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Of Wolves and Menby Barry Lopez
ORIGIN AND DESCRIPTION
Imagine a wolf moving through the northern woods. The movement, over a trail he has traversed many times before, is distinctive, unlike that of a cougar or a bear, yet he appears, if you are watching, sometimes catlike or bearlike. It is purposeful, deliberate movement. Occasionally the rhythm is broken by the wolf's pause to inspect a scent mark, or a move off the trail to paw among stones where a year before he had cached meat.
The movement down the trail would seem relentless if it did not appear so effortless. The wolf's body, from neck to hips, appears to float over the long, almost spindly legs and the flicker of wrists, a bicycling drift through the trees, reminiscent of the movement of water or of shadows.
The wolf is three years old. A male. He is of the subspecies occidentalis, and the trees he is moving among are spruce and subalpine fir on the eastern slope of the Rockies in northern Canada. He is light gray; that is, there are more blond and white hairs mixed with gray in the saddle of fur that covers his shoulders and extends down his spine than there are black and brown. But there are silver and even red hairs mixed in, too.
It is early September, an easy time of year, and he has not seen the other wolves in his pack for three or four days. He has heard no howls, but he knows the others are about, in ones and twos like himself. It is not a time of year for much howling. It is an easy time. The weather is pleasant. Moose are fat. Suddenly the wolf stops in mid-stride. A moment, then his feet slowly come alongside each other. He is staring into the grass. His ears are rammed forward, stiff. His back arches and he rears up and pounces like a cat. A deer mouse is pinned between his forepaws. Eaten. The wolf drifts on. He approaches a trail crossing, an undistinguished crossroads. His movement is now slower and he sniffs the air as though aware of a possibility for scents. He sniffs a scent post, a scrawny blueberry bush in use for years, and goes on.
The wolf weighs ninety-four pounds and stands thirty inches at the shoulder. His feet are enormous, leaving prints in the mud along a creek (where he pauses to hunt crayfish but not with much interest) more than five inches long by just over four wide. He has two fractured ribs, broken by a moose a year before. They are healed now, but a sharp eye would notice the irregularity. The skin on his right hip is scarred, from a fight with another wolf in a neighboring pack when he was a yearling. He has not had anything but a few mice and a piece of arctic char in three days, but he is not hungry. He is traveling. The char was a day old, left on rocks along the river by bears.
The wolf is tied by subtle threads to the woods he moves through. His fur carries seeds that will fall off, effectively dispersed, along the trail some miles from where they first caught in his fur. And miles distant is a raven perched on the ribs of a caribou the wolf helped kill ten days ago, pecking like a chicken at the decaying scraps of meat. A smart snowshoe hare that eluded the wolf and left him exhausted when he was a pup has been dead a year now, food for an owl. The den in which he was born one April evening was home to porcupines last winter.
It is now late in the afternoon. The wolf has stopped traveling, has lain down to sleep on cool earth beneath a rock outcropping. Mosquitoes rest on his ears. His ears flicker. He begins to waken. He rolls on his back and lies motionless with his front legs pointed toward the sky but folded like wilted flowers, his back legs splayed, and his nose and tail curved toward each other on one side of his body. After a few moments he flops on his side, rises, stretches, and moves a few feet to inspect — minutely, delicately — a crevice in the rock outcropping and finds or doesn't find what draws him there. And then he ascends the rock face, bounding and balancing momentarily before bounding again, appearing slightly unsure of the process — but committed. A few minutes later he bolts suddenly into the woods, achieving full speed, almost forty miles per hour, for forty or fifty yards before he begins to skid, to lunge at a lodgepole pine cone. He trots away with it, his head erect, tail erect, his hips slightly to one side and out of line with his shoulders, as though hindquarters were impatient with forequarters, the cone inert in his mouth. He carries it for a hundred feet before dropping it by the trail. He sniffs it. He goes on.
