Comprehensive Description

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Arctic Wolf Comprehensive Description

In the early twentieth century the Arctic wolf was recognized as a subspecies, distinct from the grey wolf, based on the Arctic wolf’s distinctive outer appearance. In the twenty-first century, however, the Arctic wolf’s status as a subspecies has come under scrutiny with genetic testing. A study was conducted by Chambers that tested the Arctic wolf’s autosomal microsatellite DNA and mtDNA. The results of the study concluded that the Arctic wolf was genetically very similar to the grey wolf (no difference in the Arctic wolf’s haplotype, or genes inherited from a progenitor). Chambers deduced that based on this evidence, the Arctic wolf must have more recently colonized its current range. Given this new information, the Arctic wolf could not be considered a subspecies (Chambers 2012). Later on, a peer review known as NCAES found errors in the research, like merging of separate subspecies and incorrect assumptions about distribution, which consequently cast doubt on the validity of the study’s conclusion. The Arctic wolf is not recognized as a legitimate subspecies by ESA (the Endangered Species Act) and has been classified as not threatened according to their specific guidelines (NCEAS 2014).

Arctic wolves are concentrated along the northern and eastern coastline of Greenland, as well as the northernmost parts of North America. Most of their native habitat is covered in snow year round, though there are regions that become snow free between June and August. The lack of snow allows plantlife to thrive in certain areas, which in turn sustains certain wildlife such as musk-oxen, Peary caribou, and Arctic hares. These various species comprise the majority of the Arctic wolf’s diet, and their continued existence is crucial to the Arctic wolf’s survival (Mech 2007). The Arctic wolf’s main predators are humans, polar bears, and other wolves. The wolf subspecies is most threatened by climate change and poaching (Bioexpedition 2013). The harsh and remote habitat causes the Arctic wolf to have fewer pups, and therefore to have smaller pack sizes as compared to other wolves (Petersen 2012). The closest human settlement to the Arctic wolves’ range is governed by the Inuit village (formerly Eskimo), Grise Fiord. Any current human settlements are for the most part fairly recent, which means that human interaction with the Arctic wolf is also a more recent phenomenon (Mech 2007). The wolf packs tend to frequent the same dens or nearby dens each summer even though they are nomadic. Arctic wolf packs on average consist of about seven to eight related members (Bioexpedition 2013). Pack behavior is determined by pack hierarchy, including mating patterns and feeding (which wolves eat in what order) (Dewey 2009).

The Arctic wolf is also commonly referred to as the white wolf, polar wolf, and snow wolf. The subspecies is characterized by its white coat, as well as its comparatively smaller size. It has short legs and a smaller snout (Bioexpedition 2013), and it’s ears are smaller and more rounded than the grey wolf’s ears. Male Arctic wolves are generally larger than female Arctic wolves, though both are heavy bodied (Dewey 2009). Fully grown wolves have 42 teeth and eat their prey in its entirety--including the bones (Bioexpedition 2013). Arctic wolves also have two layers of fur, both of which serve as an evolutionary adaptation to keep the Arctic wolf warm and dry in its severe environment. The inner layer thickens right before the coldest winter months, and the external layer is waterproof. The Arctic wolves’ jaws are also specially adapted to tear through the flesh of their prey, and an Arctic wolf can eat up to twenty pounds of meat in one sitting (White Wolf Sanctuary 2011). Arctic wolves breed once a year between January and March. In a pack only the alpha male and beta female breed. In the case that the alpha male or beta female die, they are oftentimes replaced by other members of the pack, which then become the “new” alpha and beta leaders (Dewey 2009). After mating occurs, the gestation period lasts for 53 to 61 days (the pups are born within a few months), and do not open their eyes until the 10th day. They are born a brownish color and later develop a whiter coat of fur (Bioexpedition 2013). One mating episode can generate anywhere between five and fourteen wolves, with an average of seven per mating episode (Dewey 2009). After three months the offspring officially join the pack (White Wolf Sanctuary 2011). After six months pups are capable of traveling with the pack (Bioexpedition 2013). Pups reach sexual maturity after two to three years, and the average lifespan is five to six years, though the Arctic wolf can live up to thirteen in the wild and fifteen in captivity (Dewey 2009).

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