Red wolf struggles to survive in ever-changing world


The red wolf is critically endangered.

Viera Voice photo

Spinning tales about the
red wolf.

Two species of wolves exist in North America — the red wolf and the gray wolf. They belong to the family Canidae, along with the coyote, jackal, domestic dog and dingo.

Some canines such as the lone wolf might interbreed if a mate is not available. For example, the wolf, coyote and domestic dog can produce viable and fertile wolfdogs, coywolves and coydogs.

In taxonomy, the red wolf is controversial. Research suggests that the red wolf is a unique species. Yet, some believe it is a subspecies of the gray wolf or hybrid of the gray wolf and coyote. (Also challenged is the evolution of the dog from the gray wolf. A contradictory study claims they share a common ancestor in an extinct wolf lineage.) 

Red wolf habitats can be observed in swamps, forests and coastal prairies. Dens may exist in thick vegetation, hollow logs or even culverts. This animal is fiercely territorial when guarding its range. 

Social, it generally forms a family pack of around five to eight members, usually related. The unit accommodates a breeding pair (the typically monogamous alpha male and female) and their offspring of varying ages. Yearly litters might yield three to 12 pups. Wild wolves commonly survive six to
seven years.

Nocturnal and carnivorous, the red wolf generally hunts alone or with its mate for small mammals such as rabbits. When chasing big prey, such as deer, the family pack might assemble. This wolf thrives on two to five pounds of food daily, maintaining up to 80 pounds. Thus, it might journey 20 miles. It is digitigrade, walking on its toes. In pursuit, short bursts can reach 30 miles
per hour.

Communication occurs with barks, growls, yaps and, of course, haunting howls. In open terrain, howls travel 10 miles. Strong wind or rain discourage howling since sound is hindered. (Dog breeds with close ties to wolves, such as huskies and malamutes, also howl.) 

Why do people assume that a wolf howls at the full moon? Since it raises its head to project sound farther, it seems to be howling at the moon. Moreover, in the past, people traveled at night, usually during the full moon for safety; inadvertently, they assumed the wolf only howled at the full moon. Actually, a wolf even howls during the invisible new moon phase. 

Historically, the red wolf roamed from Texas to Florida to Pennsylvania. Several factors have promoted this animal’s severe demise: fear of its association with the devil — reinforced by folklore, its threat to livestock, its allure as game, its loss of habitat and vehicle fatalities. Actually, the “fanged” wolf, sometimes hostile in the past, is elusive and avoids humans.

Captive breeding was initiated in 1973. The few remaining red wolves were gathered and, in 1980, this species was declared extinct in the wild. Breeding facilities, including zoos, have produced around 200 wolves. Breeding sites, such as Florida’s St. Vincent Island, have contributed to reintroduction efforts in North Carolina’s wildlife refuge. Unfortunately, roaming wolves in North Carolina have dwindled to around 50. Consequently, species survival is questionable. (In Florida, the extinct black wolf once wandered the shores of the Indian River Lagoon.) 

Although the critically endangered red wolf is a protected species by law, interbreeding with the coyote might threaten the uniqueness of the species and affect restoration. Optimistically, a persistent recovery program (not one suspended for review) will allow the striking red wolf, adorned in its reddish, tawny coat, to forever howl.