Wolf Ecology Basics

two black and two grey wolves standing in a snowy, gravelly field
Wolves at Denali National Park

NPS Photo / Steve Arthur

Wolf groups, or packs, usually include dominant male and female parents (breeding pair), their offspring, and other non-breeding adults.

Wolves begin mating when they are 2 to 3 years old, sometimes establishing lifelong mates. Wolves usually rear their pups in dens for the first six weeks. Dens are often used year after year, but wolves may also dig new dens or use some other type of shelter, such as a cave.

Pups are born in early spring and are cared for by the entire pack. They depend on their mother's milk for the first month, and then they are gradually weaned and fed regurgitated meat by other pack members. By 7 to 8 months of age, when almost fully grown, the pups begin traveling with the adults.

Leaving Home


Often, after 1 or 2 years of age, a young wolf leaves the pack and tries to find a mate and form its own pack.

Lone dispersing wolves have traveled as far as 500 miles in search of a new home. Wolf packs usually live within a specific territory. Territories range in size depending on how much prey is available and seasonal prey movement. Packs use a traditional area and defend it from other wolves. Their ability to travel over large areas to seek out vulnerable prey makes wolves good hunters.

Wolves may travel as far as 30 miles in a day. Although they usually trot along at 5 mph, wolves can attain speeds as high as 45 miles per hour for short distances. Indirectly, wolves support a wide variety of other animal populations. Ravens, foxes, wolverines, and even bears feed on the remains of animals killed by wolves. Wolves also help regulate the balance between ungulates (hoofed animals) and their food supply.

Howling


Wolves are noted for their distinctive howl, which they use as a form of communication.

Biologists do not know all of the reasons why wolves howl, but they may do so before and after a hunt, to sound an alarm, and to locate other members of the pack when separated. Wolves howl more frequently in the evening and early morning, especially during winter breeding and pup rearing. Howling is also one way that packs warn other wolves to stay out of their territory.
six wolves walking down a dirt road
One sign of dominant or alpha behavior is leading pack travel (i.e., the first wolf in the line is typically an alpha male or female).

NPS Photo / Nathan Kostegian

Leader of the Pack


The term “alpha” originates from studies of wolf social dynamics in captive wolf packs. In nature, wolf packs are a family unit, consisting of a mated pair and their offspring, though occasionally, variations to this pack structure exist.

In a wolf pack, the parents (breeders) are naturally dominant to their offspring. Dominance cues include:
  • Leading pack travel
  • Posturing
  • Scent marking
  • Food ownership

Wolf Territories


"Territoriality" implies defense of an area, and many researchers create maps that help graphically illustrate the range, or territory, of a given wolf pack.

However, the area defended is not as clearly defined as a map may indicate. Territory shifts can occur seasonally or year to year. This constantly shifting mosaic of pack territories is seen especially in exploited populations (e.g., areas where humans cause wolf mortality, which in turn causes territories to shift as neighboring wolves encroach on territories abandoned or devoid of its former pack).

Also notable is that neighboring territories may overlap. However, while the same area may be used by several packs, use will not occur at the same time.

Last updated: October 31, 2017