Eurasian Wolf Explained

The Eurasian Wolf (Canis lupus lupus), also known as the European, Common, or Forest Wolf, is a subspecies of grey wolf which has the largest range among wolf subspecies and is the most common in Europe and Asia, ranging through Mongolia, China, Russia, Scandinavia, Western Europe and the Himalayan Mountains. Compared to their North American cousins, Eurasian wolves tend to have longer, more highly placed ears, narrower heads, more slender loins and coarser, tawnier coloured fur.[1] Compared to Indian wolves, Eurasian wolves are larger, and have longer, broader skulls.[2] In Europe, wolves rarely form large packs like in North America, as their lives are more strongly influenced by human activities.[3] Because of this, Eurasian wolves tend to be more adaptable than North American wolves in the face of human expansion.[4]


Historically, the trinomial name C. l. lupus was limited to classing wolves of northern and central Europe,[5] though, it has grown to encompass numerous different geographical variants which are now considered only synonyms. Comparative studies on the Mitochondrial DNA of various wolf subspecies have shown that the European line of wolves originated over 150,000 years ago, making them around the same age as North American wolves, but significantly younger than Asiatic subspecies.[6]

Italian wolf

The Italian wolf, which occurs in the Italian Peninsula, Switzerland and Southern France, was classed by naturalist Giuseppe Altobello as a distinct subspecies in 1921, on account of its lower hind quarters,[7] and its "typical gray-brownish coat and a black stripe on the frontal part of the anterior legs." The classification was at first rejected, but in 2000 the publication of more detailed morphological and genetic comparisons suggested it should be re-instituted, as there are additional although more subtle distinguishing features. In one theory,[8] divergence of the Italian wolf began when the Apennines became a southern refugium for species displaced from Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum at about 18000 years BP.[9] Although now treated by MSW3 as synonymous to the Eurasian wolf,certain scientists have called for it being classed as distinct in light of genetic differences.[10]

Physical description


In describing North American wolves, John Richardson used European wolves as a basis for comparison, summarising the differences between the two forms as so:

[The European wolf's] head is narrower, and tapers gradually to form the nose, which is produced on the same plane with the forehead. Its ears are higher and somewhat nearer to each other ; their length exceeds the distance between the auditory opening and the eye. Its loins are more slender, its legs longer, feet narrower, and its tail is more thinly clothed with fur.The shorter ears, broader forehead, and thicker muzzle of the American Wolf, with the bushiness of the hair behind the cheek, give it a physiognomy more like the social visage of an Esquimaux dog than the sneaking aspect of a European Wolf.[1]


The size of Eurasian wolves is subject to geographic variation with animals in Russia and Scandinavia being larger and bulkier than those residing in Western Europe,[11] having been compared by Theodore Roosevelt to the large wolves of north-western Montana and Washington.[12] Adults from Russia measure 105–160 cm in length, 80–85 cm in shoulder height and weigh on average 32–50 kg (70.5-110 lbs), with a maximum weight of 69–80 kg (152-176 lbs). One of the largest on record was killed after World War II in the Kobelyakski Area of the Poltavskij Region in the Ukrainian SSR, and weighed 86kg.[13] Larger weights of 92–96 kg (202.8-211.6 lbs) have been recorded in Ukraine, though the circumstances under which these latter animals were weighed are not known. Although similar in size to central Russian wolves, Swedish and Norwegian wolves tend to be more heavily built with deeper shoulders.[11] One wolf killed in Romania was recorded to have weighed 72 kilograms (158 pounds).[14] In Italian wolves, excepting the tail, body length ranges between 110–148 cm, while shoulder height is 50–70 cm. Males weigh between 25–35 kg (55-77 lbs) and rarely 45 kg (99 lbs). The now extinct British wolves are known to have reached similar sizes to Arctic wolves.[15]


