Wolves and humans have a complicated relationship. We often vilify the “Big Bad Wolf” in fiction and real life, but we’re also consistently fascinated by these smart, social mammals, and we haven’t always clashed. Our ancestors even formed an alliance with wild wolves sometime in the late Pleistocene Epoch, eventually giving us the unparalleled friends we now know as dogs.
Despite all this history, many people don’t understand wolves as well as they think. Domesticated dogs can be very different from their wild relatives, who haven’t spent millennia learning to love us. And due to the decimation of wild wolves by humans in recent centuries, most people alive today have little or no personal experience with wolves aside from dogs.
Widespread myths also distort our view of wolves, from misconceptions about “alpha wolves” to more ʜᴀʀᴍful misunderstandings about the ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛ wolves pose to people. Wolves can be ᴅᴀɴɢᴇʀᴏᴜs, of course, but ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋs on humans are rare, as wolves generally don’t see us as prey.
In hopes of shedding more light on what wolves are really like outside fables and fairy tales, here are a few unexpected facts you may not know about these unique allies and adversaries of humanity.
1. Alpha Wolves’ Are Just Moms and Dads
Gray wolves usually live in packs of six to 10 individuals, led by a dominant breeding pair. You may have heard someone refer to these pack leaders as “alpha wolves,” or males and females who supposedly gain dominance by fighting within their packs, eventually becoming the group’s leaders and exclusive breeders. This view is widespread — and misleading.
Many wolf experts now consider “alpha wolf” an outdated term, arguing it doesn’t accurately describe the way a wolf pack works. One such expert is L. David Mech, a renowned biologist who helped popularize the idea decades ago but now discourages its use. We now know “alpha wolves” are actually just parents, Mech explains, and the other pack members are their offspring. Wolves often ᴍᴀᴛᴇ for life, and their family unit can include a mix of juveniles and young adults from multiple breeding seasons.
“‘Alpha’ implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle,” Mech writes on his website. “However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by ᴍᴀᴛɪɴɢ and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today.”
2. People and Dogs Seem to Sᴛʀᴇss Wolves Out
We may not be able to fully understand the emotional experience of another species, but stuᴅʏɪɴɢ cortisol levels in fᴇᴄᴀʟ samples is one way scientists can estimate sᴛʀᴇss in wild animals. Comparing those hormone levels with other data about the animals’ daily lives might then point to sources of sᴛʀᴇss. In one study of 450 fᴇᴄᴀʟ samples from 11 wolf packs, for example, researchers found the ᴅᴇᴀᴛʜ of a pack member likely induces “important sᴛʀᴇss in the remainder of the social unit.”
Other research suggests wolves may be sᴛʀᴇssed by the presence of humans, at least in some contexts. They don’t seem to like snowmobiles, according to a study conducted at three U.S. national parks, where gray wolves’ fᴇᴄᴀʟ glucocorticoid levels were higher in areas and times of heavy snowmobile use. The presence of a local free-ranging dog population has also been linked to higher sᴛʀᴇss in wolves.
3. There Used to Be a Lot More Wolves
Even with this diversity, and the relative abundance of gray wolves globally, Earth now has far fewer wolves — and fewer kinds — than it once did.
The fossil record has revealed an array of interesting wolf and wolf-like species, for example, including the famous dire wolf (Aenocyon dirus) as well as the hypercarnivorous Xenocyons, or “strange dogs,” which may be ancestors of modern African wild dogs and dholes.
On top of natural ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛions in prehistoric times, however, humans have waged ᴡᴀʀ on gray wolves for centuries. The gray wolf was once the most widely distributed mammal on Earth, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but persecution by people has helped reduce its range by about one-third. Several unique subspecies were lost along the way, including the Florida black wolf, the Great Plains wolf, the Mississippi Valley wolf, and the Texas wolf, as well as Old World species such as the Japanese wolf, the Hokkaido wolf, and the Sicilian wolf.
4. Wolves Help Regulate Their Ecosystems
Like many apex predators, wolves play important ecological roles in their habitats. A widely cited example occurred about a century ago in Yellowstone National Park, where native gray wolves were eliminated by 1920. Initially viewed as a benefit, the loss of wolves lost its luster as the park’s elk population exploded.
Without wolves to reduce their numbers or chase them away from prime feeding areas, Yellowstone’s growing elk herds began to feast unsustainably. They ate young aspen trees too quickly for groves to regenerate, devoured food sources needed by other species, and stripped important vegetation along the banks of streams and wetlands, increasing erosion.
Since the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone began in 1995, elk have declined from a high of 20,000 to fewer than 5,000. Research has shown continued recovery of aspen, cottonwood, and willow trees, as well as a rebound for beavers and riparian songbirds in areas where they had been declining or missing since the 1930s.
Today, Yellowstone National Park is home to over 90 wolves in eight packs, while several hundred more live throughout the surrounding ecosystem.
