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Wolf facts for kids

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Grey wolf
Temporal range:
Mid Pleistocene – Recent
A wolf howling
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Binomial name
Canis lupus
Linnaeus, 1758

The wolf (Canis lupus) is a mammal of the order Carnivora. It is sometimes called timber wolf or grey wolf.

It is the ancestor of the domestic dog. A recent study found that the domestic dog is descended from wolves tamed less than 16,300 years ago south of the Yangtze River in China.

There are many different wolf subspecies, such as the Arctic wolf. Some subspecies are listed on the endangered species list, but overall, Canis lupus is IUCN graded as 'least concern'.


Canis lupus occidentalis (Etapas de crecimiento) - Miren Leyzaola
Illustration of various gray wolf growth stages

Adult wolves are usually 1.4 to 1.8 metres (4.6 to 5.9 ft) in length from nose to tail depending on the subspecies. Wolves living in the far north tend to be larger than those living further south. As adults they may weigh typically between 23 to 50 kilograms (51 to 110 lb). The heaviest wolf recorded weighed 86 kilograms (190 lb).

The wolf has a long muzzle, short ears, long legs, and a long bushy tail.

Wolves usually measure 26–38 inches at the shoulder. Wolves have fur made up of two layers. The top layer is resistant to dirt, and the under-layer is water resistant. The color of their fur can be any combination of grey, white, taupe, brown, and black.


Wolves live in groups called "packs". They are pack hunters. The members of the pack are usually family members, often just the parents and offspring. Wolves that are not family may join if they do not have a pack of their own. Packs are usually up to 12 wolves, but they can be as small as two or as large as 25. The leaders are called the parent (breeding) male and the parent (breeding) female. Their territory is marked by scent and howling; they will fight any intruders.

Young wolves are called 'pups' or 'whelps'. Adult females usually give birth to five or six pups in a litter.

Wolves make a noise called a howl. They howl to communicate with each other from long distances and to mark the edges of their territory. Wolves have a complicated body language.

Wolves can run very fast and far. A wolf can run 20–30 miles in a day.

Grey wolves can live six to eight years. They can live in captivity for up to 17 years.


Canis lupus pack surrounding Bison
Wolves surrounding an American bison

Wolves are carnivores and eat mostly medium to large size hoofed animals (unguligrades), but they will also eat rodents, insectivores and foxes. Some wolves have been seen eating salmon, seals, beached whales, lizards, snakes and birds. They also eat moose, bison, deer and other large animals.

Wolves can eat about 20 pounds (approx. 9 kg) of meat in one meal. (About 100 hot dogs).

Wolves usually stalk old or sick animals. It is easier for the wolves to take down the sick because they are slower and less powerful. They do not always catch what they stalk. They may go days without food. Sometimes only one out of twelve hunts are successful.

The alpha male and female feed first. Then the other members feed. Sometimes (especially if the prey they have killed is large) wolves may store food and come back that day to feed on it. Wolves have very sharp teeth which helps them tear large chunks of meat from a dead animal. They will eat up to 2/7 their body weight. Wolves will also swallow food and then bring it back up for pups to eat.


Present distribution of gray wolf (canis lupus) subspecies
Where different grey wolf subspecies live

Wolves are found in Europe, Asia and North America. They can live in forests, deserts, mountains, tundra, grasslands and sometimes around towns and cities.


Social structure

Canis lupus pallipes Mysore Zoo 2
Indian wolves at the Mysore Zoo

The wolf is a social animal. Its populations consist of packs and lone wolves. Most lone wolves disperse from packs to form their own or join another one.

The wolf's basic social unit is the nuclear family consisting of a mated pair accompanied by their offspring. The average pack size in North America is eight wolves and in Europe 5.5 wolves. The average pack across Eurasia consists of a family of eight wolves (two adults, juveniles, and yearlings), or sometimes two or three such families, with examples of exceptionally large packs consisting of up to 42 wolves being known.

Offspring typically stay in the pack for 10–54 months before dispersing. Some stay in the vicinity of the parental group, while other individuals may travel great distances of upwards of 206 km (128 mi), 390 km (240 mi), and 670 km (420 mi) from their natal (birth) packs. Wolf packs rarely adopt other wolves into their fold and typically kill them. In the rare cases where other wolves are adopted, the adoptee is almost invariably an immature animal of one to three years old, and unlikely to compete for breeding rights with the mated pair. This usually occurs between the months of February and May. Adoptee males may mate with an available pack female and then form their own pack. In some cases, a lone wolf is adopted into a pack to replace a deceased breeder.

