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What Is the Arctic Wolf?

By R. Britton
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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The arctic wolf, also known as Canis lupus arctos, is a subspecies of the gray wolf and a carnivore that will eat a wide variety of prey. This species has evolved and adapted to its arctic environment, becoming easily distinguishable from other wolf species. Living in an extremely harsh environment, these creatures must travel huge distances to find enough food. Although generally nomadic with a vast territory, the arctic wolf is non-migratory. Like other wolf species, the arctic wolf is a very social animal that lives in small family groups or packs with a complex hierarchy.

Unlike the gray wolf, the arctic wolf has predominantly white fur which helps to provide camouflage appropriate to the landscape of the arctic tundra. Aside from coat color, the arctic wolf is easily distinguishable from other wolves because it tends to have a smaller, more compact frame with shorter legs and muzzle, as well as a denser, thicker coat. These adaptations provide extra warmth and reduce exposure to the freezing temperature of its habitat.

The arctic tundra has perpetual darkness for five months each year when the Earth is covered in thick snow and ice and, even when exposed, the ground is still often frozen. This means that there is very little vegetation to support the herbivores that the wolves rely on as prey. The arctic wolf must therefore travel huge distances to find enough food to avoid starvation and support the pack. The range of a single arctic wolf pack can be as large as 800 square miles (2072 square kilometers). With the delicate and precarious natural balance in the habitat of the arctic wolf, the arctic wolf population fluctuates considerably according to the weather.

Scarcity of preferred prey, such as musk ox and caribou, means that these exceptional predators must take any suitable prey available. This includes seals, nesting birds, lemmings, and other rodents and mammals. Competition between wolf packs and bears also limits the availability of larger prey.

Despite significant population fluctuations, the arctic wolf is not considered to be endangered. This is primarily due to the inhospitable environment in which this species survives. The greatest threat to most species comes from humans in the form of encroachment and development, habitat loss, and poaching. The arctic wolf faces minimal risk from humans because of the extreme conditions in the arctic tundra, where humans in large numbers are very rare.

Pack size is around six to eight individuals on average and there is a complex social hierarchy. Generally, there is only one breeding pair within the pack and these are the alpha male and female, or the pack leaders. Most tasks are shared amongst the pack, including providing food, rearing young, and defending the pack and territory.

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