The red wolf is one of the two wolf species found in the United States, the other being the gray wolf. Recognizable from its namesake red fur, it resembles a large coyote and is a close cousin to the eastern wolf of eastern Canada.
There were debates over whether it is a wolf-coyote hybrid or a sub-species of other canids, depriving it of some conservation programs in the past. This led to its population numbers dropping to the point where it became extinct in the wild, finally revived through breeding efforts.
Size: Length: 53.5–63 in (136–160 cm); Weight: 50-85 lbs (23–39 kg)
Body and Coloration: The red wolf stands somewhere between the gray wolf and coyote regarding size and appearance. They have comparatively larger ears and a bushy black-tipped tail. The upper part of the red wolf’s coat varies from tawny to cinnamon, with touches of gray or black. Their backs mostly have a blackish appearance, while a tint of red hair surrounds their muzzle and the region behind their ears and legs.
Red Wolf vs. Coyote vs. Gray Wolf
Though often likened to the coyote and gray wolf in several aspects, the red wolf has notable visible differences that distinguish it from the other two canids.
Muzzle size: It is broad and short in the red wolves, long and narrow in canids, and thick in the gray wolves.
Size: The red wolf appears bigger than the coyote but smaller than the gray wolf.
Color: While the red wolf has a tawny body, the gray wolves have a grayish-brown body, while the coyote comes with a grayish or reddish-brown coloration.
Vocalization: Red wolves and gray wolves show similarity when it comes to their customary high-pitched howl. On the other hand, the coyote’s howl is mixed with a lot of yapping sounds.
Initially, their domain extended throughout the south-eastern United States, from central Pennsylvania to Texas, some even found in parts of Florida. Nowadays, they live in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.
They are capable of coping in most environments as long as they have adequate access to prey. Before their relocation, they inhabited wetlands, mountains, swamplands, and even agricultural lands. Currently, they occupy hard-to-reach swamplands and mountainous terrain.
Seasonal effects: The hunting ability and availability of prey vary seasonally. Winter is the easiest time to hunt as visible tracks appear in the snow, and sparse vegetation makes it harder for prey to hide. Finding food is significantly more difficult in summer, where more energy gets expended because of the higher mobility of prey.
Most wolves live for 4-7 years, though there has been an instance of a wolf surviving in captivity for 14 years.
They are a nocturnal species, being active at night. However, during the winter months, they may leave their dens during the day.
Notwithstanding the misconception of their aggressive demeanor, these wolves come across as shy animals.
They hunt alone or in a small pack within 20 miles of their home range for 7-10 days at a time. Their pack size depends on the prey’s availability, mandatorily comprising a dominant male-female pair.
Communication appears to take place through various means. These include vocal expressions ranging from growls to barks to non-verbal means like body posture, tail and ear positioning, and scent-marking.
The superiors in the group show their dominance by raising their tails high, while the subordinates keep their tails down, lower their bodies and even raise their paws to honor the leaders.
They usually are fearful of humans, avoiding man-made structures like houses, roads, and machinery. But some of them become bold enough to approach farms in search of an easy meal. This is both positive and negative, as while they may keep the pest population down, livestock also ends up getting targeted as well.
Other canids like coyotes and gray wolves mainly attack red wolves due to their overlapping territories. Juveniles get attacked by carnivores like bobcats, some large raptors, and alligators.
Like most nocturnal predators, they have sharp senses like excellent vision and hearing as well as a good sense of smell, letting them track their prey easily.
Due to their long legs and slender build, they are excellent runners capable of reaching up to 30 mph in small bursts, comparable to an American Greyhound.
The coat of these wolves changes with the seasons, growing longer in winter for better insulation. They lose the extra fur by molting once in summer.
Mating and Reproduction
Their mating season is between January and early March. The pairs are monogamous, formed when males and females find a new region to build their den. Only the dominant couple in the pack is allowed to breed.
Both parents help in the rearing of the young, assisted by other members of the pack. The dens where the young are raised tend to be hollow tree trunks close to a water source. The gestation period is around 60-63 days, with the mother giving birth around April-May. After six weeks, the juveniles begin to leave the den, fully growing after one year and reaching sexual maturity in two or three.
The IUCN lists the red wolf as “Critically Endangered” or “CR”.
Due to overzealous predator control programs and a loss of habitat caused by man, the red wolf would go from being extremely common to be labeled as extinct in the wild by the organization United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 1980. Fourteen individuals finally recognized as pure red wolves capable of breeding were raised in captivity to save the species.
By 1987, the population had increased to the point where they could be re-introduced to the wild, relocating them to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. They were also introduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee in 1991. However, they suffered there due to a lack of prey, relocated back to Alligator River.
The population reached a high of 130 in 2006.
Why is the red wolf still endangered
Their population has always gone through a roller coaster ride, declining further even after 2006. The reasons include:
Gross mismanagement and illegal killings: From 2014 onwards,the USFWS began issuing permits to private landowners to kill red wolves. This was reversed in 2018, but the population had already declined drastically to 45-60 members.
Cross-breeding with coyotes: The pure red wolf population dropped even further due to interbreeding with coyotes.
Habitat loss and disease have also led to the death of re-introduced species.
As of July 2021, the total number of red wolves in the wild is 9.
The Cherokee tribe holds strong beliefs about the red wolf – it was said to be the companion of Kana’ti, the hunter and father of the Wolf clan. They are against killing red wolves, believing that the pack of the slain member would wreak vengeance on the tribe.
Scout, a red wolf, lived for 11 long years in the Salisbury Zoo, Maryland, passing away on the 31st of August, 2021.