The underfur next to his skin has begun to thicken with the coming of fall. In the months to follow it will become so dense between his shoulders it will be almost impossible to work a finger down to his skin. In seven months he will weigh less: eighty-nine pounds. He will have tried unsuccessfully to mate with another wolf in the pack. He will have helped kill four moose and thirteen caribou. He will have fallen through ice into a creek at twenty-two below zero but not frozen. He will have fought with other wolves.
He moves along now at the edge of a clearing. The wind coming down-valley surrounds him with a river of odors, as if he were a migrating salmon. He can smell ptarmigan and deer droppings. He can smell willow and spruce and the fading sweetness of fireweed. Above, he sees a hawk circling, and farther south, lower on the horizon, a flock of sharp-tailed sparrows going east. He senses through his pads with each step the dryness of the moss beneath his feet, and the ridges of old tracks, some his own. He hears the sound his feet make. He hears the occasional movement of deer mice and voles. Summer food.
Toward dusk he is standing by a creek, lapping the cool water, when a wolf howls — a long wail that quickly reaches pitch and then tapers, with several harmonics, long moments to a tremolo. He recognizes his sister. He waits a few moments, then, throwing his head back and closing his eyes, he howls. The howl is shorter and it changes pitch twice in the beginning, very quickly. There is no answer.
The female is a mile away and she trots off obliquely through the trees. The other wolf stands listening, laps water again, then he too departs, moving quickly, quietly through the trees, away from the trail he had been on. In a few minutes the two wolves meet. They approach each other briskly, almost formally, tails erect and moving somewhat as deer move. When they come together they make high squeaking noises and encircle each other, rubbing and pushing, poking their noses into each other's neck fur, backing away to stretch, chasing each other for a few steps, then standing quietly together, one putting a head over the other's back. And then they are gone, down a vague trail, the female first. After a few hundred yards they begin, simultaneously, to wag their tails.
In the days to follow, they will meet another wolf from the pack, a second female, younger by a year, and the three of them will kill a caribou. They will travel together ten or twenty miles a day, through the country where they live, eating and sleeping, birthing, playing with sticks, chasing ravens, growing old, barking at bears, scent-marking trails, killing moose, and staring at the way water in a creek breaks around their legs and flows on.
This is the animal Linnaeus called Canis lupus in 1758. In recent years the wolf has been studied enough by biologists to produce this picture, but his numbers have dwindled and his range has shrunk, and as is the case with so many things, deep appreciation and a sense of loss have arrived simultaneously.
Wolves, twenty or thirty subspecies of them, are Holarctic — that is, they once roamed most of the Northern Hemisphere above thirty degrees north latitude. They were found throughout Europe, from the Zezere River Valley of Portugal north to Finland and south to the Mediterranean. They roamed eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Near and Middle East south into Arabia. They were found in Afghanistan and northern India, throughout Russia north into Siberia, south again as far as China, and east into the islands of Japan. In North America the wolf reached a southern limit north of Mexico City and ranged north as far as Cape Morris Jesup, Greenland, less than four hundred miles from the North Pole. Outside of Iceland and North Africa, and such places as the Gobi Desert, wolves — if you imagine the differences in geography it seems astounding — had adapted to virtually every habitat available to them.
Today they have been exterminated in the British Isles and Scandinavia and throughout most of Europe. There are a few wolves left in northern Spain, some in the Apennines in Italy, and a few in Germany and eastern Europe. Populations in the Near and Middle East and in northern India are greatly reduced. The present, or even past, populations of Russia and China are undetermined.
Mexico still has a small population of wolves, and large populations — perhaps twenty to twenty-five thousand — remain in Alaska and Canada. The largest concentrations of wolves in the lower forty-eight states are in northeastern Minnesota (about one thousand) and on Isle Royale in Lake Superior (about thirty). There is a very small wolf population in Glacier National Park in Montana and a few in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Occasionally lone wolves show up in the western states along the Canadian border; most are young animals dispersing from packs in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
The red wolf, Canis rufus, a little known but distinct species of wolf found only in America, has been exterminated across virtually all its former range in the southeastern United States. A small population of perhaps one hundred survives in the swamp thickets of extreme south-eastern Texas and adjacent Cameron Parish, Louisiana.