The fur is generally coarser than that of American wolves, with less soft wool intermixed with it, and the mane is much more pronounced.[1] [16] The summer fur is a mix of ocherous and rusty ocherous tones with light grey. The guard hairs are tipped with black, and are especially pronounced on the back, forming a dark stripe running down the spine. The flanks and the outer side of the legs are white. The muzzle is pale-ocherous grey, while the circumference of the lips and lower cheeks are white. The neck is ocherous with black-tipped fur on the upper side. The winter fur is generally brighter in colour, due to the more prominent underfur. Ocherous tones are less pronounced, giving way to smoky grey tones. The guard hairs of the shoulder measure 90 mm, but can reach 110–130 mm.[17] Wolves in Southern Europe tend to be more richly coloured than their northern relatives.[18] Black coloured wolves (which result from wolf-dog hybridisation) are rarer in Eurasia than in North America due to wide spread reduction in wolf numbers preventing wolves from interacting with dogs,[19] though currently 20-25% of Italy's wolf population is composed of black animals.[20] White forms are much rarer in Eurasia than in North America,[17] and are typically mere cases of albinism.[11]


Because of widespread habitat reduction and displacement of large prey, European wolf packs are usually smaller than North American ones, and generally form territorial ranges of 100–500 km², as opposed to North American packs whose territories encompass 80-2,500 km². Because of their longer association with urban civilisations, Eurasian wolves tend to be more adaptable than North American wolves in the face of human expansion; Southern European wolves successfully live in areas with much higher human densities than what North American wolves will tolerate.[3] [21]


Unlike wolves in North America, many Eurasian wolf populations are forced to subsist largely on livestock and garbage in areas with dense human activity, though wild ungulates such as moose, red deer, roe deer and wild boar are still important food sources in Russia and the more mountainous regions of Eastern Europe. Other prey species include reindeer, mouflon, wisent, saiga, ibex, chamois, mountain goats, fallow deer and musk deer.[22]

In Scandinavia, moose are their most frequent prey in forested areas, while roe deer predominate in agricultural lands. Wild reindeer are the primary food source for wolves living in the tundra regions of Siberia, while moose are targeted in the taiga zones. Wild boar are an important prey item for wolves in the Kyzyl-Agash Reserve near the Caspian Sea, southern Spain and the Apennines in Italy, constituting 12-52% of their dietary intake in the latter area. In the Białowieża Forest, wolves primarily feed on red deer; 75% of red deer mortality there was attributed to wolf predation. Mouflon and chamois are the most frequent prey in France's Mercantour National Park. In northern Finland, wolves subsist largely on domesticated reindeer herds. In northwestern Spain, they feed almost entirely on livestock.[22]

Populations and threats

See main article: List of grey wolf populations by country.

With the exception of Great Britain and Ireland, wolves were widespread in Europe during the 18th century. Wolves were exterminated from all central and northern European countries during the 19th century and the post World War II period. Remnant populations remain in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece and Finland, though Eurasian wolves have been recovering naturally in several parts of Europe; recolonising France, Germany, Sweden and Norway. The largest populations now occur in eastern Europe, primarily in Romania, the Balkans and Poland.[3]

Wolf populations generally seem to be stable or increasing in most, but not all, Bern Convention nations. Limiting factors in member nations include a lack of acceptance of wolves (particularly in areas where they have made a comeback) due to concerns on livestock and dog predation and competition with hunters. Although properly regulated wolf harvests and control have been largely accepted as compatible with maintaining wolf numbers to economically acceptable levels, overhunting and poaching are recognised as the main limiting factor in European wolf populations.[23] With the exception of Russia, European wolf populations number 18,000-25,000.[24]

Wolf-dog hybridization

See main article: Wolf-dog hybrid. Although there are concerns that European wolf populations have extensively mixed with dogs, with records of wolf-hybrids being present in Albania, Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia[23] and Serbia,[25] an analysis on the mtDNA sequences show that introgression of dog genes into European wolf populations does not pose a significant threat. Also, as wolf and dog mating seasons do not fully coincide, the likelihood of wild wolves and dogs mating and producing surviving offspring is small.[26] In some cases, the presence of dewclaws (which do not occur in pure wolves) has been shown to be a reliable, but not foolproof way of identifying hybrids.[27] In pre-revolutionary France, wild wolf-dog hybrids were occasionally hunted, and were termed Lycisca to distinguish them from ordinary wolves.[28]

Relationships with humans

In folklore and mythology

In Roman mythology, wolves were sacred to Mars, and a she-wolf known as Lupa was said to have raised Romulus and Remus, the traditional founders of Rome. Lupa was also used for female prostitutes and for priestesses of a wolf goddess, leading to an alternative theory that the "wolf" was human.

