Wolves of the World
Wolves come in many shapes, sizes and colors... varying from the brawny black wolves of Canada’s Mackenzie River to the petite tawny wolves that once roamed the Falkland Islands. The wolves of the world have captured human fascination for as long as memory serves. We have persecuted them for daring to compete with us for resources and yet we have also invited them into our homes to live as domesticated dogs. For as long as we have maintained our fascination with them, we have also been trying to classify them. Today we recognize nine distinct species of wolf (one of which humans drove to extinction in 1879 and one with an odd name) spread over six continents.
The gray wolf is the largest wild canid, usually weighing between 70 and 120 lbs. They vary in coloration greatly - from black to gray to tawny to white. Gray wolves have slanted eyes, varying from yellow to deep amber in color. To allow for swift and efficient movement through snow, brush and other conditions, gray wolves have narrow chests, with elbows set close together. A gray wolf’s tail is straight and usually hangs to its hock (knee). Gray wolves have noticeably larger heads than other canids, which is often attributed to their high level of intelligence. Their large paws, which are webbed with fur, aid in movement across mud and snow.
Being very social animals, gray wolves live, travel, and hunt in packs of typically 2-15 animals, though there have been reports of up to 38 wolves in one pack. Gray wolves are opportunistic predators, which mean they hunt large and small game, but will also feed off of carrion. Because of the gray wolf’s large pack size and intricate social hierarchy, they can work together to bring down large game such as deer, elk, bison and moose. Nearly all the different names you hear for wolves - timber, arctic, Mexican gray, buffalo, plains, Canadian, tundra, ect. - are either nick-names or subspecies of the gray wolf.
The gray wolf’s progenitors probably first evolved in Eurasia 800,000 years ago, spreading to North America via the Bering land bridge 300,000 - 400,000 years ago. Once in North America, the gray wolf coexisted with the much larger and more powerful Dire wolf until its extinction 8,000 years ago. Since that time the gray wolf has come to be the dominate canine predator of the world, with 37 recognized subspecies ranging across six continents.
Red wolves (Canis rufus) are typically smaller than gray wolves, but larger than coyotes. They usually have a shorter reddish coat with dark shading on the back and tail and white markings around the lips. They have the same broad skull shape as the gray wolf, but lack a large ruff around the head and have proportionately larger ears.
There has been much speculation in the past that red wolves are actually hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes or are a subspecies of gray wolf. However, recent genetic test have shown them to be a separate and distinct species.
At one time, red wolves lived across the U.S. southeast, but were hunted to near extinction by the 1980's. Declared a critically endangered species, the last 14 wild red wolves ever found were captured and put into a captive breeding program. There are now several hundred red wolves living in zoos and breeding facilities across the country. There are now three island propagation programs (on Bulls Island, South Carolina; St. Vincent Island, Florida; and Cape St. George Islands, Florida) where captive red wolves have been released on small islands to live and breed as wild animals would in order to provide a growing stock. The red wolf became the first species in the US to be successfully reintroduced after extinction in the wild when a few were released into North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1987. There are now over 100 animals living in North Carolina.
The eastern wolf was the first subspecies of gray wolf to be identified in North America (Canis lupus lycaon). It is smaller than other gray wolf subspecies and has a reddish coat with grey or black markings on its sides and back. Many have said that it more closely resembles coyotes or red wolves than other gray wolves. They are also known as the eastern gray wolf, eastern timber wolf, and Algonquin wolf.
Eastern wolves were historically native to the eastern United States from Florida to Maine and west to the Mississippi River, as well as eastern Canada up to the Saint Lawrence corridor. Today, the eastern wolf can only be found in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, adjacent parts of Quebec and possibly around the Great Lakes in Minnesota and Manitoba.
Recent mtDNA analysis points toward the eastern wolf being a distinct species worthy of its own classification as Canis lycaon, though no official change has yet been made. The fossil record and DNA show that the eastern wolf, the red wolf and the coyote are all direct descendants of a primitive wolf who came to North America 750,000 years ago. The gray wolf’s ancestor did not arrive in North America until 300,000 years ago during the Pleistocene glaciations. So, the eastern wolf’s closest relatives are the red wolf and coyote.
However, there is much confusion over the status and classification of these wolves. Since the eastern wolf and red wolf are so closely related, share many physical characteristics and had historically overlapping ranges, many argue that the eastern wolf should be classified as a northern subspecies of the red wolf. On the other hand, eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes have all been known to breed with each other upon occasion. The level of hybridization of these three canids is unknown, but some suspect that the eastern wolf is not a distinct species or a subspecies of red wolf, but is actually a red wolf/ coyote hybrid (coywolf). Adding to the confusion even further are the native gray wolves that live alongside the eastern wolves and coyotes in Algonquin Provincial Park.
