View Full Version : Basic Wolf Taxonomy and Description of Five Representative Subspecies

February 4th, 2010, 01:32 PM
Taxonomy:Taxonomy is the science of naming and classifying species. Each species is assigned a two-part scientific name by taxonomist, which consists of the species’ genus and a specific name or epithet. The language used for naming species is Latin. The common grey wolf’s scientific name is Canis lupus. Technically all wolves are Canis lupus and have 32 subspecies. For example the red wolf is Canis lupus rufus, and the common wolf is Canis lupus lupus.

Often people confuse the common coyote, Canis latrans, with the wolf.


Size is the key difference; a coyote is half as big as a wolf and are found in brushy areas. Note that the tail of the coyote is held down at all times.

Timber wolves, also called gray wolves, are the largest wild members of the dog family.

http://www.coffeetimeromance.com/images/update wolves 001.jpg

People may also confuse large dog breeds such as German Shepherds and Alaskan Malamutes with wolves.


Wolf Hybrids are larger than wolves. They are a handful for people who keep them as pets and in fact we have several at the sanctuary where I volunteer.


Tracks and various physical features can distinguish wolves from other canines. A wolf and other wild canids usually places its hind foot in the track left by the front foot, whereas a dog's front and hind foot tracks usually do not overlap each other. Wolves also differ from most dogs by having a narrower chest, longer legs, large feet, five toes in the front paws, large head with cheek hair tufts, tail held down or straight but not curled, black tipped tail, and black spot on back of the tail. Most importantly, dogs are considered domesticated and wolves are not. That being said, dogs can mate with wolves and produce fertile offspring, which technically means they are not separate species but rather subspecies. However, their traits are different that they are classified as a distinct species.

Dogs have been bred by artificial selection to look and behave differently than the ancestral wolf. Pug, beagles and poodles have a distinct look. My own standard poodle below is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

http://www.coffeetimeromance.com/images/Eva and Lascaux (2).JPG

Okay, time to review basic high school biology. This is how the wolf is classified.

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Subphylum: Vertebrata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

-The carnivores have teeth adapted for meat eating. This taxon or group includes

bears, weasels, cats, raccoons, seals, sea lions, dogs and walruses to name a few.

Family Canidae

-This is the dog family. Members of the dog family have large incisors and long

muzzles. There are 35 different species in this family. Examples include dogs,

foxes, coyotes and of course the wolf.

Genus: Canis

-This is the Latin word for dog. This genus also includes the wolf, jackals and


Species: lupus

-This the Latin word for wolf.

Five Representative Species of Wolf: I will briefly describe four living subspecies and one cool extinct prehistoric wolf, the Dire wolf. The common gray wolf, Mackenzie wolf, Mexican wolf and Arabian wolf are not the most important or most endangered (The Ethiopian wolf is the most endangered) but rather are the ones that represent various regions around the globe.

http://www.coffeetimeromance.com/images/wolf on rocks.jpg

Canis lupus lupus (Eurasian or Common Gray Wolf): Range is Europe, central Asia, southern Russia, China, Mongolia and the Himalayas. This is the most common Eurasian wolf species.This medium sized wolf has the typical head and body configuration, resembling a large husky dog, broad snout, relatively short ears, long fur which varies in color from white through gray, brown, and black (light grizzled gray is the normal color). The common wolf’s belly, cheeks, legs, and throat are white or buff and shading into gray along the sides and flanks. The wolf has black or brown hair becoming more common towards the rear and midline, producing a dark mid-dorsal stripe and flanks. The wolf has a conspicuous black patch near the base of the tail, and tail well furred, lightly colored buff, and frequently tipped with black. Adult males tend to be larger than adult females. Most other wolf subspecies are a slight variation of this type. The total Eurasian Wolf population is roughly estimated to be 100,000 individuals.

