced to parts of Louisiana and eastern Texas, due to indiscriminate hunting and loss of habitat. Since the late 1980's, some red wolves that were bred in captivity have been released in parts of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Wolves once hunted all over North America, Europe, and Asia. They occupied a larger territory than any other land mammal, except humans. Wolves lived in every kind of habitat, from forests to plains, and from mountains to swamps.
Today, wolves are almost extinct in many of their natural habitats. Many wolves disappeared because people hunted and killed them. Others gradually vanished as the great forests and grasslands were made into farms, highways, and cities.