Wolves have been misunderstood through the millennia, painted as wild and deadly beasts. They are creatures of myth and folklore, often to their detriment.

The truth is that wolves are highly intelligent animals. They are extremely social and develop close bonds with family members and their pack. In fact, gray wolves in the wild often show significant displays of affection and other emotions with each other.

"The Pack" by Karen Crewe. Photo from Wildlife Photo of the Day.

“The Pack” © Karen Crewe. Photo from Wildlife Photo of the Day.

In honor of International Wolf Day, observed each year on August 13, here are eight interesting and unique characteristics about the world’s most majestic land predator:

1. True love

Once a wolf has found a mate, they tend to stay together for better or worse, through sickness and health, often until death due them part. But it is typically only the alpha male and female that breed, leaving the rest of the adult pack members to help rear the young and ensure their survival.

2. Wolves will die for each other

In addition to this trend toward monogamy, wolves develop such strong social bonds with their family and other loved ones that they have been known to sacrifice themselves for the survival of the pack/family unit. Move over, Romeo and Juliet!

Picture 001

Photo taken in Yellowstone National Park, © Ray Doan

3. It’s all in the howl

Perhaps the most well-known characteristic of the gray wolf is its penetrating, hauntingly beautiful howl. This is a primary communication tool, both between lone wolves and their packs, as well as between packs. When it comes to territory, inter-pack howling will determine the size and strength of different packs, often determining whether or not to attack or retreat.

4. Wolves are as long as really tall people—but much faster

The average length of female wolves is 4.5 to 6 feet from nose to tail. Meanwhile, males can grow up to 6.5 feet in length! This is partly why they can sprint at speeds of 36 to 38 miles per hour for short distances, though unless they are on the chase, they tend to cruise at a more leisurely pace of about 5 mph.

5. Marathon hunters

Although the above-noted speed is not super fast for a top predator (a cheetah can travel up to 75 mph in short bursts), wolves are ultra-marathon endurance hunters. They have been known to track and trace their prey for hours, well into the night. And they have the added bonus of a high IQ and excellent sense of hearing and smell, all of which they put to good use in rounding up their next meal.

> Learn more about the gray wolf

6. ‘Wolfing’ it down

Wolves can eat a huge amount—as much as 9 kg, in one sitting! Thus the saying, “wolf it down.” The alpha male is first to eat and will devour the most meat out of the pack, followed by other pack members and/or other scavengers. Although this is partly to blame for their bad reputation, it is really a survival tactic, as they never know when their next meal will be. Wolves often go days between meals.

7. Oh, grandmother, what big hands you have!

If you’ve ever seen a true wolf paw print, it’s enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end! The average wolf’s foot size is comparable to an adult human hand, at 4 inches wide by 5 inches long

wolf paw prints

Photo of wolves’ (mother and cub) paw prints taken on Nat Hab’s Yellowstone Wolf & Wildlife Safari. © Paul Brown

8. Even bigger houses

Try to imagine a property that extends up to 1,000 square miles. In Canada and Alaska, a pack’s territory may extend 300 to 1,000 square miles, with a more modest 25 to 150 square mile territory in Minnesota. Living, hunting and playing in packs as highly social animals, they often travel more than a dozen miles each day.

Once widespread throughout North America, Central America, Europe, Asia and even parts of Africa, the gray wolf now exists primarily in parts of the northern United States, Canada and Eurasia (although there are small populations in other areas like Arizona, southern Europe, Scandinavia, Egypt and Ethiopia). But wherever they’re found, the gray wolf retains its legendary and mythological status among the animal kingdom.

Search for gray wolves in the wild on a Yellowstone safari with Nat Hab and WWF.