Able to tolerate years of sub-zero temperatures, up to five months of darkness a year, and weeks without food, the arctic wolf lives in one of the few places on earth where it is safe from the greatest threat of all - man. Arctic wolves inhabit some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. In April, the air temperature rarely rises above -22° F. The ground is permanently frozen. The arctic wolf is one of the few mammals that can tolerate these conditions. Details of the animal's life through much of the year are virtually unknown.
Wolves usually live in small packs or family groups consisting of a breeding pair, their cubs, and their unmated offspring from the prior several seasons.The dominant, or breeding, pair are known as the alpha male and alpha female. They are respected by the rest of the pack. All adults in the pack cooperate in feeding and caring for the young.
Throughout the Fall and Winter, artic wolves remain on the move. After mating in March, the pregnant female leaves the pack to find a den to give birth to her cubs. She may dig a new one. However, if the ground is frozen, she will be forced to return to an old den in a cave or rock cleft. The cubs are born deaf, blind, and helpless. They are totally dependent on their mother, and she in turn relies on her mate to bring her the food she needs. After a month, the cubs are able to eat meat. From then on, the whole pack shares the job of feeding them with regurgitated meat from a kill. The cubs may strike out on their own the following year.
The arctic wolf preys on lemmings and arctic hare, but its most substantial source of food is musk oxen and caribou. Because of the scarcity of grazing plants, animals must roam a large area in order to find enough food to survive.
They will kill virtually any animal they can catch, and eat every part of it, including skin, fur, and bones. The wolves have up to 800 square miles in which to search for their prey. When Winter temperatures plummet, the wolves may follow migrating caribou South.
The arctic wolves must hunt together in packs when seeking large prey. The caribou or musk oxen are too powerful for any one wolf to take on alone. By the time the pack approaches a herd of oxen out in the open, the chance of a surprise attack is long gone; the herd has already formed a defensive circle with the calves in the center. The wolves must then prowl around the herd forcing the oxen to shift their ground to face them. If the wolves are successful, the oxen will scatter. The wolves will then give chase, trying to isolate the young or weak. A musk ox will provide enough food to last the wolves several days.
The shoulder height of the arctic wolf varies from 25 to 31 inches. On average, they are about 3 feet tall from head to toe. Their body length may vary from 3 to 5 feet (nose to tail). Their colors may range from red, gray, white and black. The approximate weight of a full grown male is 175 pounds. In captivity, an arctic wolf can live to be over 17 years. However, the average lifespan in the wild is but 7 years.
Wolves in general have been under threat throughout history. The arctic wolf is the only subspecies still found over the whole of its original range. This is largely because it rarely encounters humans.