The mighty, beautiful Wolf!! In nature, as spirit animals, totems or guides... Their beauty and strength can be an awesome, yet at times frightening, sight to see. My Wolf has been with me since I was about 6 years old. He was a great comfort then, as he is still today, and I will be 62 this year.
Whether you love our beautiful wilderness and the many beautiful animals we share our earth with, or if you have Wolf as your totem/spirit animal there is much to be learned.
In this first part I will go over information that deals with the real-life wolves and the amazing creatures that they are. Later in a continuing blog we will research Totem Wolves/Spirit Animals.
Wolf Ecology and Behaviour - Wolves are highly social animals that live in packs. A pack is an extended family group comprised of the breeding or “alpha” male and female pair and some of their subordinate offspring and current pups from one or more years. The alpha wolves decide when the pack will travel and hunt, and normally are the first to eat a kill. The pair's offspring normally disperse into adjacent or available territories at 2 to 3 years of age. For packs studied in the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the average dispersal distance and subsequent new pack formation is about 65 miles. For highly cursorial and very mobile wolves, this is “next-door.” Recent satellite-collar tracking data, however has shown that some offspring and individual wolves have dispersed more than a thousand miles in three or four months.
Almost always, the only male and female alphas of the pack will mate. Wolf packs typically have one litter of pups per year. Mating typically occurs between January and March. Wolves begin breeding between 2 and 3 years of age and are believed to mate for life. Once sexually mature, most wolves leave their birth pack to search for a new territory or to join an existing pack. Dispersing wolves roam 40 to 70 miles on average, and sometimes more than 100 miles, depending on gender, available habitat, and presence of other packs.
Wolf pups are born blind and deaf in an underground den after a 63-day gestation period. Litter size averages 4 to 6 pups. During the first 3 weeks, pups nurse every 4 – 6 hours and need help regulating their body temperatures. The mother usually stays with her young in the den, eating food brought to her by other members of the pack.
Wolf pups are weaned at about 8 weeks of age once they have begun eating semi-solid food, regurgitated by the mother or other members of the pack. As pups begin eating more solids, they are moved to one or more “rendezvous sites,” where they spend the remainder of the summer learning proper pack behaviour and etiquette. At 6 to 8 months, the pups begin to travel with the pack and join in hunts. Fewer than half of wolf pups born in the wild survive to adulthood. Survival rates are affected by disease, malnutrition and predation.
Few wolves live more than 5 years in the wild, but with ideal conditions can reach 15 years of age. Wolf populations are naturally regulated by prey density and territorial disputes among wolves. In many areas, numbers are mainly limited by human-related factors, including illegal killing, control efforts to address livestock depredation and car accidents.
Wolf Diet – In the western United States, wolves prey primarily on deer, elk and moose. Wolves are opportunistic feeders and will also eat smaller mammals such as beavers and rabbits, as well as occasional domestic livestock, dead animals, and vegetation. Coastal wolves in British Columbia are known to eat migrating salmon and even mussels on the salt-water beaches. Adult wolves eat 5 – 134 pounds of meat per day on average, but sometimes 12 days or more may pass between feedings. Because hunts are successfully only 3-14% of the time, wolves survive on a “feast or famine” diet. After a successful kill, wolves devour the carcass, sometimes eating as much as 20 pounds, and then may remain relatively inactive for one or more days, digesting their meal.
Wolf Habitat and Territory – Wolves can survive in a variety of habitats, including forests, tundra, mountains, swamps as well as deserts. Wolf territories usually vary in size from 200-500 square miles to as much as 1,000 square miles. One wolf per every 10 square miles is considered ideal for wolf health. Territory size is typically based on the density of prey but is also influenced by pack size, presence of neighbouring packs, and human land use. Wolves will aggressively defend their territories from other packs. Wolves spend about 35% of their time traveling. They often travel 20 to 30 miles per day but may cover over 10 miles in a day when prey is scarce.
Wolf Dens – Wolves only use dens when they have young pups that are not yet able to travel with the pack. Wolf dens are usually located near water and dug into well-drained soil on a south-facing slope. They can be dug under a boulder, among tree roots, or in cut banks, hollow logs or other sturdy natural structures. Wolves often enlarge existing coyote or fox dens.
Wolf den entrances measure about 18 inches in diameter. The passageway, which may be straight, forked or hooked, is 4 to 18 feet long with a chamber measuring about 20 inches high by 50 inches wide by 40 inches deep. No bedding is added to the den. If the den has been used in past years, bones will be scattered about and well-defined trails should radiate from the den. It is very common for dens to be reused.
