Episode 295 – Timber Wolf: Another Day with Parasites

“…and today we’re talking about the most popular villain of nursery rhymes. But more on that later.”

Pack leader. Top dog. Dominant male. Head honcho. Alpha male. It’s a common misconception that wolves fight for dominance within their packs to see who becomes and stays the alpha wolf. But that doesn’t mean packs don’t have a leader, it’s just a lot simpler and less violent than you might think. Plus, it helps to get a secret boost from a microscopic friend to get the gumption you need to become top dog here in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Taxonomic Note

Timber wolf can describe one of several wolf subspecies native to North America. It’s debated if they are a subspecies of the red or gray wolves or if there are two different subspecies, both called Timber wolves. 

Description of the Timber Wolf

  • The fur color of the Eastern wolf is usually a mix of grayish-brown and cinnamon.
  • The chest and flanks display rufous or creamy colors, while the neck, shoulder, and tail area display a mix of black and gray hues.
  • It is uncommon for eastern wolves to have individuals with black fur, unlike gray wolves.

Measure Up

Welcome to the beloved Measure Up segment. The official listener’s favorite part of the show! The part of the show when we present the animal’s size and dimension in relatable terms through a quiz that’s fun for the whole family. It’s also the part of the show that’s introduced by you when you send in audio of yourself saying, singing, or chittering the words Measure Up into ldtaxonomy at gmail dot com. We don’t  have a new Measure Up intro.

The Big Bad Wolf from Puss and Boots (0:32)


  • A female western timber wolf can get as long as between 4.5 to 6  feet. The males average 5 to 6 feet long. Eastern males can grow to 5.5 feet.
  • How many timber wolves go into the length of a type VII U-boat?
  • Hint: The type VII was the most common German U-boat in WWII. They formed “wolfpacks” in the Battle of the Atlantic, which were made up of coordinated attacking submarines. The concept of a submarine wolfpack was first proposed in WWI, though “lone-wolf” submarine attacks were more successful.
  • 40 wolves. The type VII U-boat was 67.10 m (220 ft 2 in) in length overall.


  • The average weight of female western timber wolves is 50 to 85 pounds, while  larger males weigh between 70 to 110 pounds. Eastern timber wolves range from 50 to 80 pounds. 
  • How many piglets (weaning age) would a wolf have to eat to eat its weight in piglets?
  • Hint: Pigs grow quickly. They wean around 4 to 6 weeks old. Piglets are small and adorable, but they can grow to eight times their size in the first six months. There are no such things as teacup or micro pigs, so many pig-loving pet owners are surprised that their minipig grows to be a full-sized boar. 
  • 5.3 piglets. A month-old piglet is about 15 pounds. 

Fast Facts about the Timber Wolf

Timber wolves are native to North America. Eastern wolves are found in the great lakes region stretching northeast all the way to NewFoundland.

They are famous pack hunters, capable of taking down much larger prey species, including caribou, moose, and bison. They hunt by chasing down prey until it is tired and then jumping in and wounding critical areas until the exhausted animal lets down its guard. 

It’s thought that human hunters used a very similar hunting style, which contributed to our developing relationship with canines of the past. 

They will also supplement their carnivorous diets with berries. 

Different packs can be hostile to one another, so they are careful to avoid rival territory. Lone wolves may enter other territories with the hopes of joining the pack. 

Wolves have long been feared by humans, making their way into folklore as the ultimate bad guy. This is worsened by the fact that desperate wolves often eat livestock. North American populations were diminished by human hunting and retaliation. 

While the can be clashes between human and wolf populations when they overlap, wolves are generally afraid of humans. So much so, that a bold or aggressive wolf is notably out of the ordinary. 

However, wolves are keystone species, which means they have a disproportionate effect on the ecology of a given area. Keystone animals are often predators that hunt a variety of prey. Wolves are important to controlling deer and other prey populations. Removing wolves from an area can increase deer populations, which has an impact on seasonal food resources, which affect every level of the food chain.

Wolves are so important that human hunters are now responsible for controlling deer populations where wolves have been removed.

Today, the eastern timber wolf is considered threatened, and we have a better idea of their importance. 

Major Fact: Another Day With Parasites

We often think of wolf packs having an alpha male, right? There are maybe 10-20 wolves that all answer to the strongest male who can be challenged at any time to take over the pack. Not exactly.

In the wild, packs of wolves are actually nothing more than families with a breeding pair as the leaders.

The “alpha” male is simply the father or breeding male. The breeding female and the little’uns all follow his lead. They all follow the female’s lead in his absence.

So any challenge of a subordinate male to the alpha is just a teenager taking a swing at his dad, which happens a lot less with wolves than it does with humans.

And it’s not like if the son wins then he becomes alpha, since his mom is still the dominant female and inbreeding almost never happens. (Hence the Oedipal Arrangements).

What actually happens is adolescent males will eventually leave their pack and find a female to start a new one and become “alpha.”

If the teenager is slow to leave the nest though, the parents will force them to eat last, even after the pups. This can sometimes lead to fights, but not for dominance of the pack.

That being said, the reason we think of wolves having alpha males is because the studies were done in the 70s before science was invented and they were only done on captive wolves. So it’s more like a bunch of male prisoners developing a pecking order, and that checks out. But in the wild, packs are all related, so the de facto position of leader goes to the patriarch without challenge.

Same can be said of household dogs. Put a bunch of unneutered males in a group and a leader will have to fight his way to become pack leader. 

So all you need to do to become an alpha in the wild is leave and cleave to start a family. However, not all adolescents fly the coop. Some are a failure to launch.

A recent study done by the University of Montana using over 200 wolves over 27 years showed that there is a factor that could make some more likely than others to leave their birth pack – parasites. Specifically, toxoplasma gondii. You know, the toxoplasmosis scare with the kitty litter? It has a real impact on the food chain as well.

These microscopic protozoans are an infectious parasite that can infect all warm-blooded animals. However, the only host they can reproduce in is felines. So their whole schtick is getting eaten by things that will hopefully one day get eaten by a cat.

It does this by changing the hormones and internal chemistry of the host slightly to make them bolder and more reckless. Mice and small mammals that get it will hide less and disregard potential danger, increasing their chances of getting eaten by a cat.

The point is, infected prey animals are more likely to be eaten. But once the cat gets it, anything that eats the cat, or its feces, will get it as well – including the cat’s ancient enemy, the dog.

Wolves that eat house cats, bobcats, or even cougars (or their scat) can get infected. But the infection also changes the wolf, making it bolder and less timid. The same traits that cause a prey animal to be eaten are the traits that make predators successful.

The University of Montana study showed that the wolves that were infected were 11 times more likely to leave their birth packs and start new packs (becoming alpha males or pack leaders).

Ending: So forget about all this “alpha” dog stuff, branch out to start your own pack, and – I don’t know – maybe some infected cat droppings wouldn’t hurt like it doesn’t hurt the wolf here in LDT.