Wolves are territorial animals. They generallly establish territories far larger than they require to survive in order to have a steady supply of prey. Territory size depends on the amount of prey available and the age of the pack's pups.

Wolf packs travel constantly in search of prey, covering roughly 9% of their territory per day. Wolf packs are typically settled, and usually leave their territory only when there is severe food shortage.


Wolves communicate using vocalizations, body postures, scent, touch, and taste.

The phases of the moon have no effect on wolf vocalization, and despite popular belief, wolves do not howl at the moon. Wolves howl to assemble the pack usually before and after hunts, to pass on an alarm particularly at a den site, to locate each other during a storm, while crossing unfamiliar territory, and to communicate across great distances. Wolf howls can under certain conditions be heard over areas of up to 130 km2 (50 sq mi).

Other vocalizations include growls, barks and whines. Wolves do not bark as loudly or continuously as dogs do in confrontations, rather barking a few times and then retreating from a perceived danger.

Scent marking is more effective at advertising territory than howling and is often used in combination with scratch marks. Wolves increase their rate of scent marking when they encounter the marks of wolves from other packs. Lone wolves will rarely mark, but newly bonded pairs will scent mark the most. These marks are generally left every 240 m (260 yd) throughout the territory on regular travelways and junctions. Such markers can last for two to three weeks, and are typically placed near rocks, boulders, trees, or the skeletons of large animals.


Wolves are monogamous. Mated pairs usually remain together for life. Should one of the pair die, another mate is found quickly.

Wolves become mature at the age of two years. The age of first breeding in wolves depends largely on environmental factors: when food is plentiful, or when wolf populations are heavily managed, wolves can rear pups at younger ages to better exploit abundant resources. Females are capable of producing pups every year, one litter annually being the average.

Iberian Wolf 01
Iberian wolf pups stimulating their mother to regurgitate some food

Dens are usually constructed for pups during the summer period. When building dens, females make use of natural shelters like fissures in rocks, cliffs overhanging riverbanks and holes thickly covered by vegetation. Sometimes, the den is the appropriated burrow of smaller animals such as foxes, badgers or marmots. An appropriated den is often widened and partly remade. On rare occasions, female wolves dig burrows themselves, which are usually small and short with one to three openings.

The den is usually constructed not more than 500 m (550 yd) away from a water source. It typically faces southwards where it can be better warmed by the sun, and the snow can thaw more quickly. Resting places, play areas for the pups, and food remains are commonly found around wolf dens.

The gestation period lasts 62–75 days with pups usually being born in the spring months or early summer in very cold places such as on the tundra. Young females give birth to four to five young, and older females from six to eight young and up to 14.

Newborn wolf pups look similar to German Shepherd Dog pups. They are born blind and deaf and are covered in short soft grayish-brown fur. They weigh 300–500 g (10+1217+34 oz) at birth and begin to see after nine to 12 days. The milk canines erupt after one month. Pups first leave the den after three weeks. At one-and-a-half months of age, they are agile enough to flee from danger. Mother wolves do not leave the den for the first few weeks, relying on the fathers to provide food for them and their young. Pups begin to eat solid food at the age of three to four weeks. They have a fast growth rate during their first four months of life: during this period, a pup's weight can increase nearly 30 times. Wolf pups begin play-fighting at the age of three weeks, though unlike young coyotes and foxes, their bites are gentle and controlled. Actual fights to establish hierarchy usually occur at five to eight weeks of age. This is in contrast to young coyotes and foxes, which may begin fighting even before the onset of play behaviour. By autumn, the pups are mature enough to accompany the adults on hunts for large prey.

Arctic wolf

Arctic wolf

The Arctic wolf may be a subspecies of the grey wolf. They live in the Canadian part of the Arctic Circle, as well as Greenland and Iceland.

The habitat of Arctic wolves is very hostile. Not much is known about their lifestyle. They are more friendly than other wolves, but they can still be very aggressive.

Their winter fur is highly resistant to the cold. Wolves in northern climates can rest comfortably in open areas at −40 °C (−40 °F) by placing their muzzles between the rear legs and covering their faces with their tail. Wolf fur provides better insulation than dog fur, and does not collect ice when warm breath is condensed against it. Since about 1930, the skull of many Arctic wolves has become smaller. This might be because of hybridization between wolves and dogs. They are 3 feet (0.91 m) tall when they're adults. Adult arctic wolves weigh about 75 to 120 pounds (34 to 54 kg). Arctic wolves live in a group of 7-20 wolves. They may live up to 5–10 years in the wild. They can live for 14 years if they are well cared for in a zoo.