Of the twenty-three subspecies of wolf (too many to be meaningful) that taxonomist Edward Goldman identified in North America in 1945, seven are no longer around. These include the Great Plains wolf (also called the lobo wolf, the loafer wolf, or simply the buffalo runner), the Cascade Mountain wolf, the Texas gray wolf, the Mogollon Mountain wolf of central Arizona and New Mexico, the Newfoundland wolf, and the northern Rocky Mountain wolf. The southern Rocky Mountain wolf, last reported alive in 1970, is now also believed to be extinct.
Japan's two wolves, Canis lupus hattai and Canis lupus hodophilax, are probably extinct. And another wolf, one that lived in the Danube River Valley and was apparently distinct enough to be classed as a subspecies, was eliminated before any specimens were examined. Other subspecies in Asia have probably disappeared, but this is hard to prove and even harder to give meaning to. They represent subtle losses. In North America, and elsewhere, as human civilization affected the distribution and food habits of wolves — by killing buffalo, for example, and putting domestic cattle in their place on the ranges — various subspecies of wolf interbred and the purity of gene pools, such as they were, was altered. The wolves that remain in North America today are often distinguished simply as tundra or timber (or gray) wolves, according to where they live.
One value of distinguishing among wolves is to set off other wolflike canids. There is, for example, a wild canid in Maine that is intermediate in size between wolf and coyote; and in Texas, red wolves and coyotes have bred to produce what biologists call a hybrid swarm. Feral dogs — pets gone wild — sometimes breed with wolves. All these creatures are wolflike but they are not wolves and it is right to keep them out of things.
Originally, distinctions were made among subspecies on the basis of cranial features, pelage (fur), relative size, and geographic distribution. But taxonomic distinction among wolves is probably most valuable for the way it distinguishes among factors other than size and color. The small Asian, or Iranian, wolf, Canis lupus pallipes, for example, differs from most other wolves in that it is not known to howl and apparently travels alone, or in very small packs. The Chinese wolf, Canis lupus laniger, also hunts alone or in small packs. And the European wolf, Canis lupus lupus, has adapted to living in fairly close proximity with human beings. Wolves in thinly populated areas of Canada may move out if the human density is more than three persons per square mile.
Recently the trend has been to distinguish less among subspecies of wolf and to make more of other differences — hunting techniques, pack size, range, diet — than color and size.
By whatever standard, a significant part of the genetic reservoir that once represented one of the more adaptive mammals on the face of the earth is now gone. The argument in rebuttal; that wolves in captivity represent pure strains of extinct races and therefore constitute a genetic reservoir, is probably meaningless. Zoo populations are sometimes derived from animals of questionable genetic background and/or geographic origin, and in many cases subspecific labels are casually applied. And pups raised in captivity are virtually certain not to survive in the wild.
It would be nice to write with precision and neatness about the exact location of the last subspecific populations of wolves in the world, because we are a culture that fancies that sort of order, but the task is complicated and ultimately made impossible by two factors: wolves wander, and subspecific populations, as stated, breed with each other. Even prior to widespread human persecution, wolves disappeared from certain portions of their ranges for years at a time. No one knows why. Game thinned out, perhaps, or people moved in. Douglas Pimlott, a Canadian wildlife biologist, believes the "extinct" Newfoundland wolf, for example, simply vanished from that island as part of a natural process, that it was not hunted out. Ian MacTaggart Cowan, another Canadian, thinks that the last specimens of northern Rocky Mountain wolf bred with the Mackenzie Valley wolf to finally eliminate all vestiges of that race. These cases are important I think insofar as. we blame ourselves, with a lack of humility, for every animal's demise.
A third factor to consider in trying to pinpoint world populations is the simple lack of records and research. It was not, astonishingly, until the early 1940s that anyone took a serious, scientific look at wolves, and in some parts of Eurasia (where they are still regarded as beasts of blood and darkness) specific information on their numbers, locations, and habits is lacking even now.
