Wolf Behaviour

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Below are many of the characteristics of the Canis Lupus (Gray wolf):
  • A pack can consist of 4 to 40 wolves – depending on territory size.

  • The wolf pack hierarchy is a very strict social order.
    • Leaders are known as Alpha (Male and Female).
      The dominance is communicated by posture and vocally.
      (A straight tail – bared teeth – deep growls).
      This show of force rarely leads to serious injuries.
    • The Lowest ranking wolf is known as an Omega (Male or Female).
      The Omega wolf serves an important purpose by absorbing the packs
      aggression thereby maintaining balance within the pack.
      This submissive position is displayed by means of body language.
      (Ears back – head down – tail between the legs – or a raised leg to expose the stomach and genitalia).

  • Wolves in the wild have a lifespan of 5 – 10 years and have been known to live up to 20 years in captivity.

  • The Alpha male and female pair for life and breeding is usually confined to the Alpha pair only.
    • Female wolves become sexually mature during their 2nd year.
    • Male wolves become sexually mature during their 3rd year.
    • Gestation lasts 63 days but can vary by up to four days.
    • The size of each litter is related to the size of the wolf population in the local area, the amount of prey available and other environmental stresses.
    • Litters range in size from 3 – 12 young with an average litter size being 6 pups.
    • The female usually burrows into a mound to create a “den” when having her pups.
    • The Alpha female appoints one of the lesser females to become the “babysitter” when she is not in attendance.
    • The “babysitter” will also lactate in order to feed the pups.
    • The pups are born blind and their eyes open within the first two weeks.
    • Pups can utter their first howls at 4 weeks.
    • The pups begin to emerge from the den at 3 – 5 weeks and are lead out of the den by the Alpha male who whimpers and howls.
    • Pups are weaned at approximately 5 weeks.

  • The pack feeds their pups and their aged family members by regurgitating food.
    • We feed our wolves every second day – meat only – fortified every couple of weeks with vitamins and bone meal (when necessary).

  • Wolves have twice the biting power than that of a dog.

  • Our wolves moult twice a year to adapt to the climate.

  • Wolves have an extra web between their toes for snow walking. They can travel great distances covering up to 200km in 48 hours.
    • Under threat wolves will purge their stomach contents to make their bodies lighter for flight.
    • When wolves are put into abnormal situations – small enclosures or when physically abused or threatened, they display aggressive behaviour and often become violent to protect themselves.

  • Wolves’ eyes have an extra lense for night vision.

  • Wolves are fond of water and love their daily swim, which also serves to eliminate ticks and fleas.

  • Wolves communicate in many ways:
    • From an early age they establish dominance by growling.
    • They are quite vocal as they whimper and whine in hunger, pain or to attract attention.
    • They communicate by means of body language – ears, nose, teeth, and tail.
    • They howl. Howling is not uniform – each wolf has its own distinctive howl – and often a variation each time it howls.
    • Although wolves do not bark as domestic dogs do – they do use a bark as a form of communication – usually signaling alarm or a challenge.
    • Howling identifies the packs whereabouts to lost members, serves to avoid aggression between packs and helps demarcate territories.
    • Lone male wolves have a deep mournful howl, lasting for hours that can be heard up to 25km away.

  • Wolf or Dog?
    • Dogs hold their tail much lower than wolves and for almost all dog breeds – including crossbreeds – the tail tends to curl up.
    • Paw prints are another distinguishing difference.
      In wolves – the toe pads and claw marks point forward.
      In dogs – the toe pads and claw marks are angled to the outside.

Wolf packs do not amalgamate – it is usually only the Omega who leaves the pack or an ousted Alpha – and finds other Omega’s or ousted Alphas in the wild – to form new packs.


Distinguishing track characteristics:
General Shape
Intergroup Distance
Print Size (Front Foot)
Wolf 4 toes, symmetrical, longer than wide, rectangular shape, typical canid-shaped planter pad, nail marks not attached to toe mark. >26 inches L > 4 ¾”
W > 3 ¾”
Usually travels in a straight line.
Dog Same as wolf Variable Variable – but most breeds
< 4”
long Lots of meandering
Coyote Same as wolf < 16” L < 2 ¾”
W< 2 ½”
Travels in a straight line.
Research Courtesy of:
International Wolf Centre Ely, Minnesota
Lopez, Barry H. Of wolves and Men. New York City, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1978
Mech L. David. The wolf: The Ecology and Behaviour of an Endangered Species. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press; 1988.
California Wolf Centre, Julian California.

© 2004 The Lupus Foundation. Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary