Red Wolf

Red Wolf

Red Wolf

Canis rufus

Status: Endangered

Classification: Mammal


Red Wolves are lean canids, often with black-tipped bushy tails. Their coats are mostly a brown or buff color, with some black along their backs. There is sometimes a reddish tint to the fur on their muzzle, behind their ears, and on the backs of their legs. The Red Wolf is between the size of a gray wolf and a coyote. They are about four feet long and stand about 26 inches at the shoulder. Red Wolves weigh anywhere between 45 and 80 pounds, with males averaging about 60 pounds and females about 50 pounds.


Historically the Red Wolf ranged from southeastern Texas to central Pennsylvania. Today the only place Red Wolves can be found in the wild is in eastern North Carolina's Albemarle Peninsula. Equally at home in forests, swamps, and coastal prairies, Red Wolves can thrive in a wide range of habitats and are known as habitat generalists.


Red Wolves are carnivores, though their diet can vary depending on what prey is available. Mostly they hunt smaller mammals like raccoons, rabbits, and rodents, along with white-tailed deer. Within their territory, Red Wolves will travel up to 20 miles in search of prey.

Life History

Red Wolves mate for life, and each pack is formed around the breeding pair. Usually Red Wolves form a group of five to eight, composed of the breeding male and female and their offspring from different years. The pack is a very close family unit. Older offspring will help the breeding male and female raise their younger siblings, and will also attend the den. Within one to three years, the younger Red Wolves will leave the pack in search of their own mates and territory.

Each pack has its own home range, which the Red Wolves will hunt in and defend from other canids. Red Wolves are fiercely territorial creatures and will even fight other Red Wolves if needed. Red Wolves breed once a year, from January through March. Anywhere from one to nine pups are born roughly nine weeks later in April or May. After about 10 days, the pups' eyes open. For several weeks after this period, the other members of the pack keep a close eye on the pups, keeping them within the den until they mature. The dens themselves are well hidden near stream banks, downed logs, sand knolls, or even drain pipes and culverts. The adult pack members will range and return with food for the pups until they are strong enough.

The average Red Wolf life span is 7-9 years, but their life expectancy drops to roughly 2-3 years in the wild when considering human-based mortalities (gunshots and vehicle strikes). The oldest known Red Wolf in the wild was actually 14 (1743F, who passed away in 2023).


Smaller and ruddier in color than their gray wolf cousins, the Red Wolf is one of the most endangered canids in the world. Though Red Wolves once ranged across the southeastern United States, years of hunting and habitat loss drove the species to the brink of extinction in the 1970s. Red Wolves were officially declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but due to the efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which captured the remaining 14 wild Red Wolves and started a captive breeding program, the species became the first animal to be successfully reintroduced after being declared extinct in the wild. The captured Red Wolves are the direct ancestors of the animals that now live in North Carolina.

Within their ecosystem, the Red Wolves play a valuable role in keeping numbers of prey like deer in check. In turn the smaller prey populations are less likely to balloon out of control and consume all available nutrients in their habitat. Additionally, the Red Wolves’ diet includes the invasive nutria and nuisance animals like raccoons. 

Though the Red Wolf has come a long way, there are many threats to the species in the long-term including hybridization with coyotes. The smaller coyotes do not pose a direct challenge to Red Wolf territory and, in fact, are displaced and removed from the environment if there is a Red Wolf Pack in a given territory range, but when low in their population numbers, Red Wolves tolerate coyotes due to the lack of ability to form breeding pairs with other Red Wolves.

Any offspring between coyotes and Red Wolves endangers the Red Wolf species as an entirety by potentially wiping them out with hybrid animals. This endangers the genetic diversity of the species as a whole, which the captive breeding program has carefully cultivated to limit the risk of morphological and physiological problems that can occur with low genetic diversity. Thankfully management actions by wildlife managers, such as sterilizing territorial coyotes, are limiting hybridizations events and reducing the density of coyotes around the wild Red Wolf population. This gives Red Wolves the opportunity to increase their numbers to the point where they can easily displace coyotes and regularly find Red Wolf mates.

Human-caused events also pose an existential risk to the Red Wolf. Though shy by nature and avoidant of humans, further development and habitat fragmentation increases the chance of interaction between the two species. In fact, human-caused mortality events, specifically gunshots and vehicle strikes, are the leading cause of death and population decline amongst wild Red Wolves. Furthermore, their entire habitat in the Albemarle Peninsula rests just three feet above sea level, and as a result climate change also poses a serious threat.

Fun Fact

Red Wolves communicate through body language, scent marking, and a series of vocalizations. These include the characteristic howl, along with a series of barks, growls, and yaps. The Red Wolf’s howl sounds somewhat similar to a coyote’s, but is often lower pitched and lasts longer.


National Geographic

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

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