Gray Wolf Features & Adaptations

The gray wolf species (Canis lupus) is one of three distinct wolf species, the others being red wolf and coyote. Gray wolves belong to the Canis genus, in the dog family, and they include the subspecies of dingo, domesticated dog, timber wolf and arctic wolf. Gray wolves are highly adaptable, and they can be found across such varied environments as mountains, tundra, grasslands and temperate forests.

  1. Adaptations

    • Adaptations of the gray wolf relate to all aspects of its life, from hunting and digesting to fasting. Gray wolves are digitigrades, which means that only their toes touch the ground when they walk. This allows the gray wolf to be a highly skilled runner and hunter, reaching up to 35 miles per hour.

      Once they've caught their prey, gray wolves use sharp canine teeth to penetrate and tear its flesh, and their rear molars and premolars are strong enough to crush bone. The gray wolf digests its meal slowly. It can eat around 20 pounds in one meal, then fast for two weeks while searching for its next kill.


    • Physically, the gray wolf somewhat resembles a German shepherd -- erect ears, bushy tail, and a fur coat that can be a combination of gray, black and brown. However, gray wolves in the arctic tend to be almost all white. Adult males grow to a shoulder height of about 3 feet, with a body that measures 4 feet front to back. Gray wolves generally weigh 100 to 200 pounds.

    Habitat and Numbers

    • Although gray wolves could at one time be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Asia to North America, their numbers have dwindled because of hunting. Reintroduction in northern states has helped stabilize their numbers. There is a thriving gray wolf population in Alaska, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service lists the animal as threatened in Minnesota, and endangered in the 47 other lower states.


    • Gray wolves hunt mostly at night, when they prey on small mammals, deer and birds. They chase down their prey in packs, which usually have five to 10 members. Occasionally, smaller packs join together to form groups of around 30. These packs are organized in a hierarchical system with a dominant male, and his mate acting as second in command. Wolves are territorial and defend between 25 and 1,500 square miles.

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