Red wolves, scientific name Canis rufus, belong to the dog family Canidae. This taxonomic family is further classified into two tribes, viz., true dogs and foxes. It is believed that red wolves evolved about 1 - 2 million years ago and are survivors of the last glacial period that took place in the Late Pleistocene epoch. According to evolutionary data, red wolves, gray wolves, eastern wolves, and coyotes share a common ancestor.
As the name goes, red wolves exhibit a characteristic red colored fur, which is more conspicuous behind the ears and in the neck and legs. The fur color of this canid is brown with black shading in the back and tail. They molt once in a year during the winter season. Their big ears are an adaptation for overcoming extreme hot and humid climatic conditions. On an average, the length of a red wolf is 4.5 feet (measured from nose tip to the end of the tail) and shoulder height is slightly more than 2 feet. The female weighs about 52 pounds, while the male's weight reaches about 61 pounds.
Generally, the adult wolf attains sexual maturity at the age of 22 months. However, there are some species that become sexually mature within 10 months. The breeding season of red wolves is during February and March and their gestation period is about 2 months. Females give birth to about 1 - 10 pups per litter around March and April. The newly born pups stay with the parents for about two years, after which they disperse in the wild. The lifespan of red wolves is around 7 - 8 years in the wild, while in captivity, the longevity of this canid is as long as 15 years.
Habit and Habitat
Red wolves are nocturnal by nature and feed on a variety of animals, like nutria, rabbits, rodents, raccoon, and white-tailed deer. Unlike other related species, they rarely attack humans. This wolf species along with the gray wolf are important species native to the eastern parts of North America. There is a strong possibility that these canids were once distributed as far as Canada and other southeastern US. They are known to inhabit the east (New York), south (Florida), and southwest (Texas) too.
Evidence suggests that these powerful canids roamed the forest of southeastern United States once upon a time. And they prefer dwelling in the natural habitat, like forest areas, swampy areas, coastal prairies, and wetlands. Nevertheless, the number of this wolf is decreased significantly in the last few decades. In fact, they are enlisted in the IUCN Red Data list as the most endangered wild canids due to the rapidly declining population. The decrease in population is mostly due to hunting, habitat loss, and predator control programs.
Another cause of population decline is the mating of red wolves with Coyotes, resulting in hybrid offspring (half coyote and half red wolf). In the early 20th century, hunting of red wolves was also permitted as they attack domesticated cattle. However, since the declaration of them being an endangered species in 1973, wildlife conservation programs and captive breeding have been initiated. By 1980, the population was dropped to a meager number of 17 red wolves in captivity, whereas, it was declared extinct in the wild.
As of date, red wolves have been reintroduced in the natural habitat under various island propagation projects. Under the first island propagation project in 1987, about 100 red wolves were reintroduced in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, which covers an area of 152,000 acres (615 km²) in the North Carolina coast. The second island propagation project was initiated in 1989, wherein they were released in Horn Island, an island off the coast of Mississippi.
As a continuation of the island propagation projects, the third and fourth plans were implemented in 1990 and 1997, respectively. For these, a population of red wolves were introduced on different islands of Florida. In 1998, some of the wolves were relocated to North Carolina. Today, with the help of wildlife conservation programs, the number of red wolves has increased to about 300, with those in North Carolina being the only surviving wild population in the world.