Arctic wolves live in some of the most remote and harsh environments on earth. Social, intelligent and highly adaptable, wolves have long been considered symbols of untamed wilderness.

For over 30 years, scientists have been studying Arctic wolves in Canada’s far north. Their work has helped us gain new insight and understanding into wolf behaviours and adaptations. Here are some things that researchers have discovered about these iconic animals:

Wolf packs are not built on aggression.

In every pack there’s a male and female wolf that rank higher than the others. This couple is often referred to as the “alpha” pair. Previously, it was thought that the alpha pair ascended the pack hierarchy through dominance and aggression – but we now know this is not the case. The alpha pair is simply the breeding couple, and the pack is their family. Their position as leaders of the pack is maintained by virtue of them being “Mom and Dad”.

Wolf packs are families.

wolf family on tundra

The 'Eureka' family, photographed on Ellesmere Island for The Nature of Things Credit: Ivo Nörenberg

Whether it’s hunting large animals like moose or muskox, or raising pups in the short arctic summer, wolves depend on co-operation to succeed. At its core, a wolf pack is a family, and pack members are usually directly related to each other. Larger packs can consist of many generations, with offspring from previous years helping to raise their parents’ youngest pups. Older, more experienced pack members are particularly important to a pack’s success. Most offspring, though, will only stay with their family for two or three years before they leave and try to start a family of their own.

Good den sites can be hard to find.

In the far north, rocky terrain and permafrost limit where wolves can dig dens. As a result, wolves will reuse old dens from previous years. By radiocarbon dating muskox bones found at a den on Ellesmere Island, scientists discovered that wolves had been using that site for over 700 years!

Wolves hunt in total darkness for months on end.

Musk Ox in winter

Only few animals like muskoxen are able to survive the frigid temperatures of the Arctic winter. Weaker members of the herd are prey for wolves.

Wolves in Canada’s far north have to endure severe winter conditions, where temperatures can dip down to -50 C. They also have to survive in total darkness for 24 hours a day during the winter months. On Ellesmere Island, the sun sets at the end of October and doesn’t rise again until the end of February. During those four months of darkness, the wolves hunt by moonlight and starlight, and rely on their other senses to find prey. Under the right conditions, wolves can smell their prey over two kilometres away.

 Wolves live a life on the move.

An old proverb says that “a wolf is fed by its feet”. Wolves constantly roam in search of food, and they maintain vast territories that can stretch well over 2,000 square kilometres. It’s not unusual for a wolf to travel 50 km or more in a day. On Ellesmere Island, a wolf fitted with a GPS collar was recorded travelling almost 6,000 kilometres in an nearly nine month period — that's farther than driving from Halifax to Vancouver.

For more watch White Wolves: Ghosts of the Arctic on The Nature of Things.

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