Species of the Week: eastern timber wolf

Each Wednesday, One Earth’s “Species of the Week” series highlights a relatively unknown and fascinating species to showcase the beauty, diversity, and remarkable characteristics of our shared planet Earth.

As night falls in the thick, densely wooded forest that spans across the Great Lakes region and southeastern Canada, a low siren of a howl pierces through the dark and is followed by a chorus of equally eerie and majestic cries. As their name suggests, eastern timber wolves are made for life among the trees. Known also as the eastern wolf, timber wolf, or Algonquin wolf, they have baffled biologists with their origins. Some claim they are a unique subspecies of gray wolves while others say they are a separate species that originally split from a common ancestor over 1 million years ago. Regardless of their mysterious past and spooky personification throughout folklore, eastern timber wolves are a fascinating species and as apex predators are essential in maintaining the balance of their ecosystem. 

Smaller than the common gray wolf but larger than a coyote, eastern timber wolves are an intermediate size with females weighing on average 23.9 kilograms (53 lb) and males 30 kilograms (67 lb). From the tip of the nose to the end of their tail, they measure about 1.6 m (5.5 ft) in length and 63 to 91 cm (25 to 36 in) in height. They come in a variety of colors but are most commonly a grayish-brown mix with their flanks and chest having a lighter, cream hue. Genome sequencing in 2016 indicated that this species was the result of ancient and complex gray wolf and coyote mating. Their genetic makeup was found to be 58% gray wolf and 42% coyote with hybridization having occurred 546–963 years ago.

Image credit: Cloudtail the Snow Leopard, Creative Commons

Living together in packs, eastern timber wolves are very social and loyal with the dominant male and female breeding pair leading the way. Communication amongst the group along with their night hunting is the reason for their frequent howling. They have large territories of about 150 km (93 mi) in which they roam for food as they can eat as much as 20 kg (44 lb) a day. Primarily targeting white-tailed deer, caribou, and elk, eastern timber wolves keep these large herbivore populations in balance which keeps the overall forest health and growth rate in check too. Despite their apex predator role, these carnivores have also occasionally been spotted foraging for blueberries in July and August, when the berries are in season.

In Algonquin mythology, the eastern timber wolf is known as ma-hei-gan or nah-poo-tee where it is the spirit brother of the folk hero Nanabozho, assisting him in several of his adventures and helping him recreate the world after a massive flood. To the Indigenous of this region, the eastern timber wolf’s role at the head of the food chain and its trickling down effect to the vitality of the smallest plant life was widely known and praised. This knowledge of their importance was sadly lost as settlers descended into the region and viewed them as a threat to themselves and their livestock, almost wiping them to extinction in the early 1900s. Today, they survive in only 3% of their original habitat in the United States. However, hope is spreading as there are continued efforts across both Canada and the United States to protect, conserve, and keep eastern timber wolves on the endangered species list as well as gaining awareness about this magnificent species and the role they play in keeping the forest healthy. 

Eastern timber wolves are the flagship species of the Western Great Lakes Forests ecoregion, located in the Northern Great Lakes Forests bioregion (NA11).