5. Wolves Are Family Animals
Adult gray wolves can survive on their own, and may need to for a while after leaving their birth packs. Wolves are highly social, however, and often ᴍᴀᴛᴇ for life once they do find a partner. This marks the beginning of a new wolf pack, or nuclear family, the basic social unit for wolves.
Both gray and red wolves breed once per year in late winter or early spring, and both have a gestation period of about 63 days. They generally have four to six pups in a litter, which are born ʙʟɪɴᴅ, deaf, and heavily dependent on their mother. Wolf pups are cared for by all members of the pack, though, including their parents and older siblings. They develop quickly, exploring outside the den after three weeks and growing to nearly adult size within six months. Wolves reach maturity at 10 months, but may stay with their parents for a few years before moving out.
6. Wolves Are Surprisingly Diverse
The word “wolf” usually refers to the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the most widespread and familiar wolf species still in existence. Gray wolves are widely thought to have evolved from the smaller Mosbach wolf, a now-ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛ canid that lived in Eurasia during the Middle to Late Pleistocene.1 Thanks to adventurous, adaptable ancestors, gray wolves have thrived for hundreds of thousands of years across huge swaths of both Eurasia and North America, where they’ve diverged into a wide variety of subspecies.
There is still debate over how wide that variety is, with scientists dividing them into anywhere from eight to 38 subspecies. In North America, these include the ghostly Arctic wolf, the large northwestern wolf, the small Mexican wolf, and the eastern or timber wolf, which some authorities consider a separate species. There is also the enigmatic red wolf (C. rufus), a rare canid classified either as a distinct species omechr as a subspecies of gray wolf, with possible coyote ancestry in either case.
The Eurasian wolf is the largest of several Old World subspecies, and the most abundant with the largest range. Others include the northerly tundra wolf, the high-elevation Himalayan wolf, the desert-dwelling Arabian wolf, and the plains-prowling Indian wolf. Aside from gray wolves, the genus Canis also includes closely related species such as coyotes and golden jackals, as well as two other species commonly known as wolves: the Ethiopian wolf (C. simensis) and the African golden wolf (C. lupaster).
7. They’re Sᴋɪʟʟed Communicators, Too
Wolves do howl at night, but contrary to popular belief, these soulful calls have nothing to do with the moon. They convey long-distance messages to other wolves, who may be able to hear them from up to 10 miles away. Howling can help wolves assemble their pack, locate missing pack members, or defend territory, among other purposes.
Wolves also make other vocalizations to communicate, such as growling, barking, whining, and whimpering. They use body language, too, including eye contact, facial expressions, and body posturing. These silent communication channels can be useful when ʜᴜɴᴛing — a “gaze signal,” for example, may help wolves coordinate during group ʜᴜɴᴛs without making sounds that would alert their prey.
Wolves’ powerful sense of smell also plays a key role in their communication, letting them share information through multiple types of scent marking, including raised-leg ᴜʀɪɴᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, squat ᴜʀɪɴᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, ᴅᴇfᴇᴄᴀᴛɪᴏɴ, and scratching.
8. Wolves Need a Lot of Space
Wolf packs need large territories to supply them with enough prey, but the size can vary widely depending on factors such as climate, terrain, prey abundance, and the presence of other predators.
Gray wolf territories range in size from 50 to 1,000 square miles, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wolves can cover large areas while ʜᴜɴᴛing, traveling up to 30 miles in a day. They primarily trot at about 5 mph, but can run as fast as 40 mph for short distances.
9. Dire Wolves May Not Have Been Wolves
The now-ᴇxᴛɪɴᴄᴛ dire wolf was common across North America until about 13,000 years ago, when much of the continent’s megafauna vanished amid natural climate changes. Dire wolves were comparable in size to today’s largest gray wolves, but they had ʙᴏɴᴇ-crushing jaws and may have focused on big prey like horses, bison, ground sloths, and mastodons.
Dire wolf fossils suggest a strong resemblance to modern gray wolves, and based on morphological similarities, scientists have long assumed the two were closely related. In early 2021, however, scientists revealed surprising results after sequencing DNA from dire wolf subfossils. Dire wolves and gray wolves are only very distant cousins, they reported in the journal Nature, and their similarities seem to be the result of convergent evolution rather than close relation. Dire wolf DNA indicates a “highly divergent lineage” that split from living canids. 7 million years ago, the researchers wrote, with no evidence of interbreeding with any living canid species.
“When we first started this study we thought that dire wolves were just beefed-up grey wolves, so we were surprised to learn how extremely ɢᴇɴᴇᴛɪᴄally different they were, so much so that they likely could not have interbred,” said senior author Laurent Frantz, from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, in a statement. “Hybridization across Canis species is thought to be very common; this must mean that dire wolves were isolated in North America for a very long time to become so ɢᴇɴᴇᴛɪᴄally distinct.”