A fourth factor is that lone wolves disperse for considerable distances, hundreds of miles away from known wolf ranges, in search of new territories each year. In North America some generalizations can be made about the pattern — about where dispersing wolves will likely show up. But in China, for example, we still lack a general picture of primary wolf ranges.
Although the lines of descent are not entirely clear, the wolf began to develop as a specialized genus of cursorial, or hunt-by-chasing, carnivore in the Paleocene, some 60 million years ago. Its ancestors included small, rodentlike insectivores and, later, much larger creodonts, animals that walked on five toes, had partially retractile claws, partially opposable thumbs on the forefeet, and long, thick tails. They perhaps looked like long-legged otters, dwelt in forests, and may have slept in trees. Some of them, evolutionarily speaking, moved out on the plains and prairies and became wolves, bears, badgers, skunks, and weasels. The ones that stayed behind in the forests retained their retractile claws, perfected an ambush/stabbing kind of hunting, and became saber-toothed tigers, leopards, and cheetahs.
By Miocene times, 20 million years ago, these two superfamilies of carnivores, the dogs and cats, were distinct, and the more recognizable ancestors of the wolf had emerged. They had specialized shearing teeth and the bones of their lower legs had begun to fuse as flexibility in the limbs (as in the cats) gave way to rigidity for strength in the chase. In one relative, Tomarctus, the fifth toe on the hind leg became vestigial and the dewclaw was born. The legs grew longer, the feet more compact. By the Pleistocene, 1 million years ago, the wolf's immediate ancestor, Canis, had emerged with a larger brain and longer nose than his predecessors. Among the species of Canis was dirus, the dire wolf. Canis was better adapted to running and had perhaps evolved a primitive social structure and some cooperative hunting techniques. We can imagine him pulling down camels hundreds of thousands of years ago in what is now Oklahoma.
Canis sp. was parent to Canis lupus, the wolf (a somewhat smaller animal, with a higher forehead and more social tendencies); and the wolf was probably parent to the domestic dog, Canis familiaris, the first large creature who would live with men.
Today the wolf's closest relatives are the domestic dog, the dingo, the coyote, and the jackal. Then come the other members of the family Canidae: the foxes and wild dogs. The Canidae in turn are related to the Ursidae, the bears, and more distantly to animals like the raccoon, the marten, and the wolverine. There are some irregularities in popular names that should be cleared up here. The aardwolf, Proteles cristatus, is not a wolf but an insect-eating member of the hyena family — and hyenas are related to the cats. The maned wolf, Chrysocyon brachyurus, and the Andean wolf, Dasycyon hagenbecki, are not wolves but South American wild dogs. The extinct Falkland wolf, Dusicyon australis, was also a South American canid that shared but few behavioral traits with the wolf of the Northern Hemisphere. The same can be said of a rare Ethiopian canid, the Abyssinian wolf, Canis simensis. The Tasmanian wolf, or thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, is a marsupial, in the same order with kangaroos and possums.
The Cape hunting dog, or African wild dog, Lycaon pictus, on the other hand, has much in common with the wolf in its hunting habits and social behavior, and some zoologists have suggested that it belongs in the same genus with the wolf. Another irregularity of taxonomy.
Of them all, the wolf is perhaps the most socially evolved and intelligent. Wolves have a high degree of social organization and have evolved a system of communication and communal interaction which stabilizes these social relationships. They may be unique in having markedly different individual personalities. In human terms, some are more aggressive or shyer or moodier, and pack society allows these individual temperaments to mature. In one pack, for example, one wolf may be the best hunter, another have a better sense of strategy and (again, to stretch for the human equivalent) be called upon for it by the others.
Whenever I've spoken with people who've never seen a wolf, I've found that the belief that wolves are enormous is pervasive. Even people who have considerable experience with the animal seem to want it to be, somehow, bigger than it is. A trapper in Minnesota, a man who had caught hundreds of wolves in his life, looked at one in a trap one day and judged its weight at "eighty-five or ninety pounds." When it was weighed and found to be sixty-seven pounds, he became slightly indignant with the creature and said, "He's got the frame to carry ninety pounds. Must be sick."
