Two subordinate wolves show submission as they greet the pack leader. Photo: “First Light” (c) Peter McLeod

One thing I quickly learned when embarking on my studies of the wolf was that there was a good deal of confusion regarding the ancestry, number of subspecies and common names of my favorite animal.

Paleontological evidence strongly suggests that the wolf’s ancestor was a relatively small carnivorous mammal that evolved during the upper Miocene epoch, some fifteen million years ago. It is believed that by means of a long series of mutations, this primitive creature, named Tomarctus, eventually gave rise to wolves, foxes and a number of their near relatives, including the domestic dog. In fact, the family Canidae, to which wolves belong, contains sixteen genera (or kinds) of carnivores (meat-eaters). These in turn have been separated into thirty-six species, which are widely distributed across most of the terrestrial regions of the world.

The living members of the Canidae, or dog family, have been further divided into three subfamilies based mainly on their dentition: the umber of teeth, their shape, and their size. The first Canidae subfamily, and the largest, is the Caninae. It contains the wolves, the dogs, the coyotes, the jackals, the foxes, the raccoon dog, the maned wolf, the bush dog, the small-eared dog, and the dhole.

The two species of wolf ~ the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the red wolf (Canis rufus) ~ contain the largest members of the Caninae. They, in turn, have been divided into a number of subspecies by biologist, some of whom have been prepared to name a subspecies after finding one bone that is different fro the same bone found in other wolves. In this way, a number of subspecies claims were made which have since been refuted. At one time, for example, it was believed that twenty-five subspecies existed in North America. Four subspecies of the gray wolf were listed for the arctic islands, none were said to live on the tundra and in Newfoundland (they have been extinct on that island since 1911), seven were said to live in the western mountains and along the Pacific coast, and two were noted for the eastern and central regions of North America. three subspecies of the red wolf were said to inhabit the Mississippi valley, Texas, and Florida.

In more recent years, the scientific literature notes that nineteen subspecies exist, or existed, in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and eight in the Old World. One of these subspecies, which inhabited the central regions of the United States and Canada, was Canis lupus nubilus, the so-called “buffalo wolf,” which preyed on bison. It became extinct before the turn of the 20th century, but there are some unsubstantiated claims maintaining that small numbers of these wolves have survived. Another subspecies, Canis lupus lycaon, the timber wolf, although mercilessly extirpated in most of the continental United States and southern Canada, continues to sruvive in the forested areas of the eastern and northeastern regions of its ancestral range.

Subspecies confusion would appear to hinge upon the fact that biologists, somewhat like paleontologists, are divided unevenly into two groups ~ the “lumpers” and the “splitters.” Splitters recognize a sometimes large number of subspecies while lumpers seek to simplify the family tree of a genus by recognizing fewer subspecies. In any event, when it comes ot scientific names of the subspecies, whether a wolf is named Canis lupus tundrarum (the tundra wolf of Alaska and northern Canada) or Canis lupus columbianus (the British Clumbia wolf) or Canus lupus lupus (the Eurasian wolf), to paraphrase Shakespeare, a wolf by any other name is still a wolf.

Trail Of The Wolf (c) 1993 By R.D. Lawrence ISBN 0-87596-594-6

%d bloggers like this: