A distant howl on a moonlit night, a glimpse of something stealthily dashing through the darkness behind a tree line and footprints in the dirt and snow — these are probably the only traces of a wolf most people will ever see or hear outside a zoo. Wolves are ethereal creatures long misunderstood by humanity; however, this cousin to man’s best friend permeates popular culture through literary and cinematic avenues.
Life as a Wolf
From their prehistoric beginnings, wolves adapted to the world as it changed around them to become the top of the food chain. They continued to adapt and change through many extinction events.
Habitat & Diet
Wolves can be found in every environment from the arctic to the desert, in wetlands and prairies, forests and mountains. Everything about wolves is savage and extreme, including how they eat. They can go more than a week without eating and then eat up to 20 pounds of meat in one meal.
They use their amped-up sense of smell to locate sick, old or wounded animals from over a mile away. Their other senses are similarly fine-tuned to make them quintessential hunters.
Wolves prefer to prey on large hoofed mammals, but they’ll also eat small mammals and oceanic creatures. Wolves will even eat berries, insects, birds and lizards if they get hungry enough. Essentially, wolves have an opportunistic diet.
Mating & Pups
Research shows that wolves become pair-bonded, which is the animal world’s equivalent of marriage. Only the Alphas and Betas, the two dominant pairs, mate. Female wolves can breed when they are two years old, and usually have up to six pups per litter.
Kinds of Wolf
The three main species of the wolf are the gray wolf, the red wolf and the long-ignored Abyssinian Wolf. Each has minor differences that set it apart, many of which are only visible by examining their genetic code.
- The gray wolf: The most common and largest wolf, it once had the widest distribution of any land mammal except humans and lions.
- The red wolf: The only living species of wolf that evolved in North America, only about 40 roam the wild in eastern North Carolina. It’s between the size of a gray wolf and a coyote with brownish fur with black along its back and a reddish color on the legs, head and ears.
- The Abyssinian wolf (aka Ethiopian wolf): DNA testing led to the recent inclusion of this as a true wolf species. These small wolves are more closely related to the gray wolf than any other animal.
Cultural Impact of the Wolf
Nearly every tribe of indigenous North Americans has its own version of the wolf as a god and/or part of the tribe. Many tribes tell stories of their first ancestors transformed from wolves into men. In Shoshone legend, Wolf is the noble creator god while Anishinabe mythology shows the wolf as the brother and best friend of their culture’s most renowned hero.
Wolves also permeate popular culture with prominent appearances in literature, films and other avenues. These pop culture references include:
- Akela (Father Wolf) and Raksha (Mother Wolf) in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
- Maugrim, head of the White Witch’s secret police in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is the largest, fiercest wolf in Narnia.
- The 2011 movie starring Liam Neeson — The Grey — portrayed wolves as vicious maneaters.
- Sigil of House Stark in the hit HBO series Game of Thrones.
Long vilified, wolves often represent the baser character traits of humanity. Yet in actuality, they are noble industrious creatures with a strong sense of loyalty. They’re truly an animal worthy of humanities’ reverence and protection.