Wolves are social animals
Two of the most iconic characteristics of wolves are related to their social nature: cooperative breeding and cooperative hunting. Both species of wolves typically live in packs – groups of related individuals. There is usually only one breeding pair within the pack, often termed the alpha pair. The rest of the wolf pack is made up of related family members – offspring and sometimes siblings of the breeding pair. The breeding pair is usually unrelated – wolves regulate their own diversity if they are able to find unrelated animals to breed with on the landscape. The pack is a dynamic group, and takes part in both the yearly raising of pups and hunting activities. Pack members spend a great deal of time socializing with other family members, and display great variation in temperament, or personality.
The breeding pair, usually monogamous, asserts its dominance over other members in the pack in an effort to prevent other wolves in the pack from mating. Pups are born after ~60 days later in a den that may have been used many times by the same pack and perhaps for hundreds of years. Born feaf and blind, they remain in the den for about 3 weeks before emerging and learning to play, hunt and travel with various members of the pack over the next several months. Females other than the breeder commonly lactate and cooperatively nurse pups within their pack.
As the pups age and the pack begins to travel further from the den as a group to hunt, pups are often moved to areas called rendezvous sites where they will be protected while most if not all adult pack members are hunting. Pups begin traveling with the pack members on hunts in the autumn and winter, learning cooperative hunting techniques needed to become important contributors to the pack health in the future. Over the next year, pups may disperse from their pack, searching for new territory and potential mates in the surrounding landscape. Those individuals who remain with their parental pack often assume den preparation and babysitting duties for the pups born the following spring.
Wolves regularly prey on large ungulate species, such as deer and moose. It is both dangerous and difficult to approach and kill adult prey, requiring extreme vigilance and excellent communication between members of the pack. The relationship between wolves and their prey is one that is well-studied. Research shows that wolves prey on old, sick and injured prey, likely because they pose fewer dangers to the wolves. This helps regulate prey populations. However, wolves will also scavenge animals killed during harsh winters, locating animals buried under snow drifts by scent. Their powerful jaws help them consume frozen meat.
In order to kill adult moose and other prey animals, wolves must work together. Hunting success varies with geography and season, but most hunting attempts are unsuccessful. Long-term studies conducted in Alaska support the idea that hunting techniques are passed down from family members, lending certain packs particular hunting techniques that help increase their success according to which and how many prey species inhabit their territory. Hunting and trapping pressures that reduce packs by killing most or all of the adult members reduces the likelihood that techniques are taught to younger wolves within the pack. This is likely part of the reason that certain wolf packs begin to predate upon livestock, which are generally much easier to hunt than wild prey that are widely dispersed and more vigilant to predators.
Wolves rely on many senses to communicate within their pack as well as with other wolves. The senses are fully developed after 5 weeks of age. Although wolves whimper, bark, growl and yip, howling is perhaps their most infamous method of communication. Noted wolf biologist, L.D. Mech stated that wolves are capable of hearing sounds as much as 10km away in forested habitat, and even further in open tundra. Wolves howl for many reasons: to tell other pack members where they are, to encourage ‘team spirit” before or after a hunt and to warn other packs of their presence.
“Wolves call-howl to family members who have been trapped or shot. They howl in obvious pain and distress while still alive in traps or snares, and so do any other family members on the scene who might be trying to help them. It is not unusual for wolves to return to or remain near a location where close family members have been killed, even after a trapper or hunter has taken the dead wolves away…the emotions that I’ve observed on these occasions in the howling and other behaviour of a wolf near a close mate who had just died were obvious and intense” - Gordon Haber, PhD. Alaskan wolf biologist
In Algonquin Provincial Park, the stronghold of eastern wolves, over 100,000 people from around the world have participated in the free Wolf Howl program held in the park every August. To learn more about Wolf Howl events, click here. Wolves have been known to respond to human imitations of wolf howls from 4 kilometres away.
The social nature of wolves is also evident when observing body posturing that emphasizes certain coat colour patterns. Pack hierarchy is constantly tested using various postures of dominance and submission. Recent research also suggests that wolves communicate with their eyes a great deal.
Wolves maintain their territories by scent marking the during their travel. A wolf’s sense of smell is 100 times more sensitive than a human’s: they can identify individuals within their pack by smell and can learn if intruders have passed through and marked their territory with urine or scat. Non-invasive research methods capitalize on the wolf’s use of trails and prominent crossroads during scent-marking to collect urine and scat for genetic analysis. Learn more about the non-invasive study on eastern wolves in Ontario’s protected areas here.
What is the difference between a wolf and a coyote in Ontario?
Hybridization between grey wolves, eastern wolves and coyotes has been studied in Ontario for the past several years. Hybrid animals are common where ranges of these three species overlap. Geographically, eastern wolf range is located between that of coyotes and grey wolves, leading to a higher frequency of eastern wolf-coyote hybrids than grey wolf-coyote hybrids. Nor surprisingly, eastern wolves appear intermediary in size and colour to grey wolves and coyotes. Interestingly, eastern wolves tend to hybridize less in areas protected from hunting and trapping pressures around Algonquin Provincial Park.
Current science describes the coyotes that inhabit Ontario and other eastern provinces as historical hybrid themselves – the small western coyotes (Canis latrans) dispersing from the prairies following the near-extirpation of wolves in southern Ontario mated with wolves that remained in the new agricultural landscape. This helps explain why eastern coyotes (a.k.a. “coywolves”,”brush wolves”, “Tweed wolves”) are larger than western coyotes, and why they are often confused with wolves.
Coyotes are much better adapted to living in rural and urban areas, and there are well-documented populations in Toronto and other heavily populated areas. Typically, coyotes consume a wide variety of food, including small mammals, insects, and berries. However, like wolves, coyotes depredate on livestock from time to time. Livestock depredation can be mitigated using a variety of non-invasive techniques. Finding the right combination of actions is case-specific – if you are a farmer, please click here for resources on coexisting with wolves and coyotes. To learn more about coexisting with coyotes in urban areas, please visit Coyote Watch Canada.