The Many Faces of the Gray Wolf

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The Gray Wolf

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The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is one of seven species of wolves alive today. Gray wolves are further classified into about 40 subspecies. Photo © Cornelia Doerr / Getty Images.

The gray wolf is a member of the canid family and is one of eight living species of wolves. Gray wolves are widespread, they inhabit a range that extends throughout parts of North America, Eurasia, Australia, and Africa. Gray wolves are the largest of the wolf species and they are also the most varied. There are about 40 subspecies of gray wolves that have been identified, although the exact number is debated and frequently revised based on the latest research.

In addition to the gray wolf, there are seven other species of modern wolves. These include the red wolf, eastern wolf, Himalayan wolf, Indian wolf, Ethiopian wolf, golden jackal, and the maned wolf. A nineth species of wolf, the Falkland Islands wolf, was hunted to extinction by 1876.

Scientific name: Canis lupus

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The Eurasian Wolf

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The Eurasian wolf (Canis lupus lupus) has the largest range of all the subspecies of gray wolves. Eurasian wolves inhabit western Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, China, Mongolia, and parts of the Himalayan Mountain range. Photo © David and Micha Sheldon / Getty Images.

The Eurasian wolf is the largest of all the Old World gray wolf subspecies. Eurasian wolves have shorter and denser fur than the other North American wolf subspecies. Today, Eurasian wolves inhabit a range that includes eastern and northern Europe as well as Asia. Populations of Eurasian wolves occur in Scandinavia, Russia, China, Mongolia, and the Himalaya Mountains.

Eurasian wolves were heavily persecuted by humans during the Middle Ages. The species was hunted nearly to extinction. Efforts to exterminate Eurasian wolves continued until the late 1800s. In recent decades, Eurasian wolves have made a modest recovery, in areas where human habitation has become less dense and populations of the wolves' prey are sufficient to support this top carnivore.

Scientific name: Canis lupus lupus

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The Arctic Wolf

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Arctic wolves (Canis lupus arctos) lives in Arctic regions of North America and Greenland. Photo © Morales / Getty Images.

The arctic wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf that inhabits the Arctic regions throughout North American and Greenland. Arctic wolves are medium in size and have a distinct white coat. Arctic wolves inhabit a range where human populations are very low so this subspecies has suffered less persecution by humans than other subspecies of gray wolves.

Unfortunately, habitat destruction due to road building and pipeline construction has resulted in the decline of arctic wolf populations. Such activity has reduced the range of Arctic wolves and has also reduced populations of prey species such as caribou, Arctic hares, and muskox. 

Scientific name: Canis lupus arctos

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The Mexican Wolf

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The Mexican wolf is not only the smallest subspecies of gray wolf, it is also occupies the most southern range and is the most genetically distinct of all the gray wolf subspecies. Photo © Frans Lanting / Getty Images.

The Mexican wolf, also known as the lobo, is a subspecies of gray wolf that inhabits the Sierra Madre mountain range in western Mexico. Mexican wolves are small wolves with a light brown and grey coat and narrow muzzle. Mexican wolves hunt a variety of prey including mule deer, elk, white-tailed deer, rabbits, and other small mammals.

The Mexican wolf is the rarest of all the North American subspecies of gray wolf. Mexican wolves were once common throughout Mexico and parts of the southwestern United States but by the mid-1970s, they were hunted so intensely that they were exterminated from all but a small remnant of their former range. In 1998, the US Fish and Wildlife Service initiated a recovery program. Eleven Mexican grey wolves were released in Arizona with the hopes of establishing a population there. This reintroduced population has grown slowly since that time.

Scientific name: Canis lupus baileyi

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The Dingo

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Photo © Julie Fletcher / Getty Images.

The dingo is the most controversial of the wolf subspecies. It was previously considered to be a feral breed of the domestic dog but today it is either classified as a subspecies of gray wolf or as a separate species of wolf. Here we will treat it as a subspecies of the gray wolf.

Dingos inhabit the deserts, grasslands, and open forests of Australia. They are the top predator in their communities and feed on prey such as kangaroos, rabbits, and other small mammals. Dingos have short, dense fury and a bushy tail. Their coat is generally a reddish brown color with light or cream colored underparts. Some dingos have a varied coat color with black, tan, or white markings. Although dingos are abundant in many parts of their range, the genetic integrity of the subspecies is threatened by interbreeding with feral and domestic dogs throughout their range.

Scientific name: Canis lupus dingo or Canis dingo

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The Mackenzie Valley Wolf

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The Mackenzie Valley wolf, also known as the Canadian timber wolf or the northwestern wolf, is a widespread subspecies of gray wolf. Mackenzie Valley wolves are large wolves that inhabit western Canada and Alaska.

Like most subspecies of gray wolves, Mackenzie Valley wolves were subject to intense hunting and trapping. In 1995 and 1996, conservationists reintroduced Mackenzie Valley wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. 

Scientific name: Canis lupus occidentalis

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The Iberian Wolf

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Photo © Hans Kuczka / Getty Images.

The Iberian Wolf is a subspecies of gray wolf that inhabits the desserts, grasslands, and forests of Spain and Portugal. Iberian wolves medium-sized wolves with a slight stature. Their coat varies in color and can be light gray, tan, ochre, and reddish brown.

Iberian wolves hunt a variety of prey including red deer, roe deer, rabbits, and wild boar. They also sometimes feed on livestock such as sheep and cows, a habit that does not endear them to local farmers. Iberian wolves have long been considered a pest species and were hunted so intensely their numbers dwindled to as few as 400 individuals. Today, Iberian wolves are protected and their numbers have recovered to about 2,000 individuals.

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Gray Wolf Subspecies: North America

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Of the 40 living subspecies of gray wolves, 15 inhabit North America. The list below provides details about the range of each of the North American gray wolf subspecies:

  • Alaskan Tundra Wolf - Canis lupus tundra rum - Northern Alaska
  • Alexander Archipelago Wolf - Canis lupus ligoni - Southern Alaska
  • Arctic Wolf - Canis lupus arctos - Alaska, Northern Canada, Greenland
  • Baffin Island Wolf - Canis lupus manningi - Baffin Island, Canada
  • Bernard's Wolf - Canis lupus barnardi - Bank Islands, Canada
  • Mackenzie Valley Wolf - Canis lupus occidentals - Northern Rocky Mountains
  • Eastern Wolf - Canis lupus lycaon - Minnesota, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec
  • Great Plains Wolf - Canis lupus nubilus - Great Lakes Region
  • Greenland Wolf - Canis lupus orion - Greenland
  • Hudson Bay Wolf - Canis lupus hudsonicus - Manitoba, Northwest Territories
  • Interior Alaskan Wolf - Canis lupus pambasileus - Alaskan interior
  • Labrador Wolf - Canis lupus labradorius - Quebec, Labrador
  • Mexican Gray Wolf - Canis lupus baileyi - Central Mexico, Southwestern US
  • Northern Rocky Mountains Wolf - Canis lupus irremotus - Northern Rocky Mountains
  • Vancouver Island Wolf - Canis lupus crassodon - Vancouver Island, Canada