Gray wolf, the most common of wolves


After two centuries of persecution, the gray wolf disappeared from France and in 1937, it was officially declared eradicated from the territory. Since its return to France in the 1990s, the canine has sparked strong conflicts between protectors of the species and livestock breeders. This article allows us to get to know a carnivore in greater detail with an extremely hierarchical social organization within which the dominant couple grants itself all the powers. Close-up on a nocturnal animal that lives both in the mountains and in wooded and inhabited plains.

What kind of animal is the wolf?

The wolf (Canis lupus) belongs to the order of carnivores and the family of canidae, just like dogs, foxes, jackals or wild dogs. Over the millennia, the wolf has evolved into numerous subspecies depending on the regions occupied, such as the Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos) or the one that interests us today, the common gray wolf (Canis lupus lupus). The only species present in Europe, it is also called common gray wolf, Eurasian wolf, European wolf, Carpathian wolf, steppe wolf or Chinese wolf. Worldwide, there are nearly 40 known subspecies of Canis lupus.

How to identify the gray wolf?

A developed chest, a massive neck and high, slender legs outline the general silhouette of the gray wolf. Its head is quite broad and its ears are proportionally small, set apart and slightly rounded. Its oblique eyes have a yellow iris. The European wolf has a nuanced coat – from gray to red – and contrasting, ranging from dark on the back to light on the belly. The tip of the tail is black. The canid sports a light labial mask and a black border on the front legs. It measures 110 to 150 cm long, including 30 to 50 cm of tail. Its height at the withers ranges from 60 to 90 cm and its weight varies from 30 to 50 kg for the male and 25 to 40 kg for the female. Like the domestic dog, the wolf has 42 teeth as an adult.

What are its adaptations to wild life?

Unlike domestic dogs, wolves have evolved to cope with wild life. As a predator, it has learned to provide for its own food needs in the wild. Its incisors, canines, premolars and molars have adapted to the carnivorous diet in order to seize prey, tear off its flesh and crush its bones. Its jaw can exert a crushing pressure of approximately 10,340 kilo Pascals compared to 5,200 kPa for a German Shepherd. Generally moving at a trot, the wolf is one of the most enduring canids on the planet. It can maintain a speed of 10 to 15 km/h for a long time and run at 60 km/h for more than 15 minutes. Additionally, the gray wolf has developed a keen sense of smell that allows it to detect an animal hundreds of meters away. It can also hear very distant sounds (up to 9 km) and ultrasonic frequencies that are inaudible to the human ear. Finally, its eyes have a cellular surface called tapetum lucidum (like cats), which gives it good night vision.

Where does the gray wolf live?

The distribution area of ​​the gray wolf includes the majority of the Northern Eurasian hemisphere: Asia, North America, Russia, Central Europe, Finland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Arabian Peninsula, etc. The animal occupies very different biotopes: mountains, wooded plains, forests, steppes, tundra, taiga, cultivated plateaus in Spain or even the semi-desert areas of Israel or Saudi Arabia. The wolf prefers to settle where the density of large wild herbivores is high. Its home range has at least one den to raise its cubs. Its shelter generally takes the form of a cavity dug by the animal itself, an enlarged fox or badger den, a cave, a space placed under a stump or a rock, or in a very dense copse. Its refuge is most often oriented towards the south to provide a source of heat and generally close to a water point.

Has the gray wolf been reintroduced in France?

No, wolves have not been reintroduced in France. They arrived naturally and in stages from the Abruzzo massif, in central Italy. Genetic analyzes have in fact established that all the individuals present in France come from Italian stock. If the indications of their reappearance in the Southern Alps date back to the end of the 1980s, the first authenticated observation dates from November 1992, in the Mercantour national park. This return, accomplished over 20 years, demonstrated that wolves were capable of crossing urbanized areas and large road infrastructures. After the first documented locations in the Alpes-Maritimes, the canid colonized a large part of the Alpine chain and made incursions into all the surrounding mountain ranges: Vosges, Jura, Massif central and Pyrenees.

What regions of France did he colonize?

