Wolves can spark intense debate, however a leading wolf scientist says there is more to these impressive canines than you might imagine

Wolves have a mixed reputation. While the impressive carnivores command respect in certain cultures, they are also known to attack people, sometimes fatally, and they still kill livestock throughout their range.

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According to Dr David Mech, a Senior Research Scientist with the US Geological Survey, who has been at the forefront of wolf research for over half a century, there are several things we may not know, or that we incorrectly assume, about grey wolves.

Things you never knew

There is plenty of research regarding wolf behaviour, including how they socialise and survive in the wild. However, from the last 50 years' research, Dr Mech suggests that most of us still don’t know – or realise –that:

1. The size of wolf territories depends on how plentiful prey is.

Their territory can range from just twenty square miles to hundreds of square miles if prey is scarce. The haunting chorus of howls is just one way a pack warns neighboring wolves to stay away.

2. Wolves are generally not dangerous to people, except under unusual circumstances.

Now that rabies is better controlled, random attacks are rare, while in most places where wolves remain they are hunted and trapped.

3. Wolves will kill prey that presents the least danger to them.

Wolves will target animals that are weak or incapacitated in some way, such as the old, very young, malnourished, injured or diseased.

4. Wolves do not usually seriously reduce prey numbers in an area.

However, under unusual conditions, such as a series of hard winters, prolonged drought or deteriorating habitat a wolf pack can reduce or eliminate all prey in a local area.

5. The population of wolves in an area is directly related to the total weight of their prey.

This may sound obvious, but the presence of prey can supports a considerably larger wolf population.

Living with wolves

Dr Mech has lived alongside and studied the wolves on Ellesmere Island, Canada, for 25 summers, and has discovered many facts that may change the way we think about wolves.

Although many of his findings are minor facts, or provide greater detail on what we already know, some are more “novel and breakthrough” according to Dr Mech.

He considers the three most important findings from his time in the Arctic to be:

1. The new theory that wolves become breeders (formerly known as ‘alphas’) not by fighting each other to get to the top of the rank order, but by finding a mate and producing offspring, then starting their own pack.

2. Arctic wolves also travel throughout the winter during the 24-hour darkness, in the same way they do during the rest of the year, before denning and after the pups are mobile.

3. There is evidence that wolves sometimes show "foresight and other higher-order reasoning when hunting".

"I think the general public is naïve about all of the above," Dr Mech said.

Shocks and surprises

Over the years Dr Mech has been both shocked and surprised by the wolves he has studied.

He was most shocked after seeing a badly wounded wolf attacked by a pack that he was familiar with. It later died. "Seeing the wolves so friendly to each other but then seeing close-hand what they did was quiet shocking even though I had watched wolves from the air chase and attack other wolves.”

"Otherwise being up close to the pack [less than 5m (15ft)] while they were killing a musk ox calf was similarly shocking even though I had seen them from the air several times killing various prey," he said.