Wolves range in size from about 45 pounds for an adult Arabian wolf to well over 100 pounds for a large timber wolf. In Alaska, where perhaps the biggest wolves are found, a wolf that weighs more than 120 pounds is uncommon. The largest wolf on record is a 175-pound animal killed on 70 Mile River in extreme east central Alaska by a government hunter on July 12, 1939. A Canadian park ranger killed a 172-pound animal in Jasper National Park in 1945. Males are generally 5 or 10 pounds heavier than females. An average weight for a North American wolf would be 80 pounds, less in southern Canada, more in the north. A mature European wolf might weigh 85 pounds. Wolves in the Punjab in India and on the Arabian Peninsula might average 55 pounds.
I spent a couple of days south of the Alaska Range on the Susitna River one spring weighing and measuring wild wolves and when I returned home, a friend asked how wolves compared in size to his Alaskan malamute which many people think of as a sort of carbon copy of the wolf. I took a tape measure, and using the figures from my notebook for a typical male of the same age and weight came up with the following differences: The wolf's head was wider, longer, and generally larger. Malamute and wolf were about the same in the neck, twenty inches around, but the malamute was bigger in the chest by a few inches. The wolf stood two inches taller, was three inches longer in the leg, and eight inches longer in the body. The wolf's tail was longer and had no tendency to curl over its back as the malamute's did. The wolf's track was nearly twice the size of the dog's. Both animals weighed about 100 pounds.
The wolf's coat is remarkable, a luxurious fur consisting of two layers: a soft, light-colored, dense underfur that lies beneath a covering of long guard hairs which shed moisture and keep the underfur dry. Much of the underfur and some of the guard hairs are shed in the spring and grow back in the fall. The coat is thick across the shoulders, where guard hairs may be four or five inches long, and thins out on the muzzle and legs. By placing muzzle and unprotected nose between the rear legs and overlapping the face with the thickly furred tail, wolves can turn their backs to the wind and sleep comfortably in the open at forty degrees below zero. Pound for pound a wolf's fur provides better insulation than a dog's fur, and, like the wolverine's fur, it won't collect ice when warm breath condenses against it.
Wolves in warmer climes have shorter guard hairs and less dense underfur. The red wolf, which inhabits hot, humid areas on the Gulf Coast, has a short, coarse coat and large, pointed ears in contrast to the short, rounded ears of tundra wolves. Short ears are less sensitive to the cold; long ears are efficient dissipaters of body heat.
In extreme cold the wolf can reduce the flow of blood near its skin and conserve even more heat. A team of biologists in Barrow, Alaska, found that the temperature of the wolf's footpads was maintained at just above the tissue-freezing point where the pads came in contact with ice and snow. Warmth there was regulated independently of the rest of the body. This is a good example of the marvelous but nevertheless commonplace efficiency of design found in all wild creatures.
On warm days wolves dissipate heat by panting, a weary-looking but efficient method of cooling by evaporation. And by flopping in creeks and rivers. In the 1920s a Montana cattleman wrote that the wolves on his ranch "would lay up in the damp cool dirt among the reeds and cattails below some spring or in the cedar clumps and thickets on the north side of a high butte" on a hot day.
During hot spells wolves travel much less and restrict their hunting to the coolest hours of the night.
The wolf's ability to regulate its body temperature no doubt helped it survive in a wide variety of climates, each with a wide range of temperature. In the Northwest Territories it may reach seventy degrees below zero or climb to ninety degrees on a summer day. In the northern plains it gets nearly as cold and twenty degrees hotter. The Cascade wolf had to contend with deep snows, the British Columbia wolf with forty to fifty inches of rain in the winter. No one knows how wolves managed in all that moisture. Maybe they simply stayed out of the rain.
