Unique adaptations of the grey wolf

Updated February 21, 2017

The grey wolf (Canis lupus) is the godfather the world's domestic dogs and wolves. Though numerous wolves exist throughout the world, these animals constitute subspecies of the grey wolf, not unique species of animals. Similarly, all domestic dogs, from pugs to St. Bernards, originated in the grey wolf bloodline. Wild grey wolves possess a number of unique adaptations that help them survive under harsh conditions such as food scarcity, howling winds, deep snow and extreme cold.

Mobility adaptations

The grey wolf possesses unique adaptations designed to help with mobility. Grey wolves must move quickly, often over snow, to catch prey, and sometimes travel great distance in search of food or new places to live. Wolf toes spread wide when the animals run, giving them a large traction area. Their footpads and nails also help grey wolves grip slippery surfaces when running. The lean, long body of the wolf couples with its long legs, adapted for swift movement. Gray wolves can reach speeds of 64 km per hour (40 miles per hour) when chasing prey. The lean, muscular body of the wolf provides the stamina the animals need to travel as far as 29 km (18 miles) at a brisk trot.

Feeding adaptations

Unique adaptations help the grey wolf eat its prey and store food during periods of scarcity. The teeth of the grey wolf adapted specifically to pierce animal flesh and strip flesh from bone, providing the animals with the optimal value from each kill. Wolf jaws deliver 35.2 kg of pressure per square cm (500 lbs per square inch), allowing them to crush bones and snap the necks of prey. Gray wolves possess large, simple stomachs capable of storing as much as 9.07kg (20 lbs) of food. These stomachs allow wolves to digest food slowly and perform at full fitness for as long as 14 days without eating.

Sensory adaptations

Grey wolves, and the various subspecies and breeds derived from them, possess a sense of smell 100 times greater than that humans. This allows wolves to locate prey and sense changes to their environment, such as the presence of predators. Grey wolf eyes exhibit extreme sensitivity to movement, another adaptation designed to help the animals sense the presence of predators and prey. The animals possess a tapetum, or reflective retina, that improves their night vision. Wolf hearing is 20 times sharper than human hearing.

Other grey wolf adaptations

When grey wolves howl in unison, all the wolves in the pack howl in different pitches. This unique adaptation serves as a safety measure. When wolves howl in different pitches, potential predators believe the pack is bigger than it is. Gray wolves have long, woolly fur, which provides warmth and protection against moisture settling on the skin of the animals. Protection from moisture helps wolves stay dry in extremely cold regions. Grey wolves in different regions have adapted to preying on animals in the most abundance or those most easily caught in that region, including deer, rabbits and more.

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About the Author

Will Gish slipped into itinerancy and writing in 2005. His work can be found on various websites. He is the primary entertainment writer for "College Gentleman" magazine and contributes content to various other music and film websites. Gish has a Bachelor of Arts in art history from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.