Creature Feature – Mexican Gray Wolf

National Wolf Awareness Week is October 12-18. It takes place the 3rd week of October every year.

Canis lupus baileyi

The Mexican gray wolf’s historic range is believed to have included central and south eastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, south western Texas, and in the Sierra Madre and the adjoining highlands of Mexico. In July of 2004, there were around 280 Mexican wolves living in captivity in the US and Mexico, and about 50-60 wolves living free in Arizona and New Mexico.

Mexican wolves are the rarest, smallest, and most genetically distinct subspecies of gray wolves known to live in North America. An adult wolf averages 4 ½ to 5 ½ feet from nose to tail, stand 2 to 2 ½ feet at the shoulder, and weigh 50-85 pounds. Their coat is richly colored with black, dark gray, brown cinnamon, and buff over lighter under parts.

Wolves evolved as a predator of large hoofed mammals, with an organized social structure enabling them to work cooperatively to bring down prey much larger than themselves. The usually kill what is easiest to catch, such as the weak, sick, injured, old, and very young. Wolves often go several days without successfully making a kill, but can gorge themselves and consume more than 20 pounds when the hunt is successful.

In 1976 the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered. The cause of decline was primarily human persecution, but habitat destruction also played a role. One of the initial problems for the recovery plan was the start of a captive breeding program from a small wild population. Between 1977 and 1980, 5 Mexican wolves were captured in Mexico. These original wolves, and two additional lineages of captive wolves added in 1995, make up the captive breeding population. In March of 1998, Mexican wolves bred in captivity were released into the wilds of the Blue Mountain Range in Arizona. International wolf experts rate the recovery of the Mexican wolf as the highest priority of gray wolf recovery programs worldwide.

Many Native Americans admired the wolf. They admired its hunting skills and cunning. The Plains Indians would wear wolf skins over their heads when they were hunting bison. Disguised as a wolf, a man could creep closer and closer to the bison. The wolf was considered a free spirit and many Native Americans took the name “Wolf.”

In Europe, wolves were feared and hunted to extinction in many areas. A wolf was considered evil and worthless. “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Peter and the Wolf” are just a few of the European stories where a “big bad wolf” is a main character. When Europeans came to North America, they brought these stories and fear with them. When the settlers turned the prairies into grazing for livestock, the wolf was once again seen as evil, not the free spirit of the prairie.

Interesting Facts

  • The wolf pack is one of nature’s most sophisticated social orders, having a complex hierarchy maintained through vocalizations, body postures, and scent marking.
  • A pack marks the boundaries of its territory with urine. Odor produced by a gland at the base of the tail help the pack members recognize each other.
  • Wolves make a variety of sounds. A whimper means the wolf is excited or restless, a snarling wolf is threatened, a woof is a warning, and they will bark when danger is near.
  • A wolf will howl to tell other wolves to keep out, and will also howl to communicate with members of its pack.
  • Wolves can travel at approx. 5 miles per hour for long periods of time while hunting or traveling within their territory.
  • A wolf pack may spend 8-10 hours a day on the move and may cover 40 miles a day during winter hunts. Wolves can reach a top speed of about 40 miles per hour for short periods of time.

Meet The Zoo’s Wolves

Frisco (“Free”)
Born at the Minnesota Zoo on May 19, 2003 in a litter of 7 pups. He is fairly non-descript in his physical markings and has classic Mexican wolf coloration and features. Frisco was the most dominant male in the pack until February 2007, when Tano, a lower ranking male challenged him and came out as the most dominant male. Frisco remains a lower ranking male wolf in the pack.

Ulie was named for Dr. Ulie Seal, a conservationist who started the Minnesota Zoo and the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group. He was born at the Minnesota Zoo on May 19, 2003 in a litter of 7 pups. He is a very dark faced wolf (almost black) with a “classic” wolf look in the face/body. Ulie is a middle ranked wolf in the pack, and stays out of any of the more serious dominance interactions that occur in the group. He often spends time near Frisco when in the exhibit or den, and is one of the wolves to gain possession of enrichment items before any of his brothers.

Tano (“Glory” or “Sun”)
Born at the Minnesota Zoo on May 19, 2003 in a litter of 7 pups. He has a very “gold” overall body color with a very broad shaped head. He recently challenged Frisco in a dominance interaction in February 2007, and appears to be the most dominant male in the pack. He still bears scars on the left side of his face from this challenge. He is the most fearful of staff and often will run away as soon as we approach the outside gate of the exhibit.

Raja (“King” or “Hope”)
Born at the Minnesota Zoo on May 13, 2004 in a litter of 8 pups. He has darker features than Frisco but not as dark as Ulie. He can often be confused with either wolf, except when you look at his ears, where they seem to be “larger than life”. He often completely removes himself from any conflict in the pack and is currently the lowest pack member. He is a full sibling to the other three males, just born a year later to the same parents.

Information courtesy of and

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