Arctic wolves, also known as polar wolves and white wolves, have thrived in the high arctic for thousands of years, one of the few mammals able to tolerate the sub-zero temperatures and five months of darkness.
Indeed, they have been more successful than their gray cousins to the south, who have barely escaped extinction due to their encounters with man.
Back and forth race the wolves, snapping at the legs of creatures five times their weight. Standing shoulder to shoulder, the musk oxen hold their ground, using their massive horns and hard skulls to throw off the charging wolves.
The wolves tear from one side to the other, shifting the disoriented herd, until one infiltrates the circle. The herd scatters as wolves give chase. The race does not last long, for musk oxen overheat and tire easily, unlike wolves which are able to maintain high speeds over much longer pursuits.
A weakened musk ox falls back from the herd, and the wolves focus in on it. The largest of the pack, the alpha male, leaps and grasps its victim’s neck in a desperate hold. The mighty animal collapses in a heap.
Statistically, only one in ten wolf attacks are successful, and it has been several days since the pack has obtained such a large kill. They will each eat up to 20 pounds of meat at this meal, leaving nothing of the animal behind, neither bones nor fur.
A few miles away the alpha female cares for her month-old cubs, waiting for the herd to bring back food. The pack shares in the responsibility, even regurgitating meat for the cubs to eat.
There are few differences between the arctic and gray wolf subspecies. The white wolf is slightly shorter, standing 25-31 inches high at the shoulder. But they are bulkier; an adult male can weigh up to 175 pounds.
Smaller, rounded ears and thicker fur are physical adaptations that have allowed the arctic wolf to weather its inhospitable terrain.
To survive, wolves live in small packs of 7-10. The family group consists of a breeding pair (the alpha male and female), their pups, and their unmated offspring from prior seasons.
A strong hierarchy exists within packs, and the dominant animals will force inferiors to cringe or lie on their backs to show respect. Lesser wolves hold their tails at a lesser angle than the dominant male.
Males reach maturity at 3 years old, but they may strike out on their own anytime after their first year. Lone wolves are at great peril, and they will avoid contact with other wolves unless it’s a potential mate. Then the male will find and claim an unoccupied territory, marking it with its scent.
Wolf territories are vast (as large as 800-1,000 square miles), as they must roam areas large enough to supply the amount of food needed by a pack. Their primary food source is musk oxen, caribou, and smaller mammals such as lemmings and hares, but wolves will eat anything they can catch.
They may follow migrating caribou south in the summer. Arctic wolves are found all along along the northern edge of the North American continent, and along the eastern and northern shores of Greenland.
They are sometimes confused with another distant cousin, the tundra wolf, of northern Europe.
Wolves may be the most misunderstood and maligned animal in the world, due to their elusiveness and to superstitions stretching back to prehistory. However, their pack structure, hunting methods, and general curious and friendly natures suggest that wolf and man may have more in common than was ever imagined.