Wolf and Wolf Hybrids
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The wolf is the quintessential wild animal. Considered brave, even fearless, by admirers; held up as a model of family efficiency and loyalty; feared by those who misunderstand his needs; loved by ecologists; and hated by cattlemen and sheepmen, this wild canid is imbedded deeply in man's cultural and natural history through fairy tales, folklore, and an ill-advised battle against natural predators. People are willing to believe that this creature is related to northern breeds of dogs, but not to their beloved Poodles, Beagles, or Labrador Retrievers.
Scientific research conducted over the past century has determined that dogs developed from several subspecies of wolves scattered throughout the world. Thousands of years ago, wolves probably became camp followers, taking advantage of the scraps around the fires and caves of prehistoric man. Perhaps man brought wolf cubs into the family to raise, and eventually began to take advantage of the wolf's ability to hunt and to guard the campsite. Down the millennia, through preference for wolves of certain physical and behavioral characteristics and through genetic mutation, Canis lupus changed shape, size, and color to become the wolf subspecies now known as Canis lupus familiaris.
Although most wolves have basically grey coats, hence the common name, the coats usually have a lot of base yellow interspersed between the salt-and-pepper frey and black hair. Wolves anywhere can have coats that grade from almost pure white to yellows, reds, even jet black, although all of the arctic wolves are usually all white.
Most of the adult wolves weigh in the vicinity of 75 to 125 pounds (34 to 56 kilograms). Males are usually larger than females by as much as twenty-five percent. There are authenticated records of male wolves weighing as much as 175 pounds (79 kilograms).
As large as wolves are, they usually appear to be much larger because of their long hair. In the winter coat, the hair on their back and sides averages 2 to 2.5 inches (5 to 6.3 centimeters) in length. Starting at the base of the neck, the wolf has a teardrop-shaped mane of hair that elongates into just a crest down the spine toward the tail. Over the shoulder, the mane is about 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) wide. The hairs in the mane are 4 to 5 inches (10 to 12.7 centimeters) long and are attached to erectorpilli muscles, which allow the hairs to stand on end, making the wolf appear even larger.
Extensive studies of the North American wolf species show between 50 to 70 inches (1.3 to 1.8 metres) in total nose-tip-to-tail-tip length. Of that length, one quarter is tail length.
Wolves Stand between 27 to 31 inches (68 to 78 centimeters) high at the shoulder. Compared to dogs of the same size, wolves' chests are much narrower. Their legs are also longer in proportion to their body weight than are most dogs. Because of its narrower chest, the wolf's left and right foot tracks closer together than the dogs.
Humans are plantigrade, walking upon our entire flat foot, sole to heel. All members of the canine family, and the feline family too, are digitigrade, walking upon just their toe tips. Unless a wolf is lying down, the heel of each foot does not come in contact with the ground. The front feet of a wolf are exceptionally large. This is of great advantage to the wolf when it runs upon snow, as it allows greater weight distribution and more support to prevent the animal from sinking in as deeply when the snow is soft.
The wolf is very comfortable in the water, and does not hesitate to wade through icy streams or swim across short stretches of lake. In summer, wolves often bathe in streams to keep cool, and they will readily follow prey into water. They have been known to wash mud from their coats in rivers and streams. They depend on their thick coats in winter, so it is not surprising that they spend part of their leisure time in grooming behavior. It is also likely that the grooming of other pack members helps reinforce the social bonds that tie the pack together. Two wolves will lick each others' coats, nibbling gently with their teeth to remove foreign matter. Reciprocal grooming is especially common during courtship. Injured wolves are intensely groomed by other pack members, providing both physical and mental comfort.
Wolves mature physically at a later age than dogs; females have their first estrus (heat) at two years of age or older, and they cycle only once each year, usually in late winter. Males mature at age three or later.
