Facts about The Red Wolf

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Red wolf in fieldThe red wolf, also known by its scientific name Canis lupus rufus, is native to North America. While the red wolf was once rather populous throughout the United States ranging from Texas to Florida and up to New York, this incredible creature is now nowhere to be found in the wild. There are many reasons for the extinction of the red wolf in its natural habitat but this hardy creature has shown its resilience through captive breeding programs and reintroduction to the wild.

The Red Wolf: Profile

The red wolf is most widely recognized for having a reddish tint to its coat and is generally smaller in size than the gray wolf. The larger red wolf, usually a male, can grow up to five feet long and can weigh in at around 80 lbs. The red wolf can be recognized not just by the color of its coat in comparison to the gray wolf but also from some of its differences in physical features. The red wolf as opposed to the gray wolf has larger ears and a wider head and also features a significantly smaller ruff around the neck. In the wild the red wolf was an apex predator, a creature that knew its way around forests, coastal prairies and swamps and had the knowledge to provide for itself and small family packs. The red wolf was not; however, able to escape rampant disease, habitat loss and predator control programs that all but wiped this species off the face of the Earth.

The Red Wolf Family

While thriving in the wild the red wolf would live within family packs which generally consisted of the breeding “parent” wolves and their pups that could vary in age from newborn pups to pups of 2 years of age. As they grow to around 2 years of age the red wolf pups would move out on their own to find mates. Red wolves reach their sexual maturity at around 22 months of age and so it is important for the older pups to leave the family unit in order to establish their own den and family pack. From February to March red wolves seek mates and breed and around two months later the pups are born. A red wolf litter can consist of anywhere from one to ten pups and litters are generally only carried once a year and in an effort to maintain their safety the mother red wolf will often move her young from one den to another in order to avoid predators. Red wolves are particularly family oriented as are most Canids and they tend to their young until they are old enough to venture out and form family units of their own.

Life in the Pack

While red wolves do live within family units they are not particularly receptive to other wolves stepping in to their territory and in an effort to deter foreign wolves from stepping in to their territory and reducing the availability of food they will mark territory with their scent – this process is done by urination on boundary trees. Within their family pack; however, the red wolf acts as a particularly attentive parent with the mother taking precautions to ensure the safety of her young. Even though the red wolf is a nurturing parent; however, it still feeds in a hierarchy with the older and stronger pack members eating first. Red wolves tend to eat alone with distinct portions of food designated to each individual in the pack. By establishing hierarchical order within the pack red wolves do not just make sure that each member of the pack knows its place in the social order but they also enable more fluid function of the pack as a whole. While the young within a pack move from their family pack to their own pack the parental units within the pack generally mate for life.

Helping Save the Red Wolves from Extinction [VIDEO]

This video is provided courtesy of the BBC show Vets in the Wild. Steve & Trude visit North Carolina, where the Red Wolf is under threat of extinction.


The pack size of the red wolf in the wild can vary from just two individuals (a mated pair) to around twelve individuals. One factor that generally affects the size of a red wolf pack is the availability of food within the area. The more food available to the wolf pack the larger a pack will tend to be. The less food available to the pack the younger the offspring will be when they leave the den. While the pups are living within the den, however, they will be cared for by both the mother and father. While most activity of the red wolf centers around the family pack the red wolf is not solely a pack hunter although on some occasions they have known to be, it is rather believed that the red wolf hunts down its prey and utilizes that prey to feed the pack according to hierarchical status. The red wolf hunts at night and tends toward rabbits, deer and raccoons.

Do Red Wolves Attack Humans?

While many stories of wolf attacks on humans are sensationalized in movies the red wolf has never been known to attack a human and their shy nature is more than likely the reason for this. The red wolf generally hunts and feeds at night and while it was occasionally known to feed upon cattle this shy and reclusive wolf generally fed upon creatures that were easily accessible to the den such as rabbits, deer and raccoons. The red wolf and its family pack will ultimately avoid humans at all costs as generally humans mean trouble for these endangered creatures.

