Mammals of North America: Wolves

There are two species of wolves found in North America: the gray, or timber wolf, and the red, or maned wolf. Members of the Canidae family, wolves are relatives of the coyote, the fox, the jackal and the domesticated dog.

The gray, or timber wolf ranges in the Northeast United States, into Canada and Alaska. The red wolf, on the other hand is known in the Southern states from Florida to Texas.

Both species of North American wolves vary in color from gray to brown to black and too, however, rarely a gray wolf can be almost white in appearance. Gray wolves can also have red or black coloring in their furs and tend to have more gray coloring as they age. Red wolves, too can have a predominant grey to black coat. In body size, the gray wolf is the largest member of the canine family and in the genus itself, males are generally a bit larger than the females. A male gray wolf average around 90 pounds in weight with the females around ten pounds lighter on average. Red wolves are generally smaller than the gray wolf, and slightly larger than coyotes.

Gray wolves are pack animals, living in groups of six to around forty. (Packs of red wolves are smaller in number on the average.) The alpha wolf is the leader of the pack. There is usually an alpha male and an alpha female and they are normally the only progenitors of the individual packs. The female normally gives birth to two to fourteen pups, with the average being around six. The other females in the group will held tend to the helpless babies until they are able to travel with the pack, usually around four months of age.

Wolves are territorial and will mark a region for the group, communicating through their howls. Within the pack, itself their communication can also consist of variations in body language, as expressed with posture, and facial and tail maneuvers.

Gray wolves are carnivores and their diet consist of whatever is readily available, from small rodents to large caribou. Gray wolves are generally at the top of the food chain in their natural settings and given the opportunity will feed on medium to larger size mammals, such as deer and elk. Red wolves prey on smaller mammals such as rabbits, and are also known to feed on insects and berries when necessary.

Close-up photo of a gray wolf at rest.
Gary Kramer/US Fish and Wildlife Service
A gray wolf resolutely eyes the camera.

A red wolf in captivity
Credit: John and Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS
A red wolf in captivity at Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.

A gray wolf in the snows of Alaska
Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service
A gray wolf lays in the snow in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

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Scientific Classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Canis
Genus: Puma
Species: Canis rufus (red wolf) and Canis lupus (gray wolf)

Outline of a wolf track
Courtesy of the USFWSThe outline of a wolf track.

Visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, North American Mammal Database for more information on the Gray Wolf,and for more information on the Red Wolf.