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Gray Wolf (Canis lupus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names (ITIS 2014; Mech and Boitani 2003; Nowak 1999)

  • Gray or grey wolf
  • Tundra wolf
  • Arctic wolf
  • Mexican wolf
  • Plains wolf
  • Timber wolf
  • Common wolf
  • Loup (French)
  • Lobo gris (Spanish)
  • Many more throughout the world (the International Wolf Center has a map detailing wolf populations around the world -- select a region to view common names in that area)

Scientific name

  • Etymology
    • Canis Latin meaning "dog" (Brown 1956)
    • lupus Latin meaning "wolf" (Brown 1956)

Evolutionary History

Canid diversity and evolution

  • Family Canidae contains 16 extant/living genera and 36 species (Nowak 1999)
    • Emerged in North America during the Miocene, c. 10 million years ago (mya) (Lindblad-Toh et al. 2005)
    • Multiple migrations dispersed canids to Asia, Europe and Africa

Genus Canis first appeared in the late Miocene, c.4.5-9 mya (Nowak 2003)

  • North America fossils date to 4-11 mya (Tedford et al. 2009)
    • Two coyote-sized fossil species represent the origins of the genus: C. ferox and C. lepophagus
  • Grey wolf, C. lupus, emerged in North America during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene, c.1.8-3.6 mya; based on morphological and genetic studies (Nowak 2003)
    • Recent common ancestor with coyotes

Subspecies numerous (Nowak 2003)

  • Historically, over 40 named
  • Recently, 15 recognized; based on skull morphology (Nowak 1995) - see "Subspecific distribution"
    • North American: 5
    • Eurasia: 10

Cultural History

North American native culture (from Lopez 1978 unless otherwise noted)

  • Associated with strength, hunting prowess, speed, stamina, and mystery (Hall and Sharp 1978; Lopez 1978)
    • Pelts worn by some native American tribes; adorned scouts exploring enemy territory and hunters surveying buffalo herds
    • In Cheyenne culture, wolves are viewed as messengers of the real and spirit world

Medieval European culture (from Lopez 1978)

  • Feared and vilified, name associated with hazardous situations or objects
    • Famine and other menacing threats were known as "the wolf"
    • Poisonous and prickly plants associated with wolves
      • Eg. wolf's milk, wolf's fist, wolf's claw, wolf's thistle, wolf's bane

Art, literature, cinema, and performance art (from Lopez 1978 unless otherwise noted)

  • Mythology and Folklore
    • Sub-specific names of some reflect ancient mythologies
      • C. l. orion (formerly recognized subspecies in Greenland), named after Orion, the giant hunter, of Greek mythology
      • C. l. lycaon (eastern/timber wolf), named after Lycaon, the Greek mythological king of Arcadia
    • Creation stories, Native American
      • Skidi band of the Pawnee tribe credit a wolf for releasing them into the world (Dorsey 1904)
        • A wolf steals a bag from Storm, releasing people into the world who then kill the wolf; this action brings death into the world; the people are thereafter given the name Skidi Pawnee, meaning the wolf people
    • Adopting humans: Roman tradition describes brothers Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, adopted by the she-wolf Lupa; escaping the death ordered by their uncle
      • Italian wolf is the national animal of the Italian Republic
  • Literature:
    • Early stories depict wolves as dangerous
      • Werewolf
        • Appeared as early as c. AD 77-79, recorded in Historia Naturalis written by Pliny
        • Numerous stories followed
      • Dante's Inferno depicts a she-wolf, one of three menacing animals pursuing Dante
        • Symbolizing greed, fraud, lechery, and hypocrisy
      • Aesop's fables feature wolves as untrustworthy; vindictive, dangerous, malicious; cunning (in at least 26 fables)
      • Little Red Riding Hood, a Grimm Brother's tail
      • Three Little Pigs, early printed versions dating to the 1840's (Halliwell-Phillips 1843)
    • Late 19th century - present
      • The Jungle Books (1893-1895) by R Kipling; fiction featuring a boy, Mowgli, adopted by wolves
      • Call of the Wild (1903) and White Fang (1906) by J London; fiction exploring the nature of the animal world through the lives of anthropomorphized dogs and wolves
      • The Return of Wolves to Yellowstone (1997) by T McNamee; non-fiction examining the scientific and political struggle surrounding the return of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995
    • Children's books
      • Brother Wolf: A Seneca Tale by HP Taylor (1996); picture book story of Wolf, his forest friends, and Raccoon, whose teasing goes too far when he plays a trick on Wolf
      • The Eyes of Gray Wolf by J London and J Van Zyle (1993); picture book story of a wolf who loses his mate and his journey to find a family
      • Runt by MD Baur (2002), Young Readers Choice Award Nominee 2005; young readers fiction story of how the runt of a wolf pack discovers his own worth
      • Lone Wolfby K Lasky (2010), Young Readers Choice Award 2013; young readers fiction story chronicling the strength and survival of a young pup with a twisted paw left alone in the wilderness, abandoned by his pack
        • First book in the series Wolves of the Beyond
      • Julie of the Wolvesby JC George (1972), Newbery Award Winner 1973; young adult fiction story of a young Eskimo who runs away from an arranged marriage, surviving on the tundra with the help of a nurturing wolf pack
        • Two sequels: Julie (1994) and Julie's Wolf Pack (1997)
      • Wolf Brother by M Paver (2005), Parents Choice Winner 2005; first book in a young adult fiction series; set in an ancient, dark forest, the tale begins the quest of Torak and Wolf
  • Performance art
    • Peter and the Wolf, musical composition written by Sergei Prokofiev (1936)
  • Cinematic and performance art
    • Cinematic depictions, often of werewolves
      • The Wolf Man, 1941 horror classic remade in 2010
      • American Werewolf in London, 1981
      • Teen Wolf (several versions), the first in 1985 staring Michael J. Fox
      • The Grey, 2012 film staring Liam Niessen whose character is hunted by wolves following a plane crash in Alaska
    • Documentaries
      • Cry of the Wild (1972); director Bill Mason sets out to dispel the myth of the bloodthirsty wolf
      • Wolf Pack (2002); National Geographic film documenting the lives of a Yellowstone wolf pack, its rise to power, and the challenges it faces
      • In the Valley of the Wolves (2007); PBS Nature film documenting the lives of the Druid wolf pack, one of the largest on record, in the Lamar Valley (northern Yellowstone)
      • Rise of Black Wolf (2010); National Geographic series documenting the life of a Black Wolf and his rise to lead a wolf pack