Wolf Communication – Communication between pack members allows wolves to care for and feed their young, defend their common territory, and cooperative bring down prey larger than could individual wolves on their own.
Physical Behaviours – A great deal of the communication among wolf pack members involves body language. Specialized behaviours and postures have evolved that help reduce aggression between individual animals within the pack. Body language helps the pack live together more agreeably.
Facial expressions are often used to express emotions. Wolves may indicate dominate behaviour by baring teeth and pointing erect ears forward. Subordinate behaviour may be indicated by closed mouths, slit-like eyes, and ears pulled back and help close to the head. Wolves also use tail positions to communicate emotion. Wolves expressing threatening signs hold their tails high, almost perpendicular, while submissive wolves lower themselves before dominant pack members, tails tucked between their legs.
Scenting Behaviours – A wolf's sense of smell is up to 100,000 times greater than humans. Under good conditions a wolf can smell something a mile or more away. Scent is a very effective means of communication for wolves.
Wolf packs are highly territorial. Scents are used to clearly mark the boundaries of territories. To claim and defend that territory from other packs, to mark food ownership, and to act as a sort of road map for the pack itself. Scent is a way for a pack to make its presence known long after it has moved to another part of its territory. Urination is the most common form of scent marking for wolves. Wolves produce scent from glands in between their toes. Vocal Behaviours - Vocal communication among wolves consists of a varied display of howls, whines, growls and barks. Although all the functions of howling are not known, scientists believe that wolves may howl to assemble their pack, to claim territory, to warn intruders away from a home site or kill, or to identify other wolves. Wolves also howl in the evening and early morning, in the summer when pups are young, and during mid-winter breeding season. It is a myth that wolves howl at the moon, but they do point their snouts toward the sky to howl. Projecting their call upwards allows the sound to carry farther. Wolves have excellent hearing, and under certain conditions can hear a howl as far as six miles away in the forest and ten miles away on the open tundra.
A wolf howl is a very deep and continuous sound from about half a second to 11 seconds long. The pitch usually remains constant or varies smoothly. A howling session by a single wolf last an average of 35 seconds, during which the animal howls several times. A howling session by a pack lasts an average of 85 seconds. It is initiated by a single wolf, and after its first or second howl one or more others may join in.
Alpha wolves usually display a lower-pitched howl and will howl more frequently than those with a more subservient social standing. Pups practice howling as they mature, mimicking those of adult wolves. Lone wolves may not howl as much to hide their position from other residential wolf packs. Except for the high-pitched yapping of pups, wolf howls almost never include barking. Whines are used often at the den site, primarily by the adult female. They are thought to be sounds of affection, where growling conveys aggressiveness and usually comes from a threatening dominant male.
Ecological Roles of Wolves – Large predators like wolves and cougars play an important role in maintaining the health of natural ecosystems. Wolves prey primarily on animals that are young or elderly, sick or injured, or unfit, thus keep prey populations healthy.
Wolf kills create an abundant and dependable food source for many other species. Researchers have documented wolf kills benefiting coyotes, bald eagles, golden eagles, grizzly bears, black bears, ravens, magpies, red foxes and at least 20 other species. By preventing large herbivores, such as deer and elk, from becoming overpopulated solves help maintain native bio-diversity. Deer and elk can overgraze their habitat when populations outgrow the carrying capacity of an ecosystem. Overgrazing destroys the plant base, making the habitat less suitable for other species. When grey wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 after a 70-year absence, they began to restore ecosystems that had been degraded in their absence.
When areas are trying to increase their number of wolves, the loss of the breeding female in the Lookout Pack is an example of how precarious the wolves' status is. The loss of even a single individual can have a significant impact, particularly when that individual is the alpha male or female. Wolves play a critical role in healthy, dynamic ecosystems, and recent studies have shown that their activities can help mitigate the potential impacts of climate change. They keep hoofed mammal herds strong by culling sick individuals, they allow plant diversity to increase by keeping grazers like elk on the move (called the “ecology of fear”), and the carcasses from their kills support other wildlife such as bald eagles, coyotes, bears and foxes. By protecting large, connected tracts of wild lands, we can be sure that wolves will have the space they need to provide these import ecosystem services without coming into conflict with people.
Look for Wolves Part 2 where we will look into Wolf Spirit Guides, Totems, and more...