Members of the Canid family, wolves are large carnivores that inhabit all parts of the Northern Hemisphere. They are elusive animals, and seeing them in the wild is often challenging. This doesn’t stop many people from wondering whether wolves hibernate or migrate in winter? What is their cold-weather behavior?
Do Wolves Hibernate?
Wolves generally live in temperate and cold climate areas. They can withstand harsh weather and do not hibernate. In fact, it is more likely to spot wolves in the wild during winter rather than in the summer. Not only are their bodies designed to withstand harsh temperatures, but wolves also adapt to a hostile habitat by changing their predation habits.
While most animals find winters daunting, wolves thrive in cold weather. These apex predators are divided into gray and red wolves, each type with different subspecies.
Gray wolves are the most widespread. Their name comes from their grayish fur, although some gray wolves are white – this is the case of arctic wolves, which are actually a gray wolf subspecies. Gray wolves are the largest and generally live in temperate or cold climate areas.
Red wolves – who also owe their name to the color of their fur – are smaller than gray wolves and inhabit warmer climate areas, including coastal prairies, forests, and swamps.
Red wolves are less common than gray wolves, mainly because of their low numbers. About 200 red wolves still live in captivity, spread among institutions involved in their survival. However, the species is near extinct in the wild, and currently, there are under 20 red wolves living in eastern North Carolina.
While the Appalachian Mountains somewhat protect North Carolina from harsh weather and low temperatures, the state still sees snow on a regular basis, and winter temperatures often drop below 30°F. Thus, red wolves employ the same adaptation and behaviors as gray wolves to survive winter.
All wolf species not only remain active throughout the winter, but winter is also their breeding season. Thus, they are more active in winter compared to the summer, and you have higher chances of spotting them moving around throughout the cold season.
Why Do Wolves Mate In Winter?
Wolves may look similar to dogs, but they are very different. One of the main differences is their mating behavior.
Humans generally provide dogs with shelter and food all year round. Thus, they can breed throughout the season and produce as many pups as possible.
Wolves don’t have this luxury. They only breed once a year, and their breeding cycle is seasonal.
Wolves usually breed from January to March. They have a gestation period of about two months, which means that pups are usually born in early spring when the snow starts to melt. This gives pups enough time to grow and learn how to hunt until winter returns.
A peculiarity compared to dogs is that not all adult wolves breed. These predators live in packs consisting of six to eight wolves, although some packs are larger.
In most small packs, the alpha pair mate for life (wolves are primarily monogamous), and they are the only one to breed in winter and produce pups. The other members of the pack are non-breeding wolves who help the alpha pair take care of the offspring. This behavior increases the pups’ chances of survival.
Larger packs may also have an alpha pair, although it is more common for them to have an alpha male.
The alpha male may breed with several females to produce more pups. The alpha males in larger packs may or may not choose life mates. If they do, they could shift from a polygamous to a monogamous relationship.
Do Wolves Migrate In Winter?
Wolves are territorial animals and do not migrate. Once a pack is established, the wolves claim a territory and defend it against lone wolves or other packs. The territory range can vary in size depending on how much prey is available, and these predators are also known to travel over large areas in search of food.
Some wolves may move from a summer to a winter territory, following the short-distance migration patterns of their preferred prey. However, this behavior is not common. Generally, wolves change their predatory behavior during winter to survive on prey available in their home territory.
When pups reach adulthood – at about one to two years of age – the other pack members drive them out of the pack.
Young wolves leaving the pack in which they were born initially become lone wolves. They do not have a territory and can travel as far as 500 miles from their original home in search of a new one. Lone wolves rarely manage to claim a territory for themselves, mostly because new wolf packs are stronger and fend off the lone wolves.
However, if a lone wolf finds a mate, the pair reproduces to create a new pack which usually claims a new, unclaimed territory. Although rare, existent packs may also sometimes accept a lone wolf.
Some young wolves may remain with their natal family for life, but only if an older wolf dies and creates a place for them in their original pack. Wolves do not in-breed; thus, a young wolf that remains in its original pack may only reproduce if they find an unrelated mate within the pack and claim the alpha role.
How Do Wolves Survive The Winter Months?
Wolves don’t hibernate and don’t migrate. So, how do they survive the harsh winter months? Through anatomical adaptation and behavioral changes.
Anatomical adaptations are the main elements that enable wolves to survive frigid temperatures. One of the main changes that take place seasonally is the growth of more fur when winter approaches.
Wolves sport thick, warm coats during the winter. Like most mammals that don’t hibernate, wolves have a double layer of fur. The undercoat is thinner and fluffier, trapping the warm air around the animal’s skin. The topcoat is coarser and relatively impermeable, preventing melted snow from soaking into the undercoat.
In addition to the fur on their bodies, wolves also have fur on their paws and between the toes. Their paw pads are exposed, but a specially-adapted vascular system warms up the blood traveling back to the heart from the paws, preventing heat loss through the core. Many other animals living in temperate and cold climate zones, such as the owls, have similar vascular systems in their legs.
Talking about the paws, wolves’ paws are also much larger compared to other canids. They act as snowshoes, improving traction and allowing them to run on snow or icy surfaces.
To minimize heat loss through their extremities, wolves have small ears compared to dogs. Subspecies living in cold climates, such as arctic wolves, even have smaller and rounder ears than gray wolves living in temperate climates.
In the warm season, wolves generally go after large prey and hunt as a pack. Their preferred prey is deer or elk, although lone wolves may go after smaller mammals.
When winter approaches, wolves start to eat more to increase their layer of fat. Fat is important for keeping them warm in cold weather but also to provide sustenance in periods when food is scarce.
As the temperatures become colder and colder and their preferred prey migrates, wolves also begin to exhibit different predation patterns compared to their summer hunting preferences. For instance, a wolf’s diet consists of up to 96% of elk in the cold season.
Comparatively, the utilization of elk declines to about 85% in warmer temperatures when the availability of deer increases.
In fact, this seasonal variation is driven by the availability and vulnerability of prey during different months. However, switching to different ungulates is not the only behavior that helps wolves survive. Another change is the pack predatory behavior that might shift to lone hunting in periods of very scarce availability of prey.
When the weather is very cold and large prey is hard to find, pack members may engage in solitary hunting sessions.
Wolves hunting alone generally go after small mammals, such as rabbits, squirrels, rodents, and even foxes. However, the pack still maintains its unity and engages in pack hunts too. Pack hunting still involves going after large prey like elks or moose, which provide more sustenance compared to smaller mammals.
Lone wolves have fewer chances of survival during winter compared to wolves living in packs, mainly because they are often unable to successfully hunt large ungulates. Thus, they might not be able to build up sufficient fat to stay warm or find sufficient food during the harsh months.
Wolves are apex predators that don’t hibernate or migrate in winter. They generally live in the same territory throughout the year and make use of their anatomical and behavioral adaptation to survive the harsh weather. While some packs may migrate over short distances during the cold season, the only wolves that are truly on the move are the lone ones in search of a mate and a territory to claim.