Wolves in the wild live in family packs, mostly consisting of three to a dozen members, usually related. Each pack has an alpha or top male and an equivalent female, and each top wolf keeps order among the pack members of its gender. Generally, only the top male and female mate, but occasionally the alpha male stands aside and allows the beta (second place) male to breed the alpha female.
Only one litter is born to the pack each year, and all the adult wolves assist in raising the cubs. One wolf remains at the den site with the cubs while the others go off to hunt. When the successful hunters return to the den, they regurgitate partially-digested food for the cubs. As the cubs grow and leave the den, the adults take turns cub-sitting, playing with the youngsters and keeping them out of harm's way.
Wolves love to play, shouldering one another, bumping bodies together, flopping tails over each other's backs, and leaping up placing forepaws around other' necks. Play especially in pups, develops strength and hunting skills, and aids in establishing pack communication and hierarchy. The intention to play is often signaled by the gesture well known to dog owners of dropping the front quarters into a crouch position, with smiling face and wagging tail. Adult wolves stage mock fights, play chase, and leap on each other. The ambushing of unwary pack members is a favorite game.
Unity in the pack is maintained by complex use of facial expressions and body language that establish relationships between individual wolves that benefit the pack. Alpha wolves may place their head or paw on the shoulders of subordinates or grasp the inferior's muzzle in his jaws in play, just a reminder that he is boss. Or he may stare at boisterous subordinates in a C. lupus version of "Knock it off!"
Position of the ears, tail, and lips are important in wolf communication. A relaxed but alert wolf or a dominant-aggressive wolf carries his ears up; a submissive or fearful wolf pins them back against the skull. An aggressive wolf carries his tail straight behind, a submissive one tucks his tail between his legs. A wolf ready to fight curls his lips back fully, bares his teeth, stares intently, and raises his hackles. He may growl or not.
Submissive wolves avoid eye contact with dominant members of the pack and may turn away from their betters. Many inferior wolves grovel to their superiors, mimicking the cub behavior of soliciting food by licking at the muzzle of the dominant animal. Sometimes, they lie on the ground and expose their bellies to the alpha wolf, and they may urinate to further state their acknowledgement that the alpha is truly the top wolf. Some of you may have noticed this same behavior in your dog.
With the cubs, however, all bets are off. All adults accept the attentions, including the sharp teeth, of the cubs. The youngsters are allowed to practice adult behaviors with forbearance, although a particularly painful nip might be followed by a big paw pinning a hapless cub to the ground. Mother may grab a cub by the scruff of the neck and shake him for wandering off, or she may cuff several cubs that refuse to stop roughhousing, but these are manifestations of tough love, designed to keep the cubs safe and teach them manners.
The purpose of this social order is to increase hunting prowess and ensure the survival of the pack and therefore the species. Wolves cooperate when they hunt. In some cases, a couple of wolves will watch over the potential prey animal while the rest of the pack relaxes and plays. Then, when the hunt resumes, some wolves may leave the pack and circle ahead of the moose or elk, ready to ambush it. Sometimes wolves encircle a prey animal floundering in deep snow and simply wait for it to tire and collapse.
There is a tendency to judge their behavior as cruel or as gentle and loving, but wolves are simply animals that are equipped to survive in a harsh environment. Ascribing human emotions or characteristics to their behavior is inappropriate. To search for vestiges of that behavior in their descendants and attempt to comprehend it can enhance understanding of wolves and of the dogs that share man's home and hearth.
Today wolves are endangered species wherever they live, except perhaps in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic and subarctic, where they appear to flourish in the midst of the herds of hundreds of thousands of caribou. Attempts are being made to reintroduce wolves to their former territory to serve as natural predators for deer, elk, and other hoofed animals with burgeoning populations.
The Wolf has developed the capacity to survive in the most inhospitable of climates. The wolves in the high arctic endure several winter months of perpetual darkness. Even in Febuary when sun returns to the north, temperatures of -40°C and bitter winds are common. Other wolves are at home in the desert and the dampness of a humid Gulf Coast swamp.