In France, the species is located in the regions Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Brittany, Centre-Val de Loire, Grand Est, Hauts-de-France, Île -de-France, Normandy, New Aquitaine, Occitanie and Pays de la Loire. Traces of the wolf can be found in 82 departments, in addition to the Alps, its historic stronghold. The most recent data shows 128 packs and the presence of isolated individuals in new departments such as Sarthe, Manche and Finistère. Given its ability to spread, the common wolf could colonize other French regions where there are an abundance of wild ungulates on which it feeds. Its population dynamics are expanding from the southeast, going north and joining the Pyrenees to the west.

What does the gray wolf feed on?

The wolf is an opportunistic carnivore that adapts its diet to available prey. To choose, it favors wild ungulates such as chamois, mouflons, roe deer, deer, moose, reindeer, elk and wild boar. The canine can also feed on hares, rabbits, marmots and birds. When food resources are lacking, the gray wolf sometimes attacks livestock, such as sheep and goats. The nocturnal predator hunts in packs, which allows it to attack large prey which it can pursue over long distances in order to exhaust them. The wolf can also consume carrion when the opportunity arises as well as insects and fruits.

What is the social organization of the gray wolf?

The common gray wolf is a social animal that lives in packs of up to 20 individuals, often from the same family: young of the year and sometimes those of the previous year. In France, these very hierarchical tribes often have 2 to 6 wolves. Each group is led by a dominant (alpha) pair, followed by a beta male and subordinates. The alpha couple governs vital activities such as hunting, travel or territory defense. It is the first to feed and the only one able to reproduce. Packs rarely include strangers and deadly fights can occur when an intruder crosses already occupied territory. The only new arrivals are generally immatures – aged 1 to 3 years – who do not threaten the authority of the breeding pair.

How do they communicate with each other?

As seen previously, the wolf is a social species that lives in packs and has various means of communicating with its peers. The animal has numerous glands on its face, lips, back and pads which leave its odors wherever it goes. Each individual has their own olfactory imprint depending on their place of life and their physiological state (male, female, sexual maturity, ovulation period, etc.). This very territorial species marks its stronghold with its urine, its droppings and scratching on the ground or on objects in the environment (trunk, branch, etc.). Each wolf also has a unique voice signature and sends information through this. The sound signals are varied and depend on the context. Vocalizations are, for example, used to bring the pack together, alert of danger or locate oneself in unfamiliar territory. It is said that a wolf’s howl can carry up to 10 miles across open tundra.

How do wolves reproduce?

Mating of the dominant pair takes place in February-March. The female gives birth in April-May, after a gestation of around 2 months. The litter consists of 3 to 5 blind and deaf cubs which weigh approximately 400 to 500 g. Newborns suckle from their mothers until they are 6 weeks old and then eat food regurgitated by adults. They follow their parents out of the den around the age of 1 year and leave the family fold when they reach sexual maturity, around the age of 2 years. So, they explore unknown territories and try to integrate into a pack. Some young people can stay longer (up to 4 years) and then help their parents feed and educate the new cubs. A pack generally consists of an unrelated male and female who travel together and settle in an unoccupied area to start a family.

Is the gray wolf an endangered species?

Placed at the top of the food chain, the gray wolf has no natural predators. After being exterminated from several European countries including France, the common gray wolf reappeared in 1992 in France thanks to its status as a protected animal. Due to its large distribution area, the gray wolf is not threatened with extinction on a global scale but in France, it is classified in the Vulnerable category on the red list of threatened species established by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the French Biodiversity Office (OFB), at the end of winter 2022-2023, the wolf population in France was estimated at 1,104 individuals, dispersed into 128 packs. By comparison, Spain has around 2,000 wolves and more than 3,000 in Italy.

What protection for the gray wolf?

Internationally, the gray wolf is listed on Appendix I and II of the International Convention Regulating Trade in Endangered Species for their Protection (CITES). In Europe, it is protected by the Berne Convention of 1979 (transcribed into French law in 1989) and appears in Annexes II and IV of the Habitats Directive of the European Union. In France, its protection is notified in the ministerial decree of July 22, 1993, updated on April 23, 2007. The destruction of the species is prohibited but an exemption allows lethal shots to be authorized when predation becomes too significant on the cattle. In France, measures aim to limit the negative impacts of wolves on agricultural activities while ensuring their conservation. These include the establishment of livestock protection systems, compensation in the event of proven damage, and the establishment of appropriate management plans.

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