Regardless of their classification, there are only 150-170 eastern wolves left in the wild. Habitat loss, hunting and trapping are the main obstacles facing the eastern wolf’s survival. Even though Canada has declared them a species of special concern and is actively trying to protect them, eastern wolves are regularly mistaken for coyotes or gray wolves and killed. As Algonquin Provincial Park is the last stronghold for the eastern wolf, Canada enacted a permanent ban on hunting any wolves or coyotes in the 30 townships surrounding the park in 2004. Hopefully this step has not come too late for the eastern wolf… recent research shows that very few older wolves survive in the park, so the basic pack structure of the eastern wolves is breaking down. With so few animals left, eastern wolves are wandering further, coming into contact with more humans, and hybridizing with coyotes and gray wolves. With each generation the genetic purity of the eastern wolf is disappearing.
The small, light-colored wolves native to Northern India, Kashmir and Eastern Nepal were long thought to be part of a subspecies of gray wolf called the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus chanco). However, mtDNA analysis suggests that they should instead be classified as a distinct species – the Himalayan wolf (Canis himalayensis). Along with the Indian wolf, Himalayan wolves may represent an ancient line of wolves predating even Canis lupus. Himalayan and Indian wolves are probably the oldest living lineages of any wolf species in the world, having been isolated on the Indian subcontinent for over 800,000 years. They are so distinct, in fact, that they do not share any genetic markers with gray wolves or domestic dogs.
There are only about 350 Himalayan wolves left in the wild. Though critically endangered, these wolves are still widely hunted as pests throughout their range in the Himalayan Mountains. Thankfully India started a captive breeding program in 2001 with one lone female. With much work the captive population has grown to include 21 animals.
Originally thought to be the same gray wolf subspecies as the Iranian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes), the Indian wolf has recently been designated as a separate and distinct species (Canis indica). Recent mtDNA analysis shows that the Indian wolf’s ancestors were isolated on the Indian subcontinent over 800,000 years ago, and then split to form the modern Indian wolf and Himalayan wolf some 400,000 years ago. Though the Indian wolf’s range overlaps greatly with its closest relative, the Himalayan wolf, almost no interbreeding has occurred because of behavioral differences.
The Indian wolf is one of the world’s smallest wolves, measuring only 24-38 inches in height and weighing 40-60 pounds. They are almost always reddish or tawny in color with long legs and narrow muzzles, and have a shorter and thinner coat than northern wolves.
Canis indica is only found in the Indian states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. With 2,000-3,000 remaining in the wild, Indians wolves are protected as an endangered species. However, they are still commonly hunted and poisoned by locals because of attacks on livestock and children. These attacks are far more common in Indian wolves than in other wolf species because nearly all of their large native prey was hunted to extinction by humans.
The Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) is only found in a few mountainous pockets of Ethiopia. With fewer than 450-550 wild animals left, this unique species is considered the most critically endangered species in Africa. Through protected from hunting and persecution across its range, the Ethiopian wolf still faces very serious threats from rabies spread from local dogs and habitat loss.
Also knows as the Abyssinian wolf, red jackal and simian jackal, these remarkable animals are Ethiopia’s national symbol. They often resemble a coyote in shape a size, with long legs and a long muzzle. However their reddish coat with white throat, chest and underbelly markings are easily distinguishable. Ethiopian wolves are thinner and lankier than northern wolves, weighing only 24-42 pounds. Their front feet have five toes, but the rear feet have only four. Recent analysis of Ethiopian wolf mtDNA shows that they diverged to become a separate species 3-4 million years ago and that they are more closely related to gray wolves and coyotes than to other African canines.
In keeping with their unusual physique, Ethiopian wolves also exhibit curious behavior for wolves. They typically hunt by day, switching to nighttime activity only in areas where they are harassed by humans. 90% of the Ethiopian wolf’s diet is made up of small rodents and they very rarely prey on livestock. They live in patrilineal packs (males do not leave their natal pack, whereas females disperse at an early age), but hunt alone. Most packs are made up of numerous related males and 1-2 unrelated females. Even so, females most often mate with males outside of their adopted pack.
The golden jackal (Canis aureus) is a wolf in all but name. It is much more closely related to wolves than to other jackals and probably evolved in Asia rather than Africa. They resemble coyotes in general appearance but are smaller and lighter, and their vocalizations are very similar to domestic dogs. Though the largest of the jackals, they only weigh 15-33 pounds. Golden jackal coat length and color varies with their habitat but it is generally some shade of reddish-gray.
Canis aureus is the only jackal found outside of Africa. Their huge range spreads across Northern Africa, Southeastern Europe, Western and Southern Asia, and across the Middle East. Though no comprehensive population study has been conducted for the species, golden jackals are generally considered to be thriving and are hunted throughout their range as pests. In Russia they are commercially hunted and trapped for their fur, to be used in ladies’ hats and coats.
Golden jackals are highly adaptable animals – successfully living in the African savannahs, European mountains and Indian tropical forests. They usually feed on small mammals, but have been known to scavenge off larger carcasses. In India, they have been known to form symbiotic relationships with wild tigers. The golden jackal follows the tiger at a distance and waits to clean up the scraps after a kill. The jackals are also known for scouting out large prey and alerting tigers to the opportunity. Perhaps it was their malleability and resourcefulness that lead the ancient Egyptians to worship the golden jackal as Anubis, the god of embalming and the afterlife.
The Maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) is the only extant species in its genus and the only wolf found in South America. Their ancestors migrated from North America to South America over 2 million years ago and evolved in isolation from other wolves. Today the maned wolf can be found in the grasslands of Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Uruguay. With 2,200-4,500 living in the wild, maned wolves are threatened by habitat destruction, domestic dog diseases and increasingly common car collisions. Though maned wolf eyes are coveted as good luck charms in Brazil, the species is protected as near threatened throughout its range.
Maned wolves are the tallest wild canid in the world, standing over 3 feet tall at the shoulder. They are also the largest canid in South America, measuring 4 feet long and 44-55 pounds. With its incredibly long legs, red and black coat and narrow muzzle, the maned wolf is commonly thought of as a large red fox on stilts. The theory is that their long legs allow them to see over the tall, thick grasses of their home.
To go along with their distinctly unwolf-like appearance, the maned wolf also exhibits some atypical behavior. They do not live in packs. Males and females form life-long monogamous pairs who share a territory but only interact during the breeding season. They hunt in the same fashion as their smaller cousin, the red fox, by stalking small mammals through grass, jumping high to pounce, and shaking the prey. They also feed on birds, fish, sugarcane, tubers and fruit. Due to their unusual diet, maned wolves are not a threat to cattle or sheep, but do sometimes raid chicken coops. They are very rarely observed in the wild because of the extremely shy nature, so much of their life history is still a mystery.
The Falkland Islands wolf is the first known canid species to have gone extinct in historical times. It was first scientifically named by Charles Darwin as Canis antarcticus when he visited the Falkland Islands during his voyage on the Beagle in 1833. Darwin was captivated by the wolves’ bold nature, curiously running up to him as he stepped on the beach. Four of the small wolves were brought back to London by Darwin for study but they only survived a few years. Darwin was fascinated by the tawny colored wolves with white-tipped tails because they were the only land mammal native to the Falkland Islands. He wanted to figure out if they were related to the canids he had observed on the South American mainland and how they had gotten so far out to sea.
While Darwin continued his work back in England, settlers on the Falkland Islands deemed the wolves a threat to their sheep. They waged a massive campaign to wipe out the Falkland Island wolves. The wolves were poisoned and shot on a massive scale. Amazingly, since the wolves were not afraid of the people, trappers regularly lured wild wolves up to them by holding meat in one hand. Then while the wolf was eating the trapper would kill it with a knife held in the other hand. The settlers were successful in their quest – the Falkland Islands wolf was extinct by 1876.
Even after their extinction, speculation continued about the ancestry of the Falkland Islands wolf. In 1880, Thomas Huxley classified them as closely related to the coyote. It wasn’t until 1914 that Oldfield Thomas moved the Falklands Island wolf into a new genus and renamed it Dusicyon australis. In 2009, mtDNA analysis showed that the Falkland Islands wolf was, indeed, the only modern species in its genus. Evidence shows that its ancestors separated from Asian and European wolves 6.7 million years ago when they migrated to North America. The Falkland Islands wolf’s progenitor probably diverged from that of the maned wolf three million years ago while still in North America. Then two million years ago, the Falkland Islands wolf’s ancestor migrated to South America. By the time Darwin came along, they were only found on the Falkland Islands (the mainland population was probably killed off during a small ice age sometime before modern humans arrived).