Three canids -- dogs, wolves, and coyotes -- seem to crossbreed rather freely. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat popular for these crossbreds and their offspring to be kept as pets.
Since the wolf - Canis lupus - is an endangered species, it is illegal to capture a wild wolf for any purpose. However, some folks established colonies of wolves before this status was granted, and they have used these animals to produce wolf hybrids. Most hybrids are crossbred on large breeds of dogs, especially German Shepherd, Chow, Akita, and Alaskan Malamute, and they often combine the worst characteristics of the wolf and the dog breed.
The wolf is basically a shy animal, instilled with a fierce need to fit into a pack hierarchy and depending on nuances in body language and facial expression and on hunting skill to survive. A stare is considered a direct challenge and can bring an attack if the animal cannot flee. Wolf jaws are much stronger than those of a dog and are often used to exert dominance.
According to Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men, the jaws of a wolf have a "crushing pressure of perhaps 1,500 (lbs/square inch) compared to 740 (lbs/square inch) for a German Shepard." The dentition of the wolf consists of twenty-two teeth: twelve incisors, four canines, sixteen pre molars, and ten carnassials and molars. The canines of the wolf are easily 1-inch (2.54 centimeters) long, strong, sharp, and slightly curved. These are the teeth used for grasping prey. The wolf does not chew its food, using its carnassials to scissor off a piece of meat that can then be swallowed in a manageable chunk.
The breeds of dog frequently used to produce the hybrid tend to be dominant, fairly independent, and even aloof. They are difficult to train for inexperienced owners and can be aggressive to other dogs and dangerous to cats and other small mammals. This combination of wolf temperament and breed characters can be dangerous in inexperienced hands.
Although the lure to own an exotic pet is strong, families who would like a wolf-like animal that is good with children should opt for a well-tempered German Shepherd, a Keeshond, or a Samoyed. More experienced dog owners might consider a Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Chow, or Akita. Only those folks who have previously trained a tough northern breed of dog should even consider a hybrid.
A wolf hybrid should never be left alone with small children, for children stare, scream, and move quickly. Stares are challenges, and the baby will lose every time. Screams, cries, and quick movements are prey characteristics, and the hybrid may consider the child fair game.
A hybrid must always know who is top dog, and this alpha status must be earned and maintained with firmness, not punishment.
Obedience training is a must.
There's no way to predict whether a hybrid will display wolf behavior or dog behavior or something in between. Therefore, hybrid owners should read as much about wolves as possible so they can recognize and deal with the various manifestations of body language, facial expressions and dominant or submissive behaviors they may encounter. A hybrid should always be spayed or neutered to prevent breeding.
The responsibility of placing hybrid pups in appropriate homes is far greater than the responsibility of placing any other pup.
A hybrid is not a guard dog. Since there are far more subordinate wolves than alpha wolves, and since most wolves don't bark much, a hybrid with wolf behavior is likely to flee rather than guard.
Female hybrids are less likely to get along with female dogs or hybrids, and male hybrids are unlikely to get along with male dogs or hybrids.
The caveats regarding wolf-dog hybrids carries over to coydogs, the coyote-dog hybrids that are becoming more common as coyotes spread throughout the country. Since coyotes are solitary animals not attuned to pack living, the problems encountered with these hybrids may be even greater than those of wolf-dogs.
There's no doubt that a hybrid wolf or coyote can be a fine companion for those who understand their wild core. But the thrill of living with such a magnificent creature must be tempered by the knowledge that the animal will forever be unpredictable, that mistakes in training may never be forgiven, and that alpha status must always be reinforced. The average pet-owning family is much better off with "just" a dog.
Ask anyone about wolf vocalizations and the howl invariably springs to mind. Even though wolves bark, woof, whine, whimper, yelp, growl, snarl and moan a lot more often than they howl, it is howling that defines the wolf, and fascinates us. So why do wolves howl?
The center of a wolf's universe is its pack, and howling is the glue that keeps the pack together. Some have speculated that howling strengthens the social bonds between packmates; the pack that howls together, stays together. That may be so, but chorus howls can also end with nasty quarrels between packmates. Some members, usually the lowest-ranking, may actually be "punished" for joining in the chorus. Whether howling together actually strengthens social bonds, or just reaffirms them, is unknown.
We do know, however, that howling keeps packmates together, physically. Because wolves range over vast areas to find food, they are often separated from one another. Of all their calls, howling is the only one that works over great distances. Its low pitch and long duration are well suited for transmission in forest and across tundra, and unique features of each individual's howl allow wolves to identify each other. Howling is a long distance contact and reunion call; separate a wolf from its pack, and very soon it will begin howling, and howling, and howling...
When a wolf howls, not only can its packmates hear it, but so can any other wolf within range. These other wolves may be members of hostile adjacent packs that are competitors for territory and prey. Howl too close to these strangers, and they may seek you out, chase you, even kill you. In northern Minnesota, where wolves are protected from humans, the primary cause of death for adult wolves is being killed by wolves from other packs. So howling has its costs (running into the opposition) as well as its benefits (getting back with the pack). Consequently, wolves are careful about where and when they howl, and to whom they howl.
For example, a wolf that is separated from its pack may return to an abandoned summer rendezvous site and howl for hours, even in response to a stranger nearby. It was accustomed to howling at that site and probably feels relatively confident and secure there. But that same wolf, away from the old home site, will be much more reserved, and if a stranger howls nearby, it may silently and quickly retreat. Younger wolves, however, act differently.
Pups, especially those under four months of age, love to howl and will usually reply to any howling they hear, even that of total strangers. This is
understandable, since pups haven't yet learned how to identify their older
Indiscriminate howling is usually not a dangerous proposition for young pups, since they tend to be stuck at a rendezvous site that is relatively far from the neighbors, who likely have pups of their own to raise. More importantly, replying to an adult that howls often leads to a meal, since packmates returning with food frequently howl as they near the home site. But as summer gives way to fall, the benefits of indiscriminate howling decrease.
Once pups start to travel with the pack, they begin to enter less secure
surroundings. Their neighbors are also traveling more. Distant howls may belong to strangers, so the risks of howling increase. Besides, by now they have had ample time to learn the voices of their own packmates and are able to discriminate friend from foe. By six months of age, pups have become as selective as adult wolves about where, when and to whom they howl.
There is one member of the pack who will tend to howl more boldly: the alpha male. The alpha male is the dominant male of the pack, and father of the pups. He is most likely to howl to, and even approach, a stranger -- often with confrontation on his mind. One sign of this aggressiveness can be heard in his voice; his howls become lower-pitched and coarser in tone as he approaches a stranger. Lowering the pitch of a vocalization is a nearly universal sign of increasing aggressiveness in mammals, and in wolves it can sound quite impressive.
This behavior points to the second main purpose of howling: helping to
maintain spacing between rival packs. When one pack howls, others nearby may
reply. Very quickly, all the wolves know each other's location. By advertising their presence, packs can keep their neighbors at bay and avoid accidentally running into them.
But the use of howling in spacing is fraught with difficulties. If one pack howls, all its neighbors (within range, of course) now know its location. What if they choose to keep quiet, sneak up, and attack the howlers? Deliberate attacks by one pack on another have been seen, so there are costs to advertising your location. These risks have to be balanced with benefits. An example of this trade-off is sometimes seen during winter, when packs are traveling nomadically within (or even outside) their territories. A pack sitting on a fresh prey kill is very likely to stake its claim and howl,
particularly if a stranger howls nearby. As time passes and the kill is
consumed, the wolves become less invested in the site and are less likely to
reply. Eventually, they may respond to a stranger's howling by silently moving away.
When two packs do meet, their relative size usually decides the outcome. Thus small packs are often quite reluctant to howl and draw attention to themselves, whereas large packs howl readily. But packs can fib to one another about their size.
