Humans and dogs go so well together, don’t they? That is, unless you’re a cat person… we’ll save THAT discussion for another day. Domestic dogs have been part of our extended families for a very long time. We will happily buy them birthday presents, give them unconditional love and really do anything for them (yes, even pick up their poo). But what about their wild counterparts? What makes the grey wolf (Canis lupus) so darn cool that ancient humans welcomed it around their campfires? Here are some fantastic facts about the largest species in the canine family!
Wolves are a keystone species. That means they play a crucial role in how an ecosystem works. By hunting animals like elk and deer they can help reduce over-grazing which, in turn, encourages plant regrowth and brings smaller animals and insects back to the land. This keeps the whole of the cycle in check working like a well-oiled machine.
The wolf is an apex predator. Their expert hunting skills benefit many other creatures in the ecosystem they inhabit. After wolves have fed, they leave behind carrion (the decaying flesh of dead animals). This is then devoured by scavenger species, like eagles and crows – and even sometimes bears!
Wolf howls are synonymous in film and literature with supernatural and spooky goings on. If you heard a pack of wolves howling under the moon IRL, you’d probably want to get as far away as possible. In reality, this sound is just a close-knit pack of wolves communicating with one another – telling each other where they are, or rallying their squad together to hunt. And do you want to know something super-cool about their howls? They can be heard up to 10 km away! Who needs WhatsApp!
Only a couple of hundred years ago, the grey wolf had the greatest natural range of any land mammal apart from humans. That was before humans hunted them to near extinction. The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) now takes the title of Most Widespread Wild Dog. But, as you’ll find out in our next fact, things may be slowly looking up for the wolf…
When wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, it resulted in a trophic cascade. ‘What is a trophic cascade?’, we hear you scream. This may sound a bit dangerous, but it is actually A. Very. Good. Thing. It’s when a keystone species/predator limits the density and/or behaviour of their prey and, in doing so, enhances the survival of the next lower trophic level. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone rebalanced the elk and deer populations, and made the herds more resilient. This, in turn, helped increase beaver numbers and brought back the willow and aspen trees to the landscape, not to mention songbirds and eagles. How lovely is that?!
Just in the same way that scavenger species benefit from a wolf hunt, the human and wolf relationship probably evolved for the same reason. Wolves saw the benefit of staying close to groups of human hunter-gathers, eating the scraps they left behind. These groups of humans would have tolerated the more placid wolves and probably killed any aggressive ones. Over thousands of years, those friendly wolves evolved into the dogs we know and love today!
Words: Benita Estevez