Answers to the most frequent questions about the species.
The wolf is about the same size as a German shepherd. Adults have an average weight of 30-40 kg, varying according to the European population of origin: wolves in northern Europe are generally heavier. Females weigh about 20% less than males.
Morphologically, the wolf is distinguished from the dog by its narrow chest and long limbs with big paws, its strong neck, its strong skull to support particularly powerful masseter and temporal muscles and very strong, well developed flesh-axial teeth (called “carnassials”). If we observe the head of a wolf, it appears frontally triangular, flattened and wide. In profile, the head of a wolf is almost flat from the top of the skull to the tip of the nose. The head of a dog in profile has a steeper angle with a more evident “frontal stop” (jump between forehead and nasal rostrum). The tail of the wolf is relatively short and measures about a third of the body length. The eyes are typically yellow.
The colour of the coat tends to be greyish with more or less tawny or dark shades and less thick in summer. Depending on the population of origin, the shade of the coat varies with characteristic elements, which in some populations are diagnostic for phenotypic recognition (e.g. black tip of the tail, white mask and black bands are present on the forelimbs for the Apennine population).
Wolves are generalist and opportunistic carnivore with a clear preference for ungulates: they feed on which species are most available and accessible in their habitat, so their diet can vary both locally and seasonally. They mainly feed on large prey, in particular on wild ungulates (red deer, roe deer, fallow deer, chamois, mouflon and wild boar) where available and more rarely on small vertebrates or even carcasses (scavenging). Domestic ungulates appear in the wolf diet with frequencies that vary depending on the area, but with values usually lower than wild ungulates.
Wolves reproduce only once a year: the pair mates between January and March, depending on the latitude (in the Alps usually in March) and the gestation lasts about 63 days as in dogs. The litter size is usually between three to six pups.
The pack is a reproductive unit: it is an extended family group headed by the two parents (the dominant male and female), who are generally the only ones who reproduce. The pack is composed, as an average, by five wolves, but the size of the pack can vary during the year usually from two to eleven wolves. It rarely reaches higher values. Usually the pack is bigger between summer and the beginning of winter when the newborns and some young wolves of the previous year might be present at the same time. These youngsters will soon disperse during winter.
Wolves are highly territorial, and each wolf pack occupies its own territory in a stable and exclusive way, from which any foreign wolves are driven away. Wolves and wolf packs do not usually cross into another pack’s territory. When they do, fights can occur and the pack goes so far as to kill the wolves of other packs. Also dispersing wolves are trying to enter foreign territories. For this reason, the number of packs in an area is limited and can not grow exponentially, but has a maximum capacity influenced also by the suitable habitat and the density of the prey. In the Alps the wolf pack’s territory on average coversabout 250 square kilometres (source: Wolf Alpine Group).
No, locally there is always and only one pack, whose number of individuals remains stable over time (save the annual fluctuations: see above) and cannot increase exponentially. In fact, once a wolf pack settles in an area, it occupies an exclusive territory and constitutes a family group that regulates itself annually, formed by the parents and their cubs: cubs are born once a year in May, and the youngsters usually disperse after the 1st and 2nd year of age in search of suitable territories of their own.
The expansion of the wolf in the Alps in the last forty years is only and exclusively the result of natural dynamics of the species. In Europe, no wolf has ever been caught then moved and released for reintroduction.
Wolves usually move at night, from dusk until dawn, in correspondence with the foraging activity of their prey and when human disturbance is lower. However, wolves also move during the day, more frequently in less anthropized areas with low human disturbance.
Howling is a direct and long-distance communication for wolves and plays different roles in the social life of the pack and between packs. Wolves howl to accentuate and strengthen social relationships within the pack, to defend the territory or to attract young animals or pups. Howling also has a gregarious meaning for the wolves of the pack and helps coordination in the departures, meetings and movements of individuals within the territory (e.g. in hunting events). Finally, howling is also a control mechanism of the territory, with which wolves can explicitly affirm their presence and possession of the territory in real time, avoiding encounters with dispersal wolves or wolves from a nearby pack.
There is no scientific evidence that wolves howl because they are affected by the moon, let alone the full moon. Perhaps in the past this belief was formed because it is more likely to hear the howling of the wolf on clear evenings illuminated by the full moon, more suitable for night outings.
Normally wolves move away before being sighted thanks to their excellent sense of vision, smell and hearing. This is why the encounter with the wolf is unlikely, but in any case it is possible and more frequent, where packs have settled in partially anthropized areas. In the case of a close encounter, a behaviour of respect and common sense is always recommended. If the observer is not at ease, it will be sufficient to speak loudly and, if necessary, to wave the arms to move the animal away. Once it has moved away, avoid following it and, in any case, avoid interfering with its behaviour. If the wolf is feeding, it must not be disturbed, as well as in the rare case in which we come across a litter. It is considered exceptional and completely anomalous, the case in which the wolf shows confidence, with a voluntary approach towards the observer: this anomalous event should be reported to the competent local authorities.
Yes, this can happen. Wolves try to avoid contact with humans as much as possible, but in the most anthropized territories it is impossible for them to completely avoid civilization. The number of sightings are more frequent because the likelihood to cross roads and through urbanized environments is greater. It is more frequent that the approaches occur at night (it is an adaptation of the species to minimize the contacts with humans), but they are not excluded also during the day.
Yes, the wolf is a species protected by national and European Union legislation, and as such it cannot be killed. In exceptional cases, current legislation allows derogations from the protection status, in order to obtain specific removals in the case of animals considered “problematic”.