The Red Wolf is one of the World’s Most Endangered Canids

While the red wolf was once a thriving species through a culmination of factors this slender Canid soon became one of the world’s most endangered Canids. In 1973 with a dwindling population the red wolf was added to the endangered species list. Continued presence of the factors which pushed this Canid species to the brink of extinction resulted in a population of only seventeen wolves in 1980. The remaining population of red wolves was captured by biologists in order to attempt a captivity breeding program and restore the red wolf population. After the capture of the remaining seventeen red wolves from their wild habitat, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service labeled the red wolf as an extinct species in the wild. With the beginning of the captivity breeding program, however, the red wolf population was soon to begin to rise again.

Red Wolf Breeding Efforts

Breeding any animal population in captivity is a stressful procedure; however, when it is a species that has had its population nearly completely wiped out there is even more pressure to make the breeding program a success. In order for a red wolf breeding program to be successful male and females must successfully mate and produce a litter, unfortunately mating a male and female red wolf is not just a matter of introduction. The captive breeding program of the red wolf began with seventeen wolves; fortunately for biologists as well as the red wolf population fourteen of these red wolves began the breeding program successfully. The red wolf captive breeding program began at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington.

The Red Wolf Captive Breeding Program

The purpose of the red wolf captive breeding program was to begin to repopulate the wild with red wolves bred out of the program and in 1976 the first two wolves were released in to the wild. Unfortunately their release was deemed unsuccessful; however, a second try at release in to the wild was attempted in 1978 and was deemed successful. After the first successful release of red wolves back in to the wild a greater effort was made to continue this practice and this time was focused on the release of the wolves in to their more natural habitat in North Carolina at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge continues to be the site of a red wolf population that seems to be surviving the elements of nature rather well. The initial breeding program also established the first island breeding site on Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuges Bull Island in South Carolina. This program went on to breed many red wolf pups that were later released in to the wild in North Carolina. Since the beginning of the captive breeding program over a hundred wolves have been reintroduced in to the wild and even more have been born. The red wolf population has continued to grow as a result of these conservation efforts and with over one hundred new wolves introduced in to the wild the population has come a long way from the last seventeen wolves that were rescued at the beginning of the breeding program.

Releasing Red Wolves Back into the Wild

Since the beginning of the conservation effort to re-release red wolves back in to the wild three other island population programs have been started in an effort to safely breed red wolf pups and release the young adults to the wild. Of those three other programs only one has been forced to close its doors as a result of potential encounters with humans, the remaining two programs remain in St. Vincent Island, Florida and Cape St. George Island, Florida. While conservation efforts have made attempts to restore the red wolf population to other areas of the country including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, these re-introductions have not been particularly successful and these individuals wound up being relocated to North Carolina where the red wolf seems to thrive. The captive breeding program for the red wolf now has more than thirty participating facilities hoping to boost the survival of this Canid and re-introduce it in to the wild. So far the re-introduction and captive breeding program has been deemed a success and made the red wolf the first species in the United States to be reintroduced in to the wild after extinction.

While the red wolf has managed to fight its way back to survival with the help of captive breeding programs and reintroduction efforts one has to wonder how successful these efforts will truly be if the species is reintroduced outside of wildlife reserves. While certainly hunting efforts should be lessened if not eliminated as a result of endangered species laws factors such as cross breeding between coyotes and red wolves and deforestation have certainly not been addressed in regards to the potential success of this species in its natural habitat. Unfortunately for the red wolf it seems that the only chance that this amazing creature has at survival is one within the confines of a wildlife preserve. While these wildlife preserves may be far from the one hundred mile stretches that single red wolf families thrived upon in the wild they may, unfortunately, be the only shot that these creatures have at making it through extinction.