When animals compete, they often engage in behaviors designed to exaggerate their size. Wolves stand tall, raise their hackles, ears and tails, and produce low, menacing howls, all to convince their opponent that a retreat from this "big, bad wolf" is the best option. Thus most confrontations involve a lot of bluff and very little bloodshed. Similarly, packs that are able to exaggerate their numbers are more likely to keep their neighbors at bay. The structure of a pack or chorus howl is well suited to this kind of deception.
Rather than using howls with a single pure tone, wolves howling in a chorus use wavering or modulated howls. The rapid changes in pitch make it difficult to follow one individual's howls if several others are howling simultaneously. In addition, as the sound travels through the environment, trees, ridges, rock cliffs and valleys reflect and scatter it. As a result, competing packs hear a very complex mix of both direct sound and echoes. If the howls are modulated rapidly enough, two wolves may sound like four or more. Indeed, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant reported hearing what he took to be a pack of "not more than 20 wolves" while traveling. A short time later he reached the pair of wolves that had been making all the noise! This phenomenon, called the Beau Geste Effect, may introduce enough uncertainty to make size estimates not only unreliable, but potentially lethal, if a pack underestimates the size of its rival and approaches.
So wolves howl to find their companions and keep their neighbors at bay.
Popular imagination has long held that they also howl at the moon, but there is no evidence that this is so. Wolves may be more active on moonlit nights, when they can see better, or we may hear them more often on such nights, because we feel more comfortable tramping about in the light of a full moon, but a wolf howling at the moon would be wasting its breath.
Scent plays a very important role in the life of the wolf, by smell alone wolves can locate prey, other pack members or enemies. It can tell
them if other wolves were in the territory, if they were male or
female, and how recently they visited. The wolf has several specialized glands, one around the anus and another on its back about 3 inches (7.6 centimetres) in the front of the base of its tail. The scent from these glands is as individualistic as are our fingerprints and is used by that particular wolf as its personal calling card. These Glands are used to mark boundaries and also to mark trails. These "Scent Stations" are often 100 yards (91 metres) apart.
The sense of smell in the wolf is highly developed, as would be expected in an animal possessing numerous scent glands. The distance at which any scent can be detected is governed by atmospheric conditions but, even under the most favorable conditions, 1.75 miles denotes a particularly keen sense of smell. The wolves usually travel until they encounter the scent of some prey species ahead of them. They then move directly toward their prey in an effort to capture it.
Next to smell, the sense of hearing is the most acute of the wolf sense. Wolves can hear as far as six miles away in the forest and ten miles in the
open. Wolves can hear well up to a frequency of 25 khz. Some researchers
believe that the actual maximum frequency detected by wolves is actually much
higher, perhaps up to 80 khz (the upper auditory limits for humans is 20 khz), also according to some naturalists wolves' hearing is greater than that of the dog.
Wolves also have keen eye sight and are quick to detect the slightest movement of anything in front of them. Being major predators, their eyes are on the front of their heads, and they have probably a little less than 180-degree vision, unlike their prey species, which can see over 300 degrees of a circle.
Investigation of taste is made difficult by the fact that the influence of smell often plays a major role in the way a food "tastes." It is known that canines possess taste receptors for the four taste categories: salty, bitter, sweet, and acidic. Felines on the other hand, do not respond to sweetness. The sweetness receptivity would be adaptive use to wolves, as sweet berries and other fruits do play a minor role in their diet.
In the wild wolves can live up to 13 years or more, in a protected wolf park or a controlled area of land, a wolf can live to be up to 16 years old. But most wolves usually live to be to around 8 years of age. The record wolf lifespan is about 20 years of age. Life in the wild is difficult for the wolf, with human population taking up more and more wolf habitat and with those who would kill the wolf, a long lifespan is unlikely. In a controlled enviroment they can live longer because they are safe from the outside dangers of traps, snares, enemies and poisons.
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