by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student
This is the second article in Mike’s “Howling to be Heard” series; you can read the first one on wolf folklore here.
Wolves have been a part of the American landscape for a much longer time period than humans have. Evidence shows that gray wolves appeared in North America around 15,000 years ago during a period of oversized mammals. The gray wolf’s much larger cousin, the dire wolf, was the primary predator until it went extinct about 8,000 years ago. It is believed by scientists that because dire wolves were much larger they could not keep up with the ungulates that had become much faster and adapted to run through forested areas after the retreat of the last glaciers at the end of the ice age. The smaller and quicker gray wolf, which hunted in packs, was much more suited to this newly forested environment. Following the extinction of the dire wolf, the gray wolf became the top predator in North America.
The gray wolf is the largest member of the Canid family and the third largest predator in the Northwest after the grizzly and black bears. The gray wolf’s closest relative, the coyote, has taken over much of the gray wolf’s former range due its near eradication during the early 20th century. It is believed that these two species separated on an evolutionary scale about 1.5 million years ago. In fact, all domestic dogs have evolved from gray wolves.
Other than primates, wolves have the most complex social structure amongst land mammals. The social structure of the wolf is centered around the pack, a group of 2-20 wolves that take on specific roles and functions within the community. Each pack has an alpha pair consisting of one male and one female, which is usually the only breeding pair within a pack. The rest of the pack members consist of the alpha pair’s offspring. Some pack members may eventually break away and set off on their own to either establish their own packs or join another. If a male leaves a pack or is kicked out by the alpha it will often become the alpha of another pack.