The wolf's coat ranges in color from almost pure white through various shades of blond, cream, and ocher to grays, browns, and blacks. Among the more striking are the slate blue coats of some arctic wolves. Most white wolves are found in the north, though Lewis and Clark and many mountain men, explorers, and immigrants reported large numbers of very light wolves on the Great Plains in the early 1800s. The color of the coat apparently has no camouflage function, as black wolves are commonly found on the tundra and white wolves stand out against the black soils of central Russia. In southern Canada and Minnesota the black phase is more common than the white, but grays predominate. Variety in color in the same litter is the rule, though litter mates usually have the same quality of fur. The most luxuriant pelages show up among adults on the tundra, the difference between a tundra wolf pelt and a timber wolf pelt being so pronounced that the former often sells for twice as much.
There are no records I know of for albino wolves, but an aerial hunter told me of one he killed twenty-five miles east of Umiat on the arctic slope in April 1957. It was a female, with pink eyes, nose, and footpads, and weighed about eighty pounds. There are no statistics to bear this out, but when it came up in conversation, many people in Alaska — hunters, biologists, native people — volunteered the information that the biggest wolves they'd seen were blacks.
The great variety in pelage — and I know of no other mammal so variously colored — among wolves in a single area is attested to by the number of words people use to describe local wolf coloration. "Peach," "yellow," "orange," "tan," and "rusty" were all words I heard used in the Arctic. One Eskimo remembered trapping a spotted wolf, a black with white patches in its coat, in 1968 in the Brooks Range.
Eskimos are keen observers of detail and the Nunamiut people of the Brooks Range in Alaska distinguish between male and female wolves and between lactating females and other wolves partly on the basis of differences in pelage. Females tend to have more reddish tones in their fur, and the hair on their legs tends to be smooth, where the hair on a male's leg has a slightly tufted appearance. Pelage changes texture as the animal grows older, with females generally developing the smoothest coats. Older animals tend to have more white hairs in the tip of the tail and elsewhere, along the nose and on the forehead, for example. Lactating females retain their long winter fur longer than other wolves and show hair loss around their nipples. What hair remains on the belly around the mammae develops a red-brown stain.
The Nunamiut also point out that there are subtle anatomical differences between males and females. Females have a narrower muzzle and forehead, thinner neck, slightly shorter legs, and less massive shoulders, which makes the males seem slimmer in the waist by comparison. Two-and three-year-old females, in the opinion of these Eskimos, were also faster runners than males of the same age.
These are all generalizations, of course, but valuable pieces of information in the aggregate for distinguishing the age and sex of a wolf at a distance.
The shading in a wolf's coat has a discernible (and purposeful) pattern. Even relatively pure black and white specimens reveal these patterns. The long, dark-tipped or grizzled, guard hairs saddle the shoulders and extend up the neck and down the spine, fading out toward the rump, where they merge with darker hairs on the top of the tail. The underside of the tail, the insides of the legs, the belly, and the underside of the muzzle are usually light. The head is marked, particularly around the eyes and ears, in such a way as to emphasize the features of the face. The end of the tail is usually dark, with at least a few white hairs at the tip, and there is often a dark spot on the top of the tail marking the location of a scent gland.
The wolf uses a series of stereotyped body postures and facial expressions to communicate, and careful observation reveals that these signals are enhanced by shadings in the fur, making the signals more noticeable.
Wolves are agile creatures but not as deft and quick as coyotes, Red wolves move in a more delicate manner than gray wolves, appearing to put less weight on the foot. In captivity red wolf-coyote hybrids have jumped into the lower limbs of trees, four or five feet off the ground. Red wolf/coyotes also stot when alarmed, moving off with the stiff-legged bound of a white-tailed deer.
Wolves spend an average of eight to ten hours out of every twenty-four on the move, mostly the crepuscular hours. They travel great distances and have tremendous stamina. One observer followed two wolves who broke trail through five feet of snow for 22 miles in British Columbia. The animals paused in their tracks but never lay down to rest. Taking wolves on Isle Royale as an example, they average 30 miles of travel a day in winter. A Finnish biologist reported one pack that moved 125 miles in a day. The naturalist Adolph Murie watched a pack in Alaska make a regular daily round of about 40 miles in search of food while the female was denning. Tundra wolves may run for 5 or 6 miles behind caribou before accelerating to attack.
