Arctic Wolf (Canis lupus arctos)
The arctic wolf, also known as the white wolf or polar wolf, is a sub-species of the grey wolf found in northern Canada. They are usually pure white in colour (but can also sometimes be grey), and slightly smaller than grey wolves, with smaller ears and shorter snouts to help retain heat. They range between 90 and 180cm in length (including the tail) and weigh between 45 and 70kg. Males are generally larger than females.
Arctic wolves have two layers of fur: a long, thick outer layer, and a dense inner layer that acts as a barrier against the cold and the wet. This helps them to retain heat during the winter.
Arctic wolves live in packs of 5 to 12 individuals, with one dominant pair. The alpha male is the largest in the pack and continues growing after the other wolves has stopped.
Habitat and Distribution
Arctic wolves are native to the Queen Elizabeth Islands in northern Canada and parts of northern Greenland, located within the Arctic circle.
Due to permafrost (permanently frozen ground) they typically live in rocky outcrops or caves instead of digging dens like other wolf species.
Packs can roam over territories of up to 1000 square miles, and as such territories can often overlap. They mark their territory with urine and other scent markers and can be heard howling to alert other wolves to their presence.
Arctic wolves are carnivorous. In the wild, they primarily feed on muskox, caribou and Arctic hares, but also lemmings, reindeer, Arctic fox and birds. Due to the harsh environment they inhabit, they usually have to eat whatever they can find, and so diet varies over each season.
Muskox are too large for any one wolf to kill, and so the wolves hunt in packs. A single muskox could feed an entire pack for up to a week.
Arctic wolves will usually chase their prey over long distances, and there is evidence to suggest they track the muskox migration.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
In wolf packs only the alpha male and female are allowed to breed. Females give birth to 2 to 3 pups in late May/early June after a gestation period of 53 to 61 days. The pups are kept safe in the rocky outcrops or caves available (since they can’t dig dens in the permafrost), as they are blind and helpless at birth.
At birth, wolf pups tend to have darker fur and blue eyes. This will change to the white/grey fur and yellow/orange eyes of an adult at between 8 and 16 weeks old. Pups will leave the den at around 3 to 6 weeks old, and then join the pack at around 3 months old. They will stay with their mother for a further 2 years.
Arctic wolves can live to be over 18 years old in captivity. In the wild the average lifespan is between 7 and 10 years.
Conservation Status, Threats and Actions
IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
Population Trend: Stable
Arctic wolves are the only subspecies of wolf still found over its entire native range. This is because they so rarely come into contact with humans, and so are not under threat from hunting or persecution.
Like most animals, Arctic wolves could come under threat from climate change in the near future. Changing weather patterns could reduce prey availability and habitat suitability.
- Arctic wolves live in some of the coldest places on earth, frequently enduring temperatures well below -30oC (down to -53oC). During the winter they can go for months in complete darkness.
- They have fur on their paws to insulate them from the snow and ice, and for better grip on slippery surfaces.
Our Arctic wolves, Aria and Luna, are two sisters who were born in Hungary in 2011. They arrived at the zoo in 2014.
Their names come from the Latin words for “air” and “moon”!