Canis lupus occidentalis (Mackenzie Valley Wolf): Range is Alaska and Canada. One of the largest wolves in Northern America, they weigh between 100-140 pounds, and measure 32-40 inches tall at the shoulders and has a length (including head and tail) between 5-7 feet. Their thick fur allows this subspecies to live in sub-freezing temperatures and is adapted to getting by on little food for long periods of time. The Mackenzie fur color ranges from black to fur with gray being the most common color. The Mackenzie Valley Wolf has a specialized body that has made it one of the world's most efficient hunters. Its thick, long limbs are proportionally built for traversing through rough terrain such as deep snow or the cliffy edges of the Rocky Mountains. Its deep chest hosts large lungs, letting the wolf breathe more efficiently at higher altitudes, and allowing it to exert huge amounts of stamina travelling up to 70 miles) in one day. Its powerful neck is a very important adaptation: it has to be strong to support the wolf's large head and is crucial for bringing down prey. The Mackenzie Valley Wolf maximizes heat retention through such methods as using its bushy tail to cover its exposed nose during the winter. It sheds its undercoat during the summer months due to the hotter conditions. This subspecies was re-introduced to Yellowstone Park where they have become crucial in restoring environmental balance in that it has clamped down on the less fit members of the herds on which it feeds, thereby keeping large of ungulates numbers in check and allowing certain floral and faunal species to recover, promoting biodiversity.

Canis lupus baileyi (Mexican Wolf):Current range is in small enclaves of Arizona and New Mexico.The Mexican Wolf is the rarest, most genetically distinct sub-species of Gray Wolf found in North America. It is small reaching an overall length no greater than 4.5 feet and a height maximum of about 32 inches. By the turn of the century, reduction of natural prey like deer and elk caused many wolves to begin attacking domestic livestock, which led to intensive efforts by government agencies and individuals to eradicate the Mexican Wolf. By 1976 only 200 Mexican Wolves survived, mostly in captive breeding programs. In 1997 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced 100 Mexican Wolves into the Blue Range area of Arizona and parts of New Mexico.

Canis lupus arabs (Arabian Wolf): Range is the Arabian Peninsula. Standing approximately 26 inches shoulder height and weighing an average of 40 pounds, The Arabian Wolf is the smallest Wolf subspecies, yet, the largest canid in Arabia. They have short grayish-beige hair, which becomes much longer and thicker in winter. Their ears are large in comparison to the rest of its body (similar to the maned wolf, a South American subspecies). Their eyes are naturally yellow with black pupils. However, many are found with brown eyes, revealing that somewhere down the line their ancestors have interbred with feral dogs. It will feed mostly on carrion and animals up to the size of a goat.

Canis dirus, The dire wolf became extinct somewhere between 4,000 and 16,000 years ago.

http://www.coffeetimeromance.com/images/Dire Wolf.jpg

This is thought to be partially because of its inability to compete with the faster, more intelligent gray wolf. It is the largest canid known to ever exist. And though it was similar in many ways to the gray wolf, the dire wolf was heavier built, more robust, with shorter and more powerful legs, and a larger head. Being a heavier animal with shorter legs, the dire wolf would have been slower and less adept at catching prey than the gray wolf. It is, therefore, believed that the dire wolf was more of a scavenger than predator. Its teeth were more massive and strong, allowing it to easily consume carcasses.

Thousands of Canis dirus fossils have been recovered from the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles, California where water would be left floating on top of the tar after it rained. When attempting to drink from the pools of water, animals often became trapped in the tar below. The dire wolf and other predators, attempting to feed on the trapped animals, would often become trapped in the tar themselves

On Friday I will post about basic wolf behavior and factoids. Next week we will look at wolf lore.

Savanna Kougar
February 4th, 2010, 07:23 PM
Great info! Thanks.

February 5th, 2010, 12:15 AM
Fascinating about the dire wolf. I took this class with Eva about 2 years ago, but at the time had not gotten this first part of the lesson.

Thanks for all the beautiful wolf pics---and of course, that mighty fierce looking poodle!! LOL

February 5th, 2010, 01:10 PM
LOL, I think my own Standard Poodle was a teddy bear.

Teresa D'Amario
February 6th, 2010, 01:57 AM
They say every dog has at least one wolf trait. Labradors: They have the dietary WANTS but not the dietary NEEDS. They WANT to "wolf down" all the food in sight! Just ask my big baby!

February 6th, 2010, 11:46 AM
Fascinating about the dire wolf. I took this class with Eva about 2 years ago, but at the time had not gotten this first part of the lesson.

Thanks for all the beautiful wolf pics---and of course, that mighty fierce looking poodle!! LOL

Yes, Lascaux thinks he's a wolf.

February 6th, 2010, 11:48 AM
They say every dog has at least one wolf trait. Labradors: They have the dietary WANTS but not the dietary NEEDS. They WANT to "wolf down" all the food in sight! Just ask my big baby!

My poodle is cunning and manipulates us into giving him treats.