Wolves are also good swimmers, though they rarely follow prey into the water during a chase.
The wolf's most efficient hunting tool, after its legs get it there, is its mouth. Evolved in an elongated shape, its forty-two teeth are adapted to seize (the long canines), to shear and tear (the premolars), and to crush (the molars). The incisors nibble and strip the shreds of meat from bone. The carnassial teeth (an upper premolar and a lower molar) are specially adapted to function like a set of pruning shears, slicing meat and snipping tough connective tissues and tendons. The animal can develop a crushing pressure of perhaps 1,500 lbs/in compared to 750 lbs/in for a German shepherd. This is enough to break open most of the bones the wolf encounters to get at the marrow.
Wolves live in packs with fairly refined social structures. Packs are typically extended families of five to eight individuals but range in size from two or three to fifteen or twenty. The largest authenticated report is of a pack of thirty-six in Alaska, though packs of more than twenty-five are rarely reported. Stories of hundreds of wolves traveling together are probably folklore. It is possible, however, from the preponderance of references in nineteenth-century magazines, to infer that packs of twenty-five to thirty animals once were rather common in northeastern Europe and central Russia.
Pack size is determined by the availability of space free of other packs and by the type and abundance of game, as well as by the personal dispositions of the various wolves involved and such factors as pup mortality and overall wolf population. Packs may break up in winter or summer, some permanently, others only for a season or a few days. An individual pack may retain an identity over a long period of time, using the same dens year after year, hunting the same territory, and outliving founding members. Murie studied a pack of wolves on the East Fork of the Toklat River in Mount McKinley National Park between 1939 and 1941. Thirty-four years later, studies by another wildlife biologist revealed a pack of similar size and habits in the same place, using the same dens. Packs develop distinct personalities, so that a good observer can tell at a distance from their behavior alone (not just from the number or pelages or in whose territory the observer might be) which pack he is watching.
Breeding normally occurs in February or March, usually every year. There is a physical tie during copulation that may last as long as thirty minutes, and some have suggested that this intimacy reinforces the monogamous bond and galvanizes the pack. As a rule, only one female becomes pregnant.
The pups are born sixty-three days later. April and May are the most common months. Mating and whelping take place later in the spring the farther north one moves. The pups are usually born in a den excavated for the purpose — in a sandy esker in northern Canada, under massive tree trunks, in cut banks, or in natural cavities around boulders or in caves in other locales. In northern Alaska, females may give birth in the open in a hastily prepared depression or "pit den," as though labor had been sudden and unexpected.
An excavated den is usually located high on a cut bank or otherwise situated in well-drained soil, and the location often provides a clear view of the surrounding area; but many dens, especially in wooded areas, have no view at all. The den is kept scrupulously clean. No bedding is used. The entrance hole is normally smaller than twenty x twenty inches; the entrance tunnel may lead back six or eight feet and then dogleg to a rounded hollow, somewhat elevated, where the pups monkeyball together for warmth. Because they have difficulty regulating their body temperature for the first few days, wolf pups require this protection from wind and weather.
Normally from four to six pups are born, but births of only one or as many as thirteen have been recorded. The pups are born deaf and blind; they can hear after a few days, will open their eyes at eleven to fifteen days, and are weaned at five weeks, by which time they are already playing at the entrance to the den. Their floppy ears stand erect at about four weeks and their first howls — the sudden sound of which often startles them — are heard at the same time. The development of a hierarchy of deference in the litter is visible by about six weeks but will change many times in the months to come.
Most of these pups die. Mortality ranges upward of 60 percent, for several reasons. Pups require perhaps three times as much protein per pound as their parents do, and food may be scarce. They sometimes wound each other during fights and a parent may kill (and eat) a severely wounded one. Distemper, listeriosis, and other diseases take a toll, as do pneumonia and hypothermia if a late winter storm hits. A pup exhibiting any untoward behavior, like epilepsy, is killed by the adults. And occasionally an eagle, lynx, or bear may snatch one.