Wolves feature prominently in Norse mythology, in particular the mythological wolves Fenrir, Sköll and Hati. Fenrir, a son of Loki and Angrboða, served a dual role in Norse mythology; as the maimer of Týr, and as the killer of Odin at Ragnarok. Sköll was depicted in Gylfaginning as a wolf which pursued the setting sun, while Hati chased the moon.[29] Wolves also served as mounts for more or less dangerous humanoid creatures. For instance, Gunnr's horse was a kenning for "wolf" on the Rök Runestone, in the Lay of Hyndla, the völva (witch) Hyndla rides a wolf, and to Baldr's funeral, the giantess Hyrrokin arrived on a wolf. In modern Sweden, wolves are popular power animals in the nation's neoshamanist community.[30]

In Irish Mythology, wolves appear in the form of Airitech's three daughters, killed by Cas Corach.[31] The Morrígan was said to take on the form of a red-furred wolf, particularly in her battle with the hero Cú Chulainn.[32] Cormac mac Airt was said to have been raised by wolves, and that he could understand their speech. Four wolves would accompany him in his rebellion against Lugaid mac Con, and would later be accompanied by them until the end of his life.[33]


See main article: Wolf hunting.

Unlike North American wolf hunts which were partaken by ordinary civilians, Eurasian wolf hunts were an activity usually reserved for the nobility.[34] In Scotland, Mary, Queen of Scots hunted wolves in the forest of Atholl in 1563,[35] while in Czarist Russia, before the Emancipation reform of 1861, wolf hunting was done solely by authorized firearm holders, usually police, soldiers, rich landowners or nobles.[13] A notable exception was Sweden, where the Swedish kings Magnus Eriksson and Christopher of Bavaria decreed wolf hunting a civic duty, with only priests, parish clerks and landless women exempted. Under penalty of a fine, every wolf hunter had to own a wolf net at least four fathoms long and to take part in general wolf hunts whenever called upon.[36]

European wolves were commonly hunted with wolfhounds, which varied in appearance and use according to country. Irish wolfhounds were bred as far back as 3 BC,[37] and were bred to kill wolves single handedly.[38] In France, mixed teams of bloodhounds, sighthounds and mastiffs were used.[39] In both Czarist and Soviet Russia, landowners and Cossacks hunted wolves with borzois,[13] deerhounds, staghounds and Siberian wolfhounds, as well as smaller greyhounds and foxhounds.[40]

The use of decoys was popularly used in 19th-century Russia and Scandinavia; a pig was used as a decoy and was transported in a strong canvas sack on a horse drawn sleigh. The pig, kept in the canvas bag, was made to squeal in order to attract the wolves. Hunters would wait at a distance to shoot the wolves when they came out after the pig. Once the wolves arrived, the hunters would either shoot them or retrieve the pig and canvas bag. In the latter case, they took off down the road, luring the wolves behind. The wolves would be lead to a palisade, where they would be trapped and shot.[41] [42]

In Lapland, wolves were occasionally hunted by the Lapps on skis. They would be armed with stout, 6adj=midNaNadj=mid poles tipped with a pike which was used both as propulsion and as a weapon. A skidor hunt was usually undertaken by multiple hunters over a course of a few days. The kill itself was usually made at a slope or hillside.[42]

Attacks on humans

See main article: Wolf attacks on humans. Wolf attacks were an occasional but widespread feature of life in pre-20th century Europe.[43] In France alone, historical records indicate that in the period 1580–1830, 3,069 people were killed by wolves, of whom 1,857 were killed by non-rabid wolves.[44] Prior to 1882, 94 children under the age of 12 were killed in Fennoscandia by non-rabid wolves in a 300-year period.[43] Russia also records numerous attacks, particularly in pre-revolutionary times and after World War II. Between 1840 and 1861, 273 non-rabid attacks resulting in the deaths of 169 children and 7 adults occurred throughout Russia,[45] while between 1944 and 1950, 22 children between the ages of 3 and 17 were killed by wolves in the Kirov Oblast (see Kirov wolf attacks).[46] Church and administrative accounts from Italy indicate that 440 humans were killed by wolves during the 15th and 19th centuries, occurring in the central part of the Po river valley, the Padana plain, which once encompassed part of modern day Switzerland.[47]

In modern times, wolf attacks in Europe are very rare due to human induced environmental changes, a reduction in rabies and historical persecution making wolves more fearful toward humans.[3] Wolf attacks do however continue to occur in some areas of Eastern Europe.[48]

External links

Notes and References

  1. Richardson, John & Swainson, William Fauna boreali-americana, or, The zoology of the northern parts of British America: containing descriptions of the objects of natural history collected on the late northern land expeditions, under command of Captain Sir John Franklin, R.N., Jay Murray, 1829
  2. Book: Fred H. Harrington, Paul C. Paquet. Wolves of the World: Perspectives of Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation. 1982. 0815509057. 474.
  3. Boitani, L., Action plan for the conservation of wolves in Europe (Canis lupus), Nature and environment, Issue 113, Council of Europe, 2000 ISBN 9287144257
  4. Festa Bianchet, M. & Apollonio M., Animal behavior and wildlife conservation, Island Press, 2003ISBN 1559639598
  5. Smith, G., Catalogue of the mammals of Western Europe (Europe exclusive of Russia) in the collection of the British museum, (1912)
  6. News: Indian wolves are world's oldest. BBC News. June 17, 2004.
  7. Caruso, F., Nel Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo. 2000. ats italia editrice. Italy.
  8. re Book: Altobello, G.. Fauna dell'Abruzzo e del Molise: Vertebrati: Mammiferi. Volume IV: Carnivori. 1–6. Campobasso. 1921.
  9. Spagnesi, M. & De Marina Marinis, A., Mammiferi d'Italia, Ministero dell' Ambiente e della Tutela del Territorio Direzione Conservazione della Natura, Istituto Nazionale per la Fauna Selvatica "Alessandro Ghigi"
  10. V. LUCCHINI, A. GALOV and E. RANDI Evidence of genetic distinction and long-term population decline in wolves (Canis lupus) in the Italian Apennines. Molecular Ecology (2004) 13, 523–536. abstract online
  11. Jardine, William The Naturalists Library, Mammalia, Vol. IX: Dogs published by Edinburgh : W.H. Lizars, 1839
  12. Book: Hunting the Grisly and Other Sketches. Theodore Roosevelt.
  13. Book: Graves, Will. Wolves in Russia: Anxiety throughout the ages. 2007. 1550593323. 222.
  14. Book: Gibson, Nancy. Wolves. 1996. 72. 089658299X.
  15. Owen, R., A history of British fossil mammals, and birds, J. Van Voorst, 1846
  16. Bachrach, M., Fur: a practical treatise, 3rd ed., New York : Prentice-Hall, 1953
  17. Heptner, V.G & Naumov, N.P, (editors) Mammals of the Soviet Union Vol. II Part 1a, SIRENIA AND CARNIVORA (Sea cows; Wolves and Bears), Science Publishers, Inc. USA. 1998. ISBN 1886106819
  18. .
  19. A wolf's dark pelt is a gift from the dogs
  20. Book: Apollonio, Marco & Mattioli, Luca. 2006. 8875391238.
  21. Festa Bianchet, M. & Apollonio M., Animal behavior and wildlife conservation, Island Press, 2003
  22. PETERSON, R.O., and P. CIUCCI. 2003. The wolf as a carnivore in L. D. Mech, and L. Boitani, editors. Wolves behavior, ecology and conservation. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. USA.
  23. Salvatori, V. & Linnel, J., Report on the conservation status and threats for wolf (Canis lupus) in Europe, CONVENTION ON THE CONSERVATION OF EUROPEAN WILDLIFE AND NATURAL HABITATS, Strasbourg, 7 November 2005
  24. Wolves of the World: Europe
  26. Vilà, Carles & Wayne, Robert K., Hybridization between Wolves and Dogs, Conservation Biology, Pages 195-198, Vol. 13, No. 1. February 199
  27. Web site: Claws reveal wolf survival threat. Rincon, Paul. BBC online. 2007-05-11. 2004-04-08. London.
  28. Book: Rousseau, Élise. 2006. 2603013351. 319.
  29. Lindow, John, Norse mythology: a guide to the Gods, heroes, rituals, and beliefs, Oxford University Press US, 2002, ISBN 0195153820
  30. Book: Knight, John. Natural Enemies: People-Wildlife conflicts in Anthropological Perspective. 2000. 254. 0-415-22441-1.
  31. Book: Windisch, Ernst. Irische Texte mit Wörterbuch; The story of the three She wolves. Hirzel. 1900. Original from Harvard University. 264.
  32. Matthews, John & Berk, Ari, Celtic Totem Animals, Red Wheel, 2002
  34. Web site: Wolf attacks on humans. Mader, TR. Abundant Wildlife Society of North America. 2007-05-31.
  35. Book: Stefan Buczacki

