Episode 2 – The Ethiopian Wolf: Nature’s Goodest Boy

Altruism is usually known as a human characteristic, but did you know that a rare wolf native to the heart of Africa can be altruistic? Join us as we learn just how nice a wolf can be.

Deep in the heart of East Africa, where powerful lions prowl the savannah and graceful giraffes trim the treetops above, there dwells a small population of wolves with a keen sense of self-sacrifice. But the fact that this canine is sharin the plains with the largest predators in the world isn’t the most interesting fact about the Ethiopian wolf. Keep reading to learn why humans could learn a thing or two from nature’s goodest boy.

What is an Ethiopian Wolf?

When you think of the noble wolf, you usually picture a big fluffy dog with white and gray fur and a penchant for howling at the moon that rules the forests of North America and Europe. Not too many people think of a small, red-haired canine that resembles more of an overgrown fox than any wolf. It looks almost majestic with it’s pointed ears, long legs, and white tufts of hair that grow along its chest and jaw.

Here is its taxonomic breakdown:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Carnivora
  • Family: Canidae
  • Genus: Canis
  • Species: Simensis

Looks Like a Jackal to Me

Well, you’d almost be right. The Ethiopian wolf’s close cousins, the jackals of Northern Africa, share many similar traits, though jackals are typically smaller in size. However, researchers found out in 1994 using fossil records that the Ethiopian Wolf is more related to the American grey wolf and the coyote than any of the other canines in Africa.

What is the Size of the Ethiopian Wolf?

Ethiopian wolves can range in body size from a 21- to 24-inch height (two feet), a 33- to 40-inch length (about three feet), and a weight of 25-43 pounds. Sexual dimorphism in the species means that males are larger and heavier than females.

Wolves in Africa?

As the name suggests, this cute little wolf lives in the highlands of Ethiopia. Rather than descend to the plains where more iconic African mammals roam, the Ethiopian wolf lives exclusively above the tree line in the Bale Mountains. With few natural predators and an abundance of their favorite prey (which we’ll go over later), our lupine friends should be thriving.

As we’ll see later on, they aren’t exactly thriving.

What Do They Eat?

Their food source is part of what makes the Ethiopian wolf so unique. Aside from a few auxiliary things, their main source of food is a single species of rodent that burrows underground in the afroalpine regions of Ethiopia: the Big-Headed Mole Rat.

Ethiopian Wolf - Big Headed Mole Rat
Image credit: Oleg Chernyshov

There’s only one problem: the rats live in vast networks of tunnels that are only large enough for them to get their own pudgy heads through. With the Ethiopian wolf unable to reach them in their burrows, it needs to employ some interesting techniques to catch its prey.

Normally, this just means waiting outside a popular rat hole for hours on end until one pokes its oversized head out. The wolf will usually pounce to try and pin the rat, but it isn’t always successful. Thwarted Ethiopian wolves have been seen digging furiously at the hole after a failed pounce, not knowing that the mole rat is dozens of yards away.

Another method that canis simensis uses to catch a meal is synergy. Herds of domesticated cattle or wild baboons will often set up camp over a den of mole rats. The sounds of these animals stomping the yard will bring the rodents out, knowing that they aren’t in any danger of being food.

In comes the sneaky Ethiopian wolf. They use the sounds and commotion from cattle and baboons to mask their presence. Just when a mole rat thinks it’s safe to venture outside, they go in for the kill. Wolves that hunt in conjunction with these other animals are generally more successful hunters.

Local farmers are generally aware that the wolf poses no threat to their livestock, but that hasn’t always been the case as we’ll see later.

Natural Altruism

These wolves live in packs of anywhere from six to twenty members over one year old. The hierarchy within the pack is well defined and researchers have often seen displays of domination from the higher members and servitude from the lower members.

When males from several different packs leave their homes and gather around a few females, a new pack is formed. All females except for the breeding female (the queen, if you will) are reproductively suppressed.

Ethiopian Wolf Pups
Image credit: © by lorenzfischer.photo

So here’s the truly interesting thing about these afroalpine wolves: they engage in cooperative breeding. This means that Ethiopian wolf cubs are cared for by their parents and the other members of the pack.

Since the breeding female only mates with the breeding male of the pack, or males from separate packs, there is only one source of new members, so those offspring need to be protected and cared for.

You know the age-old adage: “It takes a pack to raise a cub”. This is especially true because pups are born without teeth and their eyes are closed. Where many mammals, such as antelopes or giraffes, have precocial young (meaning that they are able to walk, run, or defend themselves soon after birth), Ethiopian wolf cubs, like humans, are altricial in that they are not able to move or take care of themselves on their own for a long period of time after birth. It can take up to six months before Ethiopian wolf cubs are ready to fend for themselves.

Because the pups are born so helpless and so few are born to a pack, the other members take it upon themselves to care for young that is not their own. Typically, you can see this in complex insect colonies like bees or ants, but this type of behavior is rare in mammals. On the whole, animals strive to pass on their own genetic code, not protect that of others.

The Decline in the Ethiopian Wolf Population

As we’ve been teasing throughout this post, the Ethiopian wolf is not seeing the peace and tranquility that its seclusion would warrant. As of 2010, there are fewer than 500 members of the species left. This decline in the population can be pinned on several factors.

Ethiopian Wolf Habitat Loss

As you can see, canis simensis needs a very specific landscape to thrive. Since they primarily eat one type of animal, they need to live on rocky plateaus with little vegetation since that is the ideal habitat for their prey. The Bale Mountains are the perfect place for them, but, like in many other places in the world, the human population is expanding.

Ethiopian farmers have grown their own territory, which not only reduces the amount left for the wolves, but it also forces interactions with other packs (and other species of wolves) that otherwise would not have occurred.

This unnatural proximity means that things such as aggression, interbreeding, and disease can affect the Ethiopian wolf population.

Natural Disease

The greater the density of a population, the faster disease can spread, just ask 14th century Europeans. Illnesses like rabies have taken a serious toll on the Ethiopian wolf population and have also led humans to believe that the wolves are more dangerous than they are.

Other Human Intervention

Humans have unintentionally and intentionally altered the population of these animals. From overgrazing the land to interbreeding with domestic dogs, the influence of humans is undeniable. Back in the 70’s, when guns became readily available to rural farmers in Ethiopia during a civil war, these farmers would kill wolves on sight thinking that they were a threat to their families and their herds.

Now, farmers in the Bale Mountains leave Ethiopian wolves alone. However, wolves in other areas are still targeted by those ignorant of their nature and food source.

Several conservation efforts have been made to educate the populace and to stem the number of killings. Now, the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme is taking the lead in protecting and growing the population of these majestic and fascinating animals.