Red wolf (Canis rufus)

GenusCanis (1)
SizeHead-body length: 95 - 120 cm (3)
Tail length: 25 - 35 cm (3)
Weight20 - 35 kg (4)
Top facts

The red wolf is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) by the IUCN Red List (1).

The red wolf (Canis rufus) is one of the world's rarest canids (2). The coat is a cinnamon or tawny red with grey and black touches (2), the back tends to be dark and the tail has a black tip (5). Red wolves are smaller than their relative, the grey wolf (Canis lupus), and have longer legs and shorter fur (5). Males are typically larger than females (6).

Red wolves formerly ranged throughout the southeastern USA, from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, north to the Ohio River Valley and central Pennsylvania, and west to central Texas and southeastern Missouri. Zoologist Ronald Nowak believes red wolves historically occurred as far north as Maine in the northeastern USA (7). Following a massive decline during the 20th Century, the species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980 after the last 17 wild red wolves were taken into captivity to begin a captive breeding program. A highly successful recovery programme has since reintroduced the red wolf to a remote, five-county area of northeastern North Carolina, in and around the Alligator River, Mattamuskeet, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges. As of 2003, the free-ranging red wolf population numbered around 100 individuals in 20 family groups (4).

The red wolf inhabits swamps, forests, wetlands and bushlands (3).

The red wolf is generally a crepuscular species, most active at dawn and dusk (4). It lives in discrete packs, which have an exclusive territory within their home range. A pack typically contains a breeding pair (who mate for life) and their offspring, although larger packs have been recorded (5). The breeding season occurs between January and March (5), and dens are located amongst dense vegetation, in deep burrows between fields or in canal banks, or in the hollows of large trees (8). Litters contain an average of three to six pups, but may range up to eight pups. The breeding pair both rear the young with help from the other young members of the pack. Offspring typically disperse from their natal pack between 15 to 20 months old (4).

This wolf preys on mammals such as swamp rabbits, coypu, deer and racoons (3), and is also reported to feed on carrion (5).

The population of red wolves suffered as a result of persecution and habitat loss as mature woodlands were cleared to make way for agriculture (9). Red wolves were extensively trapped and shot, as they were believed to pose a direct threat to livestock and game (5). Hybridisation posed a further threat to the survival of the species, as the population became increasingly fragmented; isolated individuals would crossbreed with the closely related coyote (Canis latrans) (10). The taxonomic status of the red wolf has been widely debated. Recent genetic and morphological research suggests that the red wolf is a unique species, rather than the hybrid offspring from gray wolf (Canis lupus) and coyote (Canis latrans) interbreeding (5) (11).

Despite the ongoing debate as to the species status of the red wolf, the recovery programme initiated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is one of the most successful large mammal conservation efforts (9). Steps to save this much-maligned species began in 1967 and culminated in the re-introduction of captive-bred individuals into the wild. Four pairs of red wolves were released in North Carolina starting in 1987 (10). A second attempt in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee was conducted between 1992 and 1998, but was cancelled due to the inability of wolves to establish home ranges within the park, and extremely low pup survival, caused by diseases from domestic dogs (4). The North Carolina population is currently doing well, an amazing feat considering the species was at one time extinct in the wild. The species is fully protected within the current range (12), but educational programmes around the release areas are essential in ensuring public support and success of the re-introduction. Public opinion surveys continue to show that local, regional and national support for the program is favourable (4).

For more information on the red wolf: 

Authenticated (10/7/03) by Bud Fazio. Team Leader, Red Wolf Recovery Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

  1. IUCN Red List (May, 2011)
  2. UNEP-WCMC Species Sheets (March, 2008)
  3. Fazio, B. (2003) Pers. comm.
  4. Macdonald, D. (2001) The New Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  5. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Walker's Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
  6. Schmidly, D.J. and Davis, W.B. (2004) The Mammals of Texas. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
  7. Nowak, R. (2002) The Original Status of Wolves in Eastern North America. Southeastern Naturalist, 1(2): 95 - 130.
  8. Sillero-Zubiri, C., Hoffman, M. and Macdonald, D.W. (2004) Canids: Foxes, Wolves, Jackals and Dogs, Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan, 2nd Edition. IUCN/SSC Canid Specialists Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  9. Wayne, B. (1995) Red Wolves: to conserve or not to conserve. Canid News, 3.
  10. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (March, 2008)
  11. Wilson, P.J., Grewal, S., Lawford, I.D., Heal, J.N.M., Granacki, A.G., Pennock, D., Theberge, J.B., Theberge, M.T., Voigt, D.R., Waddell, W., Chambers, R.E., Paquet, P.C., Goulet, G., Cluff, D. and White, B.N. (2000) DNA profiles of the eastern Canadian wolf and the red wolf provide evidence for a common evolutionary history independent of the gray wolf. The Canadian Journal of Zoology, 78(12): 2156 - 2166.
  12. Defenders of Wildlife (March, 2008)