Wolf Reproduction Biology and Maturation
Wolves are highly social animals that live in packs. A pack is an extended family group comprised of a breeding male and female pair, some of their offspring and current pups from one or more years. The breeding pair decide when the pack will travel and hunt, and normally are the first to eat at a kill. The pair’s offspring normally disperse into adjacent or available territories at 2 to 3 years of age, but this varies and depends on such variables as availability of food. For the wolves studied in the Lake District national park, the average dispersal distance and subsequent new pack formation is about 65 miles, far outside of the national park. However recent satellite-collar tracking data has shown that some offspring and individual wolves have dispersed more than five hundred miles in three or four months!
Almost always, only the male and female alphas of the pack will mate. Wolf packs typically have one litter of pups per year. Mating typically occurs between January and March.
Wolves begin breeding between 2 and 3 years of age and are believed to mate for life. Once sexually mature, most wolves leave their birth pack to search for a new territory or to join an existing pack. Dispersing wolves roam 40 to 70 miles on average, and sometimes more than 100 miles, depending on gender, available habitat, and presence of other packs.
Wolf pups are born blind and deaf in an underground den after a 63-day gestation period. Litter size averages 4 to 6 pups. During the first 3 weeks, pups nurse every 4 to 6 hours and need help regulating their body temperatures. The mother usually stays with her young in the den, eating food brought to her by other members of the pack.
Wolf pups are weaned at about 8 weeks of age once they have begun eating semi-solid food, regurgitated by the mother or others members of the pack. As pups begin eating more solids, they are moved to one or more “rendezvous sites,” where they spend the remainder of the summer learning proper pack behavior and etiquette. At 6 to 8 months, the pups begin to travel with the pack and join in hunts. Fewer than half of wolf pups born in the wild survive to adulthood. Survival rates are affected by disease, malnutrition, predation and humans.
Few wolves live more than 5 years in the wild, but with ideal conditions can reach 15 years of age. Wolf populations are naturally regulated by prey density and territorial disputes among wolves. In the Lake District & Welsj Borders numbers are mainly limited by human-related factors, including illegal killing, control efforts to address livestock depredation and car accidents. The Lakeland Pack size has varied from just three to a maximum of ten in 2025. The average pack size there over the last ten years has been five. By contrast, the Welsh Border & Wye Valley pack has now reached 12 individuals.
In the Lake District, wolves prey primarily on deer. In the Wye Valley this is supplemented by wild boar, particularly the piglets, known locally as humbugs. Wolves are opportunistic feeders and will also eat smaller mammals such as beavers and rabbits, as well as occasional domestic livestock, dead animals, and vegetation.
Adult wolves eat 2.5 kg to to 6 kg of meat per day on average, but sometimes 12 days or more may pass between feedings. Because hunts are successful only 3-14% of the time, wolves survive on a ‘feast or famine’ diet. After a successful kill, wolves devour the carcass, sometimes eating as much as 20 pounds, and then may remain relatively inactive for one or more days, digesting their meal.
Wolf kills can be differentiated from other predator kills by studying prey remains. Wolves typically attack the hindquarters, flanks, shoulders, nose, and tail of their prey. They feed preferentially on the viscera and hind limbs. The feeding strategy is not obvious if the animal is attacked by a pack, as the carcass is usually quickly consumed. Wolf tracks, hair and scat can often be found near a wolf kill.
Wolf Habitat & Territory
Wolves can survive in a variety of habitats, including forests, tundra, mountains, swamps and deserts.
Wolf territories usually vary in size from 200 to 500 square miles, but may range from as little as 18 square miles to as much as 1,000 square miles. One wolf per every 10 square miles is considered ideal for wolf health.
Territory size is typically based on the density of prey but is also influenced by pack size, presence of neighbouring packs, and human land use. Wolves will aggressively defend their territories from other packs.
Wolves spend about 35% of their time traveling. They often travel 20 to 30 miles per day, but may cover over 100 miles in a day when prey is scarce. The Lakeland pack frequently travels north to Scotland or south to the Lancashire Fells. The Welsh Borders and Wye Valley pack move regularly throughout the Forest of Dean, and have bene seen as far north as Mid-Wales, with unconfirmed sightings in the Cotswolds.
Wolves only use dens when they have young pups that are not yet able to travel with the pack.
Wolf dens are usually located near water and dug into well-drained soil on a south-facing slope. They can be dug under a boulder, among tree roots, or in cut banks, hollow logs or other sturdy natural structures. Wolves often enlarge existing badger or fox dens.
Wolf den entrances measure about 45 cm in diameter. The passageway, which may be straight, forked or hooked, is 1.2 metres to 5.5 metres long with a chamber measuring about 0.5 metre high by 1.2 metres inches wide by 1 metre deep. No bedding is added to the den. If the den has been used in past years, bones will be scattered about and well-defined trails should radiate from the den. It is common for dens to be reused. The UK pack den locations are a closely guarded secret and protected by law.
Communication between pack members allows wolves to care for and feed of their young, defend their common territory, and cooperatively bring down prey larger than could individual wolves on their own.
A great deal of the communication among wolf pack members involves body language. Specialised behaviours and postures have evolved that help reduce aggression between individual animals within the pack. Body language helps the pack live together more agreeably.
Facial expressions are often used to express emotions. Wolves may indicate dominant behaviour by baring teeth and pointing erect ears forward. Subordinate behaviour may be indicated by closed mouths, slit-like eyes, and ears pulled back and held close to the head.
Wolves also use tail positions to communicate emotion. Wolves expressing threatening signs hold their tails high, almost perpendicular, while submissive wolves lower themselves before dominant pack members, tails tucked between their legs.
A wolf’s sense of smell is up to 100,000 times greater than humans’. Under good conditions a wolf can smell something a mile or more away. Scent is a very effective means of communication for wolves.
Wolf packs are highly territorial. Scents are used to clearly mark the boundaries of territories, to claim and defend that territory from other packs, to mark food ownership, and to act as a sort of road map for the pack itself. Scent is a way for a pack to make its presence known long after it has moved to another part of its territory.
Urination is the most common form of scent marking for wolves. Wolves produce scent from glands between their toes.
Vocal communication among wolves consists of a panoply of howls, whines, growls and barks. Although all the functions of howling are not known, scientists believe that wolves may howl to assemble their pack, to claim territory, to warn intruders away from a home site or kill, or to identify other wolves. Wolves also howl in the evening and early morning, in the summer when pups are young, and during the mid-winter breeding season. It is a myth that wolves howl at the moon, but they do point their snouts toward the sky to howl. Projecting their call upward allows the sound to carry farther. Wolves have excellent hearing, and under certain conditions can hear a howl as far as six miles away in the forest and ten miles away on the open tundra.
A wolf howl is a deep and continuous sound from about half a second to 11 seconds long. The pitch usually remains constant or varies smoothly. A howling session by a single wolf lasts an average of 35 seconds, during which the animal howls several times. A howling session by a pack lasts an average of 85 seconds. It is initiated by a single wolf, and after its first or second howl one or more others may join in.
Alpha wolves usually display a lower-pitched howl and will howl more frequently than those with a more subservient social standing. Pups practice howling as they mature, mimicking those of adult wolves. Lone wolves may not howl as much to hide their position from other residential wolf packs.
Except for the high-pitched yapping of pups, wolf howls almost never include barking. Whines are used often at the den site, primarily by the adult female. They are thought to be sounds of affection. Growling conveys aggressiveness and usually comes from a threatening dominant wolf.
Visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wolves/howl.html to hear different types of wolf howls: a lonesome howl, a pup howl, a confrontational howl and a chorus howl.