Arctic Wolf

Reviewed by: BD Editors

Arctic wolf against a snowy backdrop
The Arctic wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf.

Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Canidae
Genus Canis
Species Canis lupis
Subspecies Canis lupus arctos
Length 3.2 – 5.9 ft (100 to 180 cm long)
Weight 70 – 155 lbs  (32 to 70kg)
Lifespan 7 – 17 years
Social Structure Social, live in packs
Conservation Status Least concern
Preferred Habitat Tundra
Average Litter Size 5 – 7 pups
Main Prey Species Musk, ox, caribou and Arctic hares
Main Threats Climate change and industrial development

The Basics

The Arctic wolf (Canis lupus arctos) is a subspecies of the gray wolf (Canis lupus), which is also known as the white wolf or the polar wolf. It is found in North America and Greenland and is native to Canada’s Queen Elizabeth Islands, ranging from Melville Island to Ellesmere Island.

The wolves are carnivores and feed on several different herbivores found in the northern regions, such as elk, deer, moose, musk, ox, caribou and arctic hares. When the wolves are hunting larger herbivores, they hunt in packs, but if the prey animal is smaller, they can pursue it alone.

Arctic wolves breed from January to March, and the female will produce five to seven pups after a gestation period of 61 to 63 days. The pups become independent after six months.

Arctic wolves will usually give birth in a den. This can be dug into the ground or the snow. Sometimes the ground is frozen too hard, and so the wolves will use a ready-made shelter such as in between rocks, in caves, or dens dug by other wolves in previous years.

There are two main threats to these animals: climate change and industrial development. As a result of climate change, the frequency of extreme weather events is increasing. This is harming the populations of the wolves prey, such as ox, hares, and musk. The populations are decreasing as they struggle to find food, which in turn causes a reduced supply in food for the Arctic wolves.

Another problem that is impacting the food supply of the Arctic wolves is industrial development. An increase in the number of mines, pipelines, and roads being built in the arctic region has caused habitat destruction, which has impacted the populations of the arctic wolves’ primary prey items.

Three arctic wolves together in a forest
Arctic wolves live in packs.

Pack Life

Arctic wolves live in packs of seven to eight animals, which work together to complete tasks from hunting food to taking care of young. There is a complex social order within the pack, with an established hierarchy of dominance. As with other wolf species, the leader of the pack is male, and only he and the dominant female are allowed to mate and reproduce.

All pack members share the responsibility of looking after the pups. As food can often be scarce, this ensures that a limited number of pups are born and that the wolves have the resources to raise and feed them well. If the other females were allowed to breed, it could result in too many pups for a limited supply of food and lead to the death of many of them!

In the first few weeks, the mother will look after the pups on her own. Once the pups have grown a little bit, then the pack will start to take some responsibility for raising them. When the pack is out hunting, one wolf will always be left behind to take care of the pups.

The young are taught to play by their father, who will also teach them how to hunt. At six months old, they are old enough to join the rest of the pack and venture out to learn survival skills.

The pack will communicate over long distances by howling. A howl can be used to signal their location to other packs members and tell them to come and join a hunt. Howling is also used to signal to wolves in other territories to warn them to stay away.

Adult arctic wolf with two pups
The pack takes care of the pups together.

Interesting Insights from the Arctic Wolf!

The arctic wolf can survive some harsh conditions, spending a lot of the year living in a snowy environment. For five months of the year, these wolves even live in the dark! To survive these conditions, the wolves have adapted to their environment. These adaptations are an excellent insight into some fascinating biological concepts. Let’s investigate further.

Counter Current Heat Exchange

Wolves use a mechanism known as a counter-current heat exchange to ensure that their paws stay warm enough to avoid frostbite but that they don’t lose too much heat to the outside. Veins surround the arteries that deliver blood to the paws of the wolf. The two blood vessels are so close together that they exchange heat. The warm arteries can heat the cooler veins.

This keeps the paws at a lower temperature overall than the rest of the body, which ensures that heat is not lost to the environment through their paws.

Other animals such as penguins, whales, and seals also use this mechanism in their feet, fins, and flippers to keep their body heat balanced.

An arctic wolf howling in the dark
Arctic wolves howl to communicate.

Small Ears

Another way that Arctic wolves can prevent heat from being lost to their environment is through their small ears. Wolves that are found in a more southern location have much larger ears than the Arctic wolf. Little ears mean a smaller surface area, which reduces the area across which heat loss can occur.

Thick Camouflaged Fur

Like several animals that live in cold conditions, Arctic wolves have a thick, insulating fur coat to protect them from the cold. It has two layers – the inner layer and the outer layer. The inner layer is made up of shorter and softer hairs that provide insulation to the animal. The outer layer is made up of long hairs, which are water and snow proof. This layer gets thicker as the colder weather starts to arrive. The Arctic wolves coat is also light in color, which provides them some camouflage in the snow.

Together, these three adaptations are essential for the Arctic wolf’s survival in temperatures that often reach below zero!

Cite This Article

MLAAPAChicago Editors. “Arctic Wolf.” Biology Dictionary,, 28 Jul. 2020, Editors. (2020, July 28). Arctic Wolf. Retrieved from Editors. “Arctic Wolf.” Biology Dictionary., July 28, 2020.

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