Winter can be extremely harsh for animals that live out in the wild. From the consistent snowfalls to the difficulty experienced with movement, difficulty in finding prey or food to eat, and the list goes on. Some animals deal with the extreme winter cold by migrating or hibernating, and most cannot withstand the cold.
The grey wolf, on the other hand, is a fascinating creature designed by nature to withstand extremely cold conditions ranging from temperatures as low as zero degrees Fahrenheit and further down. There are some amazing characteristics that helps wolves stay warm in cold weather, which most animals do not possess.
The body features of this iconic creature have been the object of study among scientists for ages. Here’s a little breakdown of how well the grey wolf has been able to survive extreme weather conditions and live in places considered inhabitable for most other animals
How Wolves Stay Warm In Extreme Conditions
Special Body Features
Wolves are specially designed with adaptive features to withstand extremely cold conditions, surviving temperatures as low as zero degrees. Unlike bears that fatten up and hibernate during the winter season, wolves develop their own special adaptation features.
First off, as temperature levels drop, wolves grow dense warm coats to help combat the colds of the coming months. These warm coats are of two layers: the guard hairs or outercoats which are usually long and thick and forms the visible outer layer of the wolf’s skin.
The guard hair helps determine the color and appearance of the wolf while also acting as a raincoat to protect the wolf from cold, wind, and snow. The guard hair is coarse, so that snow does not melt on the wolf’s fur.
The other layer of fur is the soft, dense undercoats that grow during the fall. It helps the wolf retain body heat by trapping air and insulating him from cold temperatures. Wolves practically have no body heat loss, thanks to their special furs. During spring, the woolly inner layers are shed to help the wolf stay cool during the summer.
Additional adaptive features that help to reduce body heat loss include shorter ears, nose, and in some grey wolf subspecies, shorter legs, and hairs between the pads of the snowshoe-like feet.
The wolf retains body heat by curling itself up like a ball in order to stay warm. It uses its fluffy tail to cover its nose which holds exhaled warm air over its feet and nose. What this action does is to warm inhaled air by filtering it through the tail, which already holds exhaled air, before it is breathed back in as warm air.
In other moves, the wolf may decide to sleep close to other wolves in the park in a unified effort to stay warm. This generally helps build collective warmth for the pack. It is worth noting that puppies (baby wolves) that are not fully developed do not possess most of these body features and therefore cannot survive out in the cold on their own. They rely wholly on the warmth provided by their mothers.
Feeding And Hunting Habits In Winter
Wolves feed mainly on ungulates- animals with hooves and are relatively large. Examples are the deer, moose, caribou, elk, etc. The hooves of these herbivores make it pretty difficult to escape from their predators during a hunt. Their hooves have sharp edges and the thin legs make it difficult to run on the snow.
The wolf, on the other hand, has big feet that act like snowshoes, helping them walk and run on the snow. The large paws on their feet have fleshy pads and claws which aid traction and can spread out during a hunt or walk to provide better support.
Wolves would generally prey on young, sick, or older animals past their prime. This makes hunting easier and these animals can no longer outrun them. However, the opportunistic wolf may decide to hunt a strong healthy animal.
The grey wolf hunts all year round, like most carnivores. But, hunting can get very difficult during winter and a pack of wolves may be faced with long periods of inactivity. The grey wolf feeds heavily during the fall just before winter, to amass body strength and extra stores of fat to help prepare for the blistering cold of the winter months.
Wolves hunt in a single file line, led by the alpha male in search of games. They would usually follow the old trail of prey animals, trying best to conserve most of their energy during hunts and staying out of sight of their prey.
Wolves can hunt either individually or as a pack, and would almost eat completely what it catches. They catch larger prey when they hunt in packs, but an individual wolf can hunt smaller animals like beavers and hares. Their stomach is very large and can consume up to 25 pounds of food at a single feeding time.
This ability helps them store enough fats in their body to sustain during long periods of inactivity when prey animals are scarce. A wolf can survive up to two weeks or even longer without food. Wolves hunt and kill strictly for survival and not sports.
Pups are fed mainly by the adults who regurgitate fresh meat from their stomach or drag back fresh meat pieces to the den. Pups are nurtured till they are a year old and can hunt on their own, starting with small animals like squirrels, hares, rabbits, etc.
The size of wolf territory depends on the availability of prey. In areas where prey is relatively scarce, the territory may vary between 25 – 30 square miles. However, if preys are abundant, territories can vary from between 80 – 90 square miles.
Wolves are very adaptive. They can survive extreme temperatures thanks to their special body features. Arctic wolves, who live in colder regions can survive temperatures ranging from minus 70° Fahrenheit more than their southern counterparts. Their feeding habits help to conserve energy during the summer where prey is relatively abundant as they consume enough food that can last them into weeks without food.