    . Buczacki, Stefan. Fauna Britanica. 2005. 0600613925. 528. Stefan Buczacki.

  36. Web site: Management Plan for the Wolf Population in Finland. PDF. Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry 11b/2005. 2008-11-03.
  37. STEVEN H. FRITTS, ROBERT O. STEPHENSON, ROBERT D. HAYES, and LUIGI BOITANI. 2003. Wolves and Humans in L. D. Mech, and L. Boitani, editors. Wolves behavior, ecology and conservation. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. USA.
  38. Dogs That Come From Erin's Isle, Massive Wolfhound Long Been Associated With Mighty Nobles and the Rich by Jacqueline Archer Sewart, from The American Kennel Gazette, June 30, 1925
  39. "Chasse du Loup", L'Encyclopédie, Diderot et d'Alembert, 1751-1780
  40. Lopez, B., Of Wolves and Men, 1978 Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, USA.
  41. Morley, Henry, Sketches of Russian Life Before and During the Emancipation of the Serfs, Chapman and Hall, 1866
  42. Lloyd, Llwelyn, Scandinavian Adventures: During a Residence of Upwards of Twenty Years; Representing Sporting Incidents, and Subjects of Natural History, and Devices for Entrapping Wild Animals: With Some Account of the Northern Fauna, R. Bentley, 1854
  43. Web site: Is the fear of wolves justified? A Fennoscandian perspective.. Linnel, John D.C.. Acta Zoologica Lituanica, 2003, Volumen 13, Numerus 1. 2008-05-09. PDF.
  44. Book: Moriceau, Jean-Marc. 2007. 623. 2213628807. Fayard. Paris.
  45. Korytin, S. A. 1997 Sex and age structure of people attacked by wolves in different seasons. Proceedings of the scientific conference [Issues of applied ecology, game management and fur farming], 27–28 May 1997, Kirov p-143-146
  46. Web site: Pavlov, Mikhail P., "The Danger of Wolves to Humans" (pp 136-169) (Translated from Russian by Valentina and Leonid Baskin, and Patrick Valkenburg. Edited by Patrick Valkenburg and Mark McNay). PDF. 2010-03-16.
  47. Cagnolaro L., M. Comencini, A. Martinoli, A. Oriani, 1996. Dati storici sulla presenza e su casi di antropofagia del lupo nella Padania centrale. In F. Cecere (ed.) 1996, Atti del Convegno "Dalla parte del lupo", serie atti e studi de WWF Italia n° 10, 83:99.
  48. Book: Kruuk, Hans. Hunter and Hunted. 2002. 246. 0521891094.