Wolves and humans

Even though many people think that wolves are terrible, mean creatures, they are actually much gentler than many people imagine. The main reason wolves become violent is because they may be sick or to protect other wolves in the pack. Many people around the world, especially in Canada and Alaska, have huskies for pets: they are a close relative of the wolf.

A few years ago wolves were put back into Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to breed, because they were becoming endangered. The wolves have been very successful in the park. There had been no wolves there for a long time, because of hunting and poisoned water. Many people were not happy about this because they were afraid that the wolves would eat the sheep and cows near the park. However, wolves only eat livestock when they can not find wild prey.

Human hunting of wolves

Theodore Roosevelt said wolves are difficult to hunt because of their elusiveness, sharp senses, high endurance, and ability to quickly incapacitate and kill a dog. Historic methods included killing of spring-born litters in their dens, coursing with dogs (usually combinations of sighthounds, Bloodhounds and Fox Terriers), poisoning with strychnine, and trapping.

A popular method of wolf hunting in Russia involves trapping a pack within a small area by encircling it with fladry poles carrying a human scent. This method relies heavily on the wolf's fear of human scents, though it can lose its effectiveness when wolves become accustomed to the odor. Some hunters can lure wolves by imitating their calls. In Kazakhstan and Mongolia, wolves are traditionally hunted with eagles and falcons, though this practice is declining, as experienced falconers are becoming few in number. Shooting wolves from aircraft is highly effective, due to increased visibility and direct lines of fire. Several types of dog, including the Borzoi and Kyrgyz Tajgan, have been specifically bred for wolf hunting.

Extinction in Britain

Wolves in Britain were all killed after centuries of hunting. The last wolves survived in the Scottish Highlands. There is a legend that the last one was killed there in 1743 by a character called MacQueen.

Within the past ten years, there have been studies that are in favour of allowing new wolves to come and live in the English countryside and Scottish Highlands again. One study was in 2007. Researchers from Norway, Britain, and Imperial College London decided that wolves would help add back plants and birds that now are eaten by deer. The wolves would keep the deer population lower. People were generally positive, but farmers living in rural areas wanted to be paid for livestock that were killed by the wolves.

As pets and working animals

Wolves and wolf-dog hybrids are sometimes kept as exotic pets. Although closely related to domestic dogs, wolves do not show the same tractability as dogs in living alongside humans, being generally less responsive to human commands and more likely to act aggressively. A person is more likely to be fatally mauled by a pet wolf or wolf-dog hybrid than by a dog.

In popular culture

Capitoline she-wolf Musei Capitolini MC1181
The Capitoline Wolf, sculpture of the mythical she-wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus, from the legend of the founding of Rome, Italy, 13th century AD. (The twins are a 15th-century addition.)

The wolf is a common motif in the myths. The Ancient Greeks associated wolves with Apollo, the god of light and order. The Ancient Romans connected the wolf with their god of war and agriculture Mars, and believed their city's founders, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. Norse mythology includes the feared giant wolf Fenrir, and Geri and Freki, Odin's faithful pets.

In Chinese astronomy, the wolf represents Sirius and guards the heavenly gate. In China, the wolf was traditionally associated with greed and cruelty and wolf epithets were used to describe negative behaviours such as cruelty ("wolf's heart"), mistrust ("wolf's look") and lechery ("wolf-sex"). In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the wolf is ridden by gods of protection. In Vedic Hinduism, the wolf is a symbol of the night and the daytime quail must escape from its jaws. In Tantric Buddhism, wolves are depicted as inhabitants of graveyards and destroyers of corpses.

In the Pawnee creation myth, the wolf was the first animal brought to Earth. When humans killed it, they were punished with death, destruction and the loss of immortality. For the Pawnee, Sirius is the "wolf star" and its disappearance and reappearance signified the wolf moving to and from the spirit world. Both Pawnee and Blackfoot call the Milky Way the "wolf trail". The wolf is also an important crest symbol for clans of the Pacific Northwest like the Kwakwakaʼwakw.

The concept of people turning into wolves, and the inverse, has been present in many cultures. One Greek myth tells of Lycaon being transformed into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for his evil deeds. The legend of the werewolf has been widespread in European folklore and involves people willingly turning into wolves to attack and kill others. The Navajo have traditionally believed that witches would turn into wolves by donning wolf skins and would kill people and raid graveyards. The Dena'ina believed wolves were once men and viewed them as brothers.

In fable and literature

Images for kids

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Canis lupus para niños

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