Apr 17, 2007
2:00/1:00 MT/PT
Watch the program facts links home

     Wolf in YellowstoneWolves are amazing creatures! You probably know something about  them from fairy tales like, "Little Red Riding Hood, or  "The Three Little Pigs". In those stories the wolves act  like scary and evil creatures. There are many other folk  tales where wolves look silly, helpful and even wise. Are  wolves misunderstood? Are they dangerous? What are they really like?
 A good way to understand wolves is to learn more about them, not from fairy tales, but from scientific research.

Let's begin our fact finding mission about wolves now!

What problems are there from learning about wolves from folk tales?

Big Bad Wolf
Wolf Stories

      In order for scientists to be able to understand each other no matter what language they speak they have an international way of naming living organisms. The scientific names are written in a language called Latin.
      This system of classification was established by Carl Linneaus in the 1750's. Learn more about the science of naming things, "Taxonomy".
Explore the Tree of Life from the University of Arizona.

     Some important details about wolves are that they are mammals, (like cats, deer, elephants and dolphins) and they are carnivores, a group of mammals that eats meat. They belong to the dog family called, "Canidae" which also includes coyotes, jackals, dingoes and the domestic dog.


Wolf Classification

The Canids of North America are wolves, coyotes, and foxes.

Wolf Track

Did you know?Every dog is descended from wolves that were tamed in the Middle East about 12,000 years ago. At that time, wolves probably ate the scraps of food left by humans. People soon realized that wolves could lead them to food. Humans hand-raised wolf pups who then accepted the humans as their leaders. FactWolves can eat about 25% of their body weight in one meal! If you weigh 80 pounds, would have to eat 20 pounds of food at one meal to be like a wolf!

Lots of FactsSmall pawBlack fur
2 species of wolves occur in North America, gray wolves (Canis lupus), and red wolves (Canis rufus). We'll study the Gray Wolf, the one that lives in Idaho.

Small pawColors: Wolves vary in color from white to gray, brown, and black. Arctic Wolves are white so that they blend into the snow.

Small pawWeight and Height:

Average length
(tip of nose to tip of tail):
females: 4.5 to 6 feet
males: 5 to 6.5 feet

Average height
(at the shoulder):
26 to 32 inches

Average weight:
females: 60 to 80 pounds
males: 70 to 110 pounds

Life Span
: They can live up to 13 years in the wild, but the average life-span is 6-8 years.

Small pawSpeed: They can run for short distances at speeds of about 35 mph.

Small pawNumbers: There are an estimated 9, 000 wolves in Alaska and about 4,000 in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. There are about 200,000 wolves in the whole world, but there used to be about 2 million.

Take a look at Fast Facts from PBS's NOW.

Small pawRange During the 1800's the gray wolves ranged all over North America and the red wolf occurred in the southeast US. When settlers first moved into the west there were many animals to hunt, especially buffalo. Slowly the settlers hunted more and more animals until many were almost eliminated. When the deer, bison, elk and moose were almost depleted, wolves turned to domestic livestock like cattle and sheep for food. In the late 1800's wolves were eliminated from most of the lower 48 states by shooting, trapping, and poisoning.

     Today the range of gray wolves in the US is: Alaska, Idaho, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

Small pawHabitat Gray wolves live in forests, and alpine and arctic tundra. A large pack's home range or territory covers 100 to 260 square miles in forested areas but about 1200 square miles on the tundra.
Howling Wolf
They defend their home range from intruders by scent-marking, body language and howling. Listen to wolf howls.
On a calm night, howls can be heard from as far away as 120 miles.
Small pawBehavior Wolves are very social animals and, like dogs, they are loyal, affectionate, and highly intelligent. They live in packs. The strongest and smartest male of the pack is the leader. He is called the "alpha" male. There is also an "alpha" Wolf Packfemale, but the "alpha" male is dominant over the entire packs. Packs are very organized. All about packs
     A pack has a male and female parent (the alpha animals) and their pups from the last few years. There can be 2 to 15 animals in a pack but usually there are 4 to 7. Sometimes 2 packs combine. All members of the pack help to raise the 4-7 pups that are are born April or May. The pack works together when hunting for food, feeding the pups, and defending their territory.
Body LanguageSubmissive Wolf
      Wolves use body language to show other wolves how they feel about things. To show anger, a wolf may stick its ears straight up and bare its teeth Suspicion is shown by pulling the ears back and squinting And when a wolf is afraid, it may flatten its ears against its head.

Tail     The rank of a wolf in the dominance order of the pack can often be seen in the way it carries its tail. A more dominant wolf carries its tail high. A less dominant wolf carries it low.

Read more about wolf communication.

Food and Hunting Wolves are carnivores and normally eat large ungulates such as white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose, caribou, elk, Dall sheep, and bighorn sheep. They sometimes eat smaller mammals, like rabbits, beavers, voles, lemmings, ground squirrels and snowshoe hare. They also eat carrion.
     Gray wolves are important to the balance of the food chain because they help to control the number of caribou and other ungulates so the herds won't get too large. If the herds become too big there isn't enough food for everyone in the herd and they may become sick and weak. Wolves hunt the sick animals so the disease won't spread. Uncover more about wolf Predation on Ungulates

A wolf's nose is so sensitive that it can smell prey that is more than a mile away.
Wolf Puppies The alpha female has her puppies in April or May in a den (which could be a rock cave, crevice or a hole in the ground.) Baby wolves get a lot of loving Wolk Puppycare from the moment they are born: they are  well fed, cleaned, and protected.

     The pups leave the den when they are 4 weeks old but  stay close by, in case of danger. If the mother goes hunting  another member of the pack "baby-sits". After they are  weaned from their mother's milk they eat regurgitated meat  brought to them by other pack members. At about 7 - 8  months the pups begin traveling as a part of the pack an learn how to hunt. Wolf pups love to play by stalking and pouncing on their brothers and sisters. They also have special wolf "toys" like skins of animals, bones and feathers feathers. The skills they learn while playing will help them when they begin to hunt.

Scientist holding a pup
Marc Johnson holding a wolf pup in Yellowstone National Park

Wolf Families
Head PhotoEven though wolves are social among themselves, they usually avoid human contact. In the past 100 years, there have been several published reports of human injuries, but no fatalities, due to wolves. (http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/233/gray-wolf-facts.html)

Radio Telemetry How do scientists gather all this information about wolves and manage wolf  populations? First, scientists must be great observers. They can study animal  tracks, and scent marks left by wolves. Scientists also use special equipment to  study animals. Radio-telemetry and Global Positioning Systems help researchers to  follow movements of a wolf. Binoculars and spotting scopes let them observe from far away. Learn more about scientist tools and methods... then visit out wolf links as you continue your fact-finding mission and become an expert about wolves. Read about Wolves in Idaho.

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