Cosmological symbols (from Lopez 1978 unless otherwise noted)

  • The Dog Star, Sirius, was known as the "Wolf Star" by the Native American Pawnee tribe and the "celestial wolf" in Chinese astronomy (Dorsey 1904; Lopez 1978)
    • The watchman of the sky, holds a fixed place

Domestication and modern dog breeds (from Lopez 1978 unless otherwise noted)

  • All domestic dogs descended from the gray wolf, or a recent extinct ancestral wolf (Lindblad et al. 2005; Thalmann et al. 2013)
    • Result of selective breeding by humans to concentrate desired traits within dog populations
    • Preceeded settled aggriculture/farming (Druzhkova et al. 2013; Thalmann et al. 2013)
  • Initiated in the northern hemisphere (Lindblad et al. 2005; Thalmann et al. 2013)
    • Commensal relationship between humans and wolves forms the central component of 3 hypotheses to explain origins of domestication (Thalmann et al. 2013; Zeder 2012)
      • Proto-dogs took advantage of carcasses/refuse left by humans
      • Wolves assisted humans with prey location and/or capture
      • Proto-dogs provided warning and/or defense from larger predatory animals
  • Location and timing of first domestication subject of much study; likely began in Europe or Asia (Thalmann et al. 2013)
    • Fossil evidence
      • Oldest dog-like fossils from Europe and Siberia, > 30,000 years old (Druzhkova et al. 2013; Germonpre et al. 2009; Sablin and Khlopachev 2002)
      • Dog-like fossils from Middle East and East Asia no older than c. 13,000 years (Thalmann et al. 2013)
    • DNA suggests domestication centered in Europe c.18-32,000 years (Thalmann et al. 2013)
      • Contrary to previous studies placing events in the Middle East or East Asia (Pang et al. 2009; Savolainen et al. 2002; Wang et al. 2013; vonHoldt et al. 2010)
    • More research needed (Thalmann et al. 2013)
  • Over 400 described dog breeds; 178 recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) (AKC website; Parker et al. 2004)
    • Size range: less than 6 to c. 200 lb
    • Many developed to assist humans; skilled herders, hunters, trackers, transporters, and guardians
    • Several breeds, known as toy dogs, appear to be the result of breeding purely for appearance's sake
    • Evidence of ancient origins for both working and toy breeds (Parker et al. 2004)


Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora

Family: Canidae

Genus: Canis

Species: Canis lupus (Linnaeus, 1758) - gray wolf

Subspecies: C. l. arabs (Arabian peninsula)
Subspecies: C. l. arctos (Arctic wolf, North America)
Subspecies: C. l. baileyi (Mexican wolf, North America)
Subspecies: C. l. chanco (Himalayan range)
Subspecies: C. l. italicus (Italy, France, Switzerland)
Subspecies: C. l. lycaon (Eastern wolf, North America)
Subspecies: C. l. nubilus (Plains wolf, North America)
Subspecies: C. l. occidentalis (Northwestern wolf or Northern Timber wolf, North America)
Subspecies: C. l. pallipes (most of Asian range: Israel to China)
Subspecies: C. l. signatus (Iberia)

Source: Boitani et al. (2018)

Feared and Vilified

drawing of a European wolf

Loup d'Euro [European wolf] (Canis lupus)

"Tout en lui est repoussant [everything about him is repulsive]." Image and text from Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universal illustré: répertoire des connaissances humaines (1885), p. 664, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images. No known copyright restrictions.

Page Citations

Brown (1956)
Dorsey (1904)
Druzhkova et al. (2013)
Germonpre et al. (2009)
Hall and Sharp (1978)
ITIS (2014)
Lindblad et al. (2005)
Lopez (1978)
Mech and Boitani (2003)
Nowak (1995, 1999, 2003)
Pang et al. (2009)
Parker et al. (2004)
Sablin and Khlopachev (2002)
Savolainen et al. (2002)
Tedfore et al. (2009)
Thalmann et al. (2013)
vonHoldt et al. (2010)
Wang et al. (2013)
Zeder (2012)

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