Litter size is related to the availability of game and to the density of wolves in an area — the more wolves, the smaller the litters. Whether or not a litter is born at all, as well as who breeds, depends on social organization within the pack. One pack might even respond to pressure from a neighboring pack with a lot of surviving yearlings in it and not breed. The wolf's endocrine system may be responsible for all this, responding in some way to stress in the animal's environment — how often it sees members of another pack, how much time passes between its kills — so as to control breeding and litter size. The interesting thing is that sometimes not breeding — during a time of famine, for example — increases the chances for the pack to survive.
While the pups are growing up, the older wolves express strong interest in them, and the pups respond with much affection, especially toward their parents. They face-lick and nuzzle the adults, direct play at them, and huddle around them when the adults lie down. The social bond between there is so obvious that in 1576, in an age when people believed the worst of wolves, a sportsman wrote in a book on hunting: "If the pups chance to meet their sire or dam anytime after they leave the pack they will fawn upon them and seem in their kind greatly to rejoice."
The older wolves make no effort to snatch food from the pups or, later, to keep them from feeding on a kill. Observers in the wild, in fact, have frequently commented on how benignly a pack of wolves behaves around a carcass. (In captivity, where wolves develop some level of neurosis, the reverse is sometimes true.) Because an adult will rarely use force to get food from a pup, Konrad Lorenz has wondered if such respect for "rights" might not represent a primitive sense of morality in the wolf, one that might be expected to develop only among social carnivores. The continuation of the thought is that herbivores and other gregarious animals have no food to fight over and no social structure in which to develop a sense of morals.
All this generosity and deference in caring for the pups, while less than strictly observed, is in sharp contrast of course to folk belief. As one Russian authority wrote in 1934: "Most of the prey goes to the older wolves, particularly to the males. They intimidate the yearlings and the newborn...and the weakest are often torn to pieces by their stronger relatives."
By the time they are five to ten months old, the mortality rate for pups has fallen off to about 45 percent. When they mature sexually (usually at two for the females, sometimes not until the next year for males), they enjoy a survival rate of about 80 percent. No animal habitually preys on the wolf and in the wild they may survive for eight or nine years. An exceptional animal may live to be thirteen or fourteen.
Wolves, of course — and it is curious how unaware we seem of this — suffer injury, disease, and violent death as part of living. Tigers kill them in India; bears kill them in North America. And although death does not normally occur as a result of strife in a pack, flight being the usual outcome, encounters between different packs do sometimes involve fatalities.
Most wolves are parasitized to some extent, internally by tapeworms and roundworms and externally by ticks, fleas, and mites, though these external parasites are rare in northern populations. Wolves sometimes endure mange and they suffer from various cancers and tumors. Rabies and distemper are perhaps the most virulent diseases the wolf is susceptible to. A wolf may cut its tongue on a bone and bleed to death. A wind-born seed may bury itself in the inner ear and destroy the animal's equilibrium. Porcupine quills can kill them with swelling and infection. They get cataracts and go blind.
Wolves are sometimes injured by moose and other large animals and these skull fractures, broken ribs, and joint injuries can precipitate arthritis (which also occurs naturally with age). Malnutrition may bring on rickets or other diseases associated with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. In some areas wolves are subject to endemic problems. Red wolves in Texas are heavily parasitized by heartworm; wolves in British Columbia suffer fatally from salmon poisoning; wolves in Spain show a high level of trichinosis.
An examination of 110 wolves killed mostly along the Tanana River in Alaska in 1976 showed 56 had survived one or more traumatic injuries, principally, it was thought, in hunting moose — fractured skulls, broken ribs, broken legs, and so on. A four-year-old male (with healed fractures of the front left leg, two ribs on the right side and the skull) was in "fair to good" physical condition. Others had similarly recovered.
The point of all this is that the woods is a hard place to get on, and yet the wolf survives.
Copyright © 1978 Barry Holstun Lopez
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