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The wolves - Ecology & behaviour

Morphology

A medium sized carnivore, with unique adaptations to life in Afroalpine habitats and an exclusive small mammal diet

The legs of an Ethiopian wolf are strikingly long and slender, seemingly suitable for coursing in open country. The muzzle is long, and the small, well-spaced teeth suggest morphological adaptation to feeding on rodents. The ears are pointed and broad, their dorsal surface red fringed with long white hairs growing inward from the edge

The adult pelage is soft and short, of a distinctive bright tawny rufous colour with a dense whitish to pale ginger underfur.  The throat, chest, a band around the ventral part of the neck, the underparts and inside of limbs are white, with the outline between the red coat and the white markings sharp and well defined.  The tail is a thick black brush with the proximal third white underneath.

Male Ethiopian wolves are significantly larger than females (average 16 kg compared with 13 kg).

Foraging ecology

Ethiopian wolves forage alone, and closely map the above-the-ground activity of rodents

Ethiopian wolves live in close-knit territorial packs but they forage and feed alone on small prey. Wolves are most active during the day with peaks of foraging activity synchronized with the activity of rodents above the ground (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1995a; Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1995a and b). Occasionally small packs chase and kill young antelopes, lambs, and hares.  Wolves will also take carrion, but dogs and jackals tend to monopolize carcasses (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1995a).

In the Bale Mountains they feed almost exclusively upon diurnal small mammals -mainly giant molerats (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus), a Bale endemic, and grass rats Arvicanthis blicki , and Lophuromys melanonyx (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1995a; Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1995a). Elsewhere, the giant molerat is replaced in the diet by the smaller common molerat, T. splendens (Ashenafi et al., 2005), but in some areas wolves depend entirely on small rats, particularly Otomys typus and Arvicanthis abyssinicus (Marino et al., 2010). 

Social organization

Wolf family packs are cohesive and hierarchical - all individuals help defend a communal territory

Ethiopian wolves live in discrete and cohesive social family packs that communally share and defend an exclusive territory. They congregate for greetings and border patrols at dawn, noon and evenings, and rest together at night in the open. Hierarchies within packs well established with frequent displays of dominance and subordination.

Dispersal is tightly constrained by the scarcity of suitable unoccupied habitat. Groups are formed by delayed dispersal of young males and a few females which, apart from those in the dominant position, are largely reproductively suppressed (Sillero-Zubiri & Gottelli, 1995b; Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1996). Breeding females typically are replaced after death by a resident daughter.

In optimal habitats family groups can contain up to 20 wolves older than one year, but most commonly around six,  with an average communal territory of 6km². Larger packs defend larger territories, and packs would expand whenever the opportunity arises. Typically a mosaic of stable territories is formed that occupies all available.

When packs conduct border patrols, they scent-mark regularly and engage in aggressive interactions if they meet a neighbouring pack. These are highly vocal, ending with the smaller group fleeing (Sillero-Zubiri, 1994; Sillero-Zubiri & Macdonald, 1998).

Reproduction

Typically only the alfa female in each pack breeds, mating is locally synchronized and extra-pack copulations not uncommon 

The receptive period of females to mating is locally synchronized. In the Bale Mountains typically to less than two weeks, sometime between August and November (Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1998). Courtship primarily involves the dominant male accompanying the dominant female constantly.  The female discourages attempts from all but the pack's dominant male, but she is receptive to any visiting male from neighbouring packs (Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1996).

Breeding females typically are replaced after death by a resident daughter, resulting in a high potential for inbreeding, to some extent circumvented by extra-pack copulations and multiple-paternity (Gottelli et al., 1994; Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1996; Randall et al., 2007).

Gestation lasts from 60-62 days and the dominant female of each pack may give birth once a year between October and December (Sillero-Zubiri et al., 1996). During the breeding season the pups and nursing females use a den. Up to seven pups may emerge from the den after three weeks.

All pack members guard the den, chase potential predators, and regurgitate or carry rodent prey to feed the pups.  Subordinate females may assist the dominant female in suckling the pups (Sillero-Zubiri, 1994; Sillero-Zubiri et al., 2004).

By week 10, the pups subsist almost entirely on solid foods supplied by helpers, and they stop receiving food from adults when they are around one year old. Full adult appearance is attained at two years and both sexes become sexually mature during their second year.