Arctic Wolf
Arctic Wolf

Location at the Zoo
Tundra Trek
North America

Arctic wolf

Canis lupus arctos

Arctic wolves have white fur year-round which allows them to blend into their snowy surroundings. Their coat is long and silky with soft, thick under fur. This is shed in the spring and the coat becomes shorter and less dense. The lengthy tail is bushy, and the legs are long giving it a lanky appearance. The feet are large and digitate with non-retractable claws. The forefeet have five toes and the hind feet have four. The skull is broad and the face and ears are well defined. Ears are slightly rounded and the face is less pointed than other species of wolf. This wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus). The year-round white coats and slightly shorter ears and noses distinguish them from the other subspecies of Canis lupus. They are also slightly smaller in stature. Male Arctic wolves generally weigh between 34 – 46 kg, and females between 36 – 38 kg.

Conservation Status: IUCN


This sub-species lives primarily in the Arctic, the region located above 67 degrees north latitude. This is the area along the northern edge of the North American continent and northward to the North Pole, as well as along the eastern and northern shores of Greenland.


The land in the Arctic is covered with snow and ice for most of the year except for brief periods during the summer months. Due to scarcity of grazing plants and resulting low density of prey species, wolves roam over large areas hunting for food.


They are predatory carnivores. They hunt in packs for caribou and musk-oxen. They also consume Arctic hares, ptarmigan, lemmings, and other small animals including nesting birds.


These wolves live in groups of seven to ten individuals. There is a highly complex social order within wolf packs and each pack has a dominant male and female, who bond for life. Mating between the pair takes place during the breeding season of January through to March. The gestation period for the pregnant alpha female is from 53 to 61 days. Permafrost in the Arctic makes it difficult for the wolves to dig dens. Instead, their dens are often rock outcroppings, caves, or shallow depressions in the tundra soil. The mother gives birth to two or three pups in late May to early June. Litter size is smaller for Arctic wolves. Pups are born blind and deaf. They have soft, fuzzy dark hair with small, droopy ears and blunt muzzles. They are entirely dependent on their mother; she is the only one who has contact with them at this time. She in turn relies on her mate to bring her food. At about ten days the pups’ eyes open and at three weeks they can hear. After a month the pups are able to eat meat. From then on the whole pack shares the job of feeding them, bringing meat which they regurgitate for the pups. Each member of the pack will affectionately lick, nuzzle, and sniff each pup. They become caregivers - providing food, play, and protection. Pups respond with squeaks and tail wags. They nibble and lick the feeder’s muzzle to stimulate regurgitation. They leave the den after eight to ten weeks to discover the outside world. As pups they are already establishing, through play, their future roles within the pack. When the pack hunts, one adult member will remain as a puppy sitter. Pups have grown strong enough to travel at six months of age, and from that time will join the other members of the pack learning survival skills. They become sexually mature at two to three years of age.


Wolves communicate with each other in a variety of ways. Clear communication is a key element to the success of a cooperative pack.
Body language: They have a rich vocabulary of visual signs that communicate social rank, mood, and intentions. Subtle changes in tail and ear positions, of body and head angle, making and breaking eye contact, and facial expressions are just a few. Tail movements for example are related to various feelings: friendliness, aggression, fear, status, social tension, threat, and submission are all communicated via tail position.

Vocalization: Wolves howl for many reasons, to assemble the pack before and after hunts, to locate members of the pack over distances, to warn neighboring packs of their presence, and apparently just for the fun of it. They often howl at a rendezvous site. The wolf’s howl can be heard up to 5 km away. They also growl, snarl, whine, yip, whimper, and bark.

Signs: They use scent marking to communicate their presence and territory boundaries to other wolves. This can be either urine or feces left on rocks and snow banks along their hunting trails. Wolves have a very good sense of smell. They can detect prey 1.6 km away and can sense an animal three days after it has gone.

Wolves are very social animals and live in family packs for protection and for hunting.

Pack structure: There is an alpha pair in each pack. The alpha male is the leader. Only the alpha couple breeds and with only one litter per pack. The number of pups is low in relationship to the number of adults. Wolves have concern for other wolves in the pack, with the younger members feeding and protecting the older wolves. All adults co-operate in feeding and educating the young. Wolf pack members protect each other.

Hunting: Life in a pack is extremely important to the survival of Arctic wolves. They live in very harsh conditions. Hunting together allows them to kill larger prey including musk oxen and caribou. A successful hunt depends on the cooperative efforts of the entire pack.

Wolves demonstrate intelligence in choosing prey: they look for old, sick, or weak animals that are easier to catch. Wolves work hard for their prey; they kill only one of every ten large mammals they chase. They eat all of the catch, including the bones. They have 42 teeth. Four large canine teeth are used for hanging onto and biting through flesh. Molars at the back are specialized shearing teeth referred to as carnassials. When hunting alone a wolf catches smaller animals.

Arctic wolves are well adapted to icy conditions. White fur allows them to blend into snowy surroundings. To help reduce heat loss their ears are small and rounded, the muzzle is short, and the fur is dense. Legs are shorter than other subspecies. They have tufts of hair between the pads of their feet.

Threats to Survival

Polar bears sometimes prey on Arctic wolves. Global climate change may affect these wolves. Exploration of the natural resources such as oil and gas will no doubt have an impact.