THE IBERIAN WOLF
The Wolf (Canis lupus, Linnaeus 1758) is a mammal of the family Canidae. It’s a large carnivore, only surpassed in Europe by the brown bear, it is presently the largest wild canid. The Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus, Cabrera 1907) is the subspecies endemic to the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal, it is classified as an "endangered species" (EN) and is considered a priority species.
The Iberian wolf is described as being smaller than the wolf present in the rest of Europe and by having a more yellowish-brown coat. In early spring, the winter coat sheds off and is replaced by a shorter less dense summer coat. In October the winter coat starts to grow in. The hair grows thicker and longer, conferring greater resistance to autumn and winter weather conditions, giving it a more full-bodied appearance.
Its back features a black list that extends from the shoulders to the tail. Its forelimbs present a well-defined blacklist. An adult wolf can weigh between 25 and 40 kg. The Iberian wolf also has strong and robust limbs and a large head with rigid triangular ears.
Breeding season begins in early spring and birth occurs in May/June.
The maximum number of individuals per pack is reached in the summer. Winter is a challenging time, survival wise, for the Iberian wolf, where minimum number of individuals per pack is reached.
The Wolf is highly adaptable, allowing it to occupy most types of habitats in the Northern Hemisphere. From the most remote environments to the proximity to urban areas, the Wolf is present in several types of habitats. It’s a generalist animal in habitat selection, mostly depending on food availability and human attitudes.
The mountainous regions of Northern and Central Northern Portugal are the stronghold of the Iberian wolf in Portugal. Low population densities in these regions, associated to some food availability, provide conditions for the presence of this carnivore. Although the mountainous regions of Portugal are not so high in altitude, the conditions are difficult and