Canid Species and the Red Wolf in Perspective

But really, what is the big deal about saving the red wolf species? The red wolf is just one of two wolf species, the second species being the grey wolf. Within the red wolf species are three subspecies; the Canis rufus floridanus that went extinct in 1930, the Canus rufus gregoryi which went extinct in the wild in 1970 and the Canus rufus rufus which went extinct in the wild in 1980. It is the Canus rufus rufus that has been impacted by the reintroduction of red wolves in to North Carolina but even with increasing numbers the red wolf Canus rufus rufus species is still considered to be critically endangered. With only two subspecies of red wolf remaining and only two species of wolf remaining can the world really afford to miss this Canid species? Without the wolves present it seems that prey numbers would still be maintained by other predators such as coyotes and black bears but what role did these creatures play in their ecosystems? Red wolves were top predators within their ecosystems that helped to manage the population of other mammals and even with other species taking over this role the lack of red wolves in the ecosystem would still leave a gap. This gap would result in the expansion of other animal populations which would topple the balance of the ecosystem. It is not just that the red wolf is an amazing animal that is worth keeping around simply so that other generations can enjoy its presence but it is also an animal worth keeping around because without it the health of other species and forest ecosystems will be at risk.

About The Author:

Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.

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Wow, thank you for all of this information. I actually never heard of the red wolf before. He is a beautiful animal though. I was shocked when I read that red wolves are shy animals, but that is only because of media propaganda and Hollywood misrepresentation probably. I bet most animals would leave you alone if you did not go near their babies, their homes, or their bodies. Unfortunately, maybe humans do not know when they are accidentally posing a threat to an animal.

Reading this article made me wonder about grey wolves. I mean, those are the wolves you see most of the time. So when I read through this article, I started to wonder how these wolves were different from the grey wolves and was it all just color, or was there more difference in their genetic makeup. I found some interesting things.

The Gray Wolf, scientific name Canis lupus, is the largest member of the dog family and therefore known as the common wolf. The Gray Wolf once roamed most of North America, from the Northern islands of Canada, throughout nearly all of the United States, and down into Southern Mexico. In the United States and Mexico, however, the habitat of the Gray Wolf as been largely extirpated. Species of Gray Wolf still inhabit Asia and parts of Eastern Europe, although they once lived in Western Europe, China, and parts of the Middle East, as well. Despite extensive loss of their habitat range, Gray Wolf species, while on conservation status in the United States, are at the lowest risk category of Least Concern. This is because of extensive public relations on the behalf of wolves in an attempt to change the image people have of them. Often they had been killed on-sight by people who mis-understood them. But the principal reasoning for the Gray Wolf becoming listed on conservation status is because of the difficulty the species has had, on the whole, in adapting to human changes.

The Red Wolf is now known to be a sub-species of Gray Wolf. Before the era of genetic testing, the differences in morphology and habitat preferences between Gray wolves and Red wolves led to the two being listed as separate species, the Red Wolf being known scientifically as Canis rufus. Today, genetic testing has confirmed the likelihood that the Red Wolf may be a hybrid of the coyote and the Gray Wolf, with features of both. Thus the Red Wold is now scientifically classified as Canis lupus rufus in many circles, although the identity of the Red Wolf wholly as a sub-species is largely contested. Once roaming the habitat of the Southeastern United States, evidence indicates that the Red Wolf thrived in forests, prairies, and even swamps, where it could hunt as a predator. By the year 1980, however, the Red Wolf was declared extinct in the wild by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Due to successful captive breeding programs, however, as well as public relations campaigns to re-train the image of the Red Wolf as a friendly predator, the Red Wolf has been re-introduced in the wild. Populations of wild Red Wolf packs seem to be taking hold, but the species continues to be listed at the highest conservation status level, Critically Endangered. By the IUCN definition, this means that over the past three generations, the species’ numbers have decreased by eighty percent.

Gray wolves and Red wolves differ foremost in appearance. The Gray Wolf commonly has less red or orange hair in its coat, and has a thicker winter fur made up of two layers: A thinner, downy layer and a coarser, protective outer layer. During the summer months, some of the hair may shed, giving the Gray Wolf an appearance of a thin, gray and white coat. The Red Wolf, because of its traditional habitat in the Southeastern states, has less of a need for the protective over-layer and often has a thinner fur coat. The coat of the Red Wolf, as the name implies, is also interspersed with red and orange on the outer layers, while still interspersed with some white and light gray.

The body of the Red Wolf is more slender than that of the Gray Wolf as well. This is because the Gray Wolf resides in more Northern habitats, and a smaller and more compact body is better adapted to storing and preserving heat. The Red Wolf has a more gracile body due to the lack of necessity to conserve body heat. The lack of this necessity is also the reason the Red Wolf has notably larger ears, since the ears are another way that the body can lose heat. Red wolves also have longer legs and are leaner overall, and have a larger body size. Up close, the Red Wolf has more sweat glands in the paw pads than the Gray Wolf, another adaption to warmer climates.

Red wolves, limited to the habitat in which they were re-introduced to the wild, are now found only in Northeastern North Carolina over a span of five counties. Killing a Red Wolf is a felony, and punishable to the maximum of the law in this state. Other areas in the Southeastern US are listed for habitat re-introduction projects, including an unsuccessful attempt at habitat recovery for the Red Wolf in Tennessee. Thus the habitats of the Gray Wolf and the Red Wolf are now in theory completely separated, the Gray Wolf being found only in the Northern parts of the Midwestern US. Both species are considered to be habitat generalists due to the ability of both to be found in wetlands, grasslands, forests, and so forth. However, it appears that the Gray Wolf is more adapted to the cold and therefore has had an easier time migrating North as humans modify wolf habitat.

The red wolf is basically a smaller and more slender cousin of the gray wolf. It is gray black with a reddish tint in coloration. Obviously, this is where the name came from. The species has also been placed on the endangered list. This has served to bear some fruit, with increased numbers of red wolves living in the wild (as well as in captivity).

The diet of the Red Wolf consists of white-tailed deer, nutria, rabbit, raccoon, and rodent. Compared to the diet of the Gray Wolf, this is very limited. Gray wolves subsist mostly on ungulates, such as deer or bison, though they are also known to consume birds, rodents, insects, bird eggs, insectivores, and fish, and in desperate times will even eat reptiles and amphibians, as well as animals that are already dead or scraps of dead meat. Indeed, the Gray Wolf appears to be able to survive very well in times of scarcity due to its varied diet, which may aid the species to continue survival in the face of changing or dwindling habitat. Importantly, however, both Red wolves and Gray wolves are important predators in the predator-prey life cycles, as they both help keep prey populations at bay. Despite the controversy over the Red Wolf’s classification, the US Fish and Wildlife Service also consider the species worthy of pointed conservation efforts.

Their historical habitat was quite varied. They ranged from as far north in the USA as Pennsylvania down and into Texas. However, in recent years, as the species has undergone some challenges their area of range has declined considerably. Currently, the red wolf has wild populations which are essentially confined to the state of North Carolina. This includes approximately 1.7 million acres throughout the north eastern section of the state. Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge are two of the protected areas which are included in this area.


These animals are primarily nocturnal. This simply means that they sleep during the day and are active at night. They communicate by scent markings (obviously this is primarily for other wolves and to let other animals know that this is their territory), howling and other vocalizations. They also can be quite expressive with their faces and body posture.

They are some of the more secretive animals and prefer to hunt alone or in very small packs. Red wolves have their own complex social structures that include the breeding pair and their offspring. They also tend to mate and remain together for life. They also have some interesting pack structures that include a hierarchy of dominant and subordinate animals. The size of their packs tends to vary according to the size of their prey populations. They usually live in dens that are located in hollow trees, stream banks and sand knolls.

As I continued to learn more about these amazing creatures I became more and more fascinated with them. It is certainly a shame that these animals are currently struggling for their survival.