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Physical 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. 
WolfWays Physical Adaptations (1).jpg
Illustration by Wolf Haven International
SizeThe females tend to be smaller than the male.  
--- Average male gray wolf 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.
--- 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.

--- The smallest sub-speces of the gray wolf is the Mexican gray wolf, weighing only 50 - 80 pounds. This wolf is about the size of a German shepherd - 4.5 - 5 feet long (including the tail). Because they live in the desert landscape of New Mexico and Arizona, they have no need for heavy thick coats.  

Wolf track.jpg

--- The Arctic wolf  lives in the frigid tundra. They need thick fur to survive in temperatures of -60 degrees F.  Their weight can vary from 70 - 125 pounds.  Length: 3 - 5 feet long, nose to tail. 

Wolf old gray.jpg
Photographs by Julie Lawrence
Wolf old black.jpg

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 as elegant as ever.


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

genetic mutation that causes them to produce excess melanin, a pigment responsible f

for coat color. This fascinating article in Next Nature looks into Stanford University

research that discovered that black wolves may 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. Their long strong legs give them the stamina and strength that they need.

                                               Wolves have large paws - 4"x5" - with webbing that extends half way between the toes. The webbing
                                               helps to give the advantage of acting as "snowshoes" and "swim fins". 
 In the winter, the "snowshoes"
                                               give wolves an advantage over their prey who easily sink into the snow. The wolf family will tend to
                                               walk single f
ile through the snow with members taking turns breaking trail. Those "swim fins" give
                                               wolves a swimming advantage. They are powerful 
swimmers, capable of swimming eight miles. 


                                               Narrow and shoulders




  •                                        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.

Photo by Ellie Attebery
Direct register trackYellowstone NP photo
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