Habitat and Physical Adaptations of the Gray Wolf   (data entry 2020)
Historic/ current/ potential habitat - Click to magnify
Map by Curt Bradley, Center for Biological Diversity.
See report. 

Habitat:  Wolves belong to a group of species known as generalists. This means that as long as their basic needs of food, water, and shelter are met, they can adapt to a wide variety of environmental conditions. This includes the tundra of Alaska and Siberia, forestlands, prairies, mountains, the deserts of Mexico and southwestern states and the coastal beaches of British Columbia. Wolves’ favored prey – ungulates – can be found in all these varied habitats in the form of elk, deer, bison, caribou, big horned sheep, mountain goats. In addition, wolves aren't particularly picky about the smaller prey they will eat. This is another trait of generalist species. Originally, worldwide, wolves were the most widely

distributed of wild mammals. 

 

When searching for a territory to call home, two additional limiting factors come into play. Wolves will avoid settling into areas already occupied by another family of wolves and will also avoid areas that are too heavily occupied by humans. Human disturbance of the landscapes, such as road/ town/city development, deforestation, livestock grazing and  mining in areas that were historically prime wolf habitat, have placed major obstacles to the wolves’ recovery.  

The size of wolf territories largely depend on the availability of suitable prey for their family size. The greater the prey base, the smaller the territory can be. An increase in family size can place a demand for increased in territory size which, due to the factors listed above, may or may not be easily attainable. According to USFWS,  It is not uncommon for territories to be as large as 50 square miles, but they may even extend up to 1,000 square miles in areas where prey is scarce. Potential habitat report. 

Illustration by Wolf Haven International
Adaptations: 
Species change over time. Some traits become more common, others less. This process of change is driven by natural selection. Animals change in order to survive and to thrive in the environments they live in. As one can expect, there will be some variance in the physical adaptations of the gray wolf and its subspecies living in different environments, from the arctic tundra to the desert. These differences can be seen in their size, weight, color and cranial measurements. Variations for gray wolf subspecies - Mexican gray wolf and arctic wolf - will be noted as applies. 

SizeThe females tend to be smaller than the male.  

--- The Mexican gray wolf of the desert region is the smallest weighing only 50 - 80 pounds. It is about the size of a German shepherd - 4.5 - 5 feet long (including the tail). These wolves have no need for heavy thick coats.  

--- The weight of Arctic wolves who live in the frigid tundra can vary from 70 - 175 pounds.  Length: 3.2 - 5.9 feet long, nose to tail. 

--- Gray wolves average size: 5 to 6.5 feet long (tip of nose to tip of tail) for males, 26 to 32 inches high at the shoulder, and 70 to 115 pounds in weight. The average size of females is 4.5 to 6 feet long, 26 to 32 inches high at the shoulder, and 60 to 100 pounds in weight.

Direct register track
Yellowstone NP photo

Fur – Wolves wear two coats of fur.  The coat that is visible and gives the wolf his coloration is the outer coat. Unlike most dogs, this outer fur is not soft to the touch. Rather, it is a coarse layer made up of hollow shafts called guard hairs, which act as insulators.  These hollow guard hairs keep the wolf dry by preventing rain and snow from penetrating the thick undercoat. The inner coat is soft and thick, providing the warmth they need in the winter.

           Gray wolves can be gray, reddish brown, black or white in color. Arctic wolves are typically white, perhaps giving them a camouflage advantage. Mexican gray wolves have a varied coat color including mixtures of black, gray, white, red, and brown.

           Much like humans, wolves tend to lighten in coloration as they age. Here you see gray

wolf Anna at Wolf haven International in her first "adoption" photo, taken in 2012, next to the

one taken seven years later, in 2019. Still elegant as ever though.

           A look into the mystery of the origin of the black wolf - their color a result of a genetic

mutation that causes them to produces excess melanin, a pigment responsible for coat color.

It seems black wolves have dogs to thank for their color.            

Feet and Legs – It is said that to be a wolf, one must walk and walk and walk and.....

wolves stay on the move especially from fall to early spring when they resume a more

nomadic lifestyle. In search of prey, they average covering 30 miles in a day, traveling at 5mph. They can keep up this pace for hours at a time.

When prey is scarce, they can travel even farther, as far as 100 miles in a day. When chasing prey, they can run up to 35/ 40 mph for short bursts.

 

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tail

  • Scent glands – precaudal scent gland, between the toes, on the cheek, behind ears – indicate identity/mood/health. Scent plays a very important role in the life of the wolf, by smell alone wolves can locate prey, other pack members or enemies. It can tell them if other wolves were in the territory, if they were male or female, and how recently they visited.Narrow chest and shoulders – faster acceleration

  • Tail – not curled up like a dog. Imp. to body language – how it’s held will show its emotion

  • Nose - An animal who is downwind of wolf can tracked by its scent. In good weather conditions, a wolf can smell its prey from about 1.75 miles away. The wolves usually travel until they encounter the scent of some prey species ahead of them. They then move directly toward their prey in an effort to capture it.


 

Just by its a sense of smell, a wolf can find and identify other pack members. Scientists think the wolves may be able to tell the age and gender of the wolf by the scents. They can also avoid other predators or enemies by this detection system.

Photographs by Julie Lawrence
        Wolves are built for traveling distances. Their legs are  muscular and long, much longer than dog's legs. This enables them to take longer steps. The legs are set closely together in the front, so the rear paws follow the front paws in the same track. This is called single tracking or direct register, fiving it the look of a straight line. The gait of a wolf when walking, trotting or running is seemingly effortless and very flowing. Their chest is narrow, which makes forging through deep snow easier.
       Their feet are large and broad - the front feet are larger - 5" long. The webbing between their toes can act like snowshoes in the winter, giving them an advantage over their prey who sink into the snow. The webbing also acts as swim fins in the summer. Wolves have been seen to swim up to 8 miles. The toes are specially adapted to spread wide when it is running, giving much-needed traction on slippery surface. Their sharp nails grip the ground, which helps it change direction without having to slow down in its chase. Their feet have thick pads with extra tough skin which helps them to move safely go on most surfaces.