Basic Wolf Life History Facts (FAQs)

  1. What is the life history (life cycle) of the gray wolf?
  2. How many wolves in a pack?
  3. What do wolves eat?
  4. What role do wolves play in the ecosystem?
  5. How much do wolves eat?
  6. How large is one pack’s territory?
  7. How fast can a wolf move?
  8. How long do wolves live?
  9. Why do wolves howl?
  10. What color is a gray wolf?
  11. How do you tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote? 

1. What is the life history (life cycle) of a gray wolf?

Gray wolves breed once a year between January and March (normally only the male and female leaders of the pack.) After a 63-day gestation period, the mother gives birth to an average of 4-6 pups in April or May. Wolf pups are born blind and deaf, weighing about 1 pound. During the first 3 weeks, while the pups are nursing every 4 to 6 hours and still need help regulating their body temperatures, the mother usually stays with them in the den, eating food brought to her by other members of the pack. The pups are weaned at about 8 weeks of age after learning to eat more solid food in the form of regurgitated meals from the female or others members of the pack. Also at this time they are moved to one or more “rendezvous sites,” where they spend the remainder of the summer learning from the pack the ways of the wolf. At 6 to 8 months, the pups begin to travel with the pack and join in hunts. After reaching sexual maturity, usually at 2 to 3 years, most wolves leave their pack to find territories and mates of their own. Fewer than half of wolf pups live to adulthood.

2. How many wolves in a pack?

Wolf packs usually consist of 5 to 10 individuals, including the dominant male and female. These two are usually the only ones to mate, decide when the pack will travel and hunt, and normally are the first to eat at a kill. The rest of the pack may consist of pups from the current year and a few offspring from the past year or two that are subordinate to the breeding adults. Packs can be substantially larger in size (up to 20 or more wolves) in locations with abundant prey.

3. What do wolves eat?

Wolves are carnivores and feed primarily on ungulates or hoofed mammals like deer, elk, moose, bison and caribou. They also prey to a much lesser extent on beavers, rabbits, and almost any other small animal. Coastal wolves in British Columbia are known to eat migrating salmon. Wolves are also natural scavengers and readily feed on the carcasses of dead animals.

4. What role do wolves play in the ecosystem?

Wolves, as top predators, keep prey populations strong, healthy and in balance with what the ecosystem can sustain by feeding primarily on young, infirm and older animals. When wolves were reestablished to the Yellowstone National Park ecosystem, for example, scientists noticed that stands of aspen, willow and cottonwoods trees were beginning to regenerate. They determined that without wolves, the large elk population grazed on the young seedlings, decimating stands of these important trees. Now that the elk population is smaller and the elk are more cautious in their behavior due to wolves, these thickets are reviving, providing nesting areas for song birds and homes for other small creatures once again. Beavers are also returning, which has improved water quality. These changes show that wolves play a vital role in maintaining natural ecosystems. Wolves are considered a keystone species because of their great influence on the environment.

5. How much do wolves eat?

Adult wolves eat 5 to 14 pounds of meat per day on average, but sometimes go as many as 12 days between meals. Because hunts are successful only 3-14% of the time, wolves survive on a feast or famine diet. When a kill is made, wolves devour the carcass and then may lie around for one or more days digesting their meal.

6. How large is one pack’s territory?

Wolf territories usually vary in size from 200 to 500 square miles, but may range from as little as 18 square miles to over 1,000 square miles. Territory size is typically based on the density of prey—more deer or elk in the territory means the wolves have to travel less to find food. Wolves spend about 35% of their time traveling. They often travel 20 to 30 miles per day, but may cover over 100 miles in a day when prey is scarce.

7. How fast can a wolf move?

Wolves usually travel at a lope. They can move in this manner for hours at a speed of 5-6 miles per hour. Wolves can briefly run at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour when chasing prey.

8. How long do wolves live?

In the wild, life span averages 4-5 years, although individuals can rarely reach 15 years of age.

Disease, starvation and injuries are the most common causes of death of wolves living away from people. Most wolves living near people die from human-related mortality, especially due to livestock damage control, illegal killing, and car accidents.

9. Why do wolves howl?

The howl of a wolf is one of its primary sources of communication and is used in a variety of situations, including gathering the pack, defense of territories, maintaining social bonds with other pack members, and attracting a mate. Wolves are highly social animals and also use a complex system of non-verbal behaviors to regulate and maintain pack structure.

10. What color is a gray wolf?

Gray wolves come in a variety of colors from light gray to white, black and tan. Several subspecies of the gray wolf, or Canis lupus as it is called scientifically, occur in North America, including the eastern timber wolf. Another species, the red wolf or Canis rufus, is restricted to the southeastern United States.

11. How do you tell the difference between a wolf and a coyote?

A gray wolf is much larger than a coyote. Wolves are 65 to 120 pounds, while coyotes weigh 20 to 50 pounds. Track size measures about 4 by 5 inches in wolves and 2 by 2.5 inches in coyotes. Ear shape is also much different; wolves have somewhat rounded ears while coyotes have taller, pointed ears. Wolves have a broader, shorter snout and coyotes have a narrow more pointed nose. A wolf’s howl is long and drawn out, while a coyote has a shorter, yapping sound. Fur coloration can be quite similar between wolves and coyotes, and therefore is not a good character for separating the two species. For more visual comparison visit: http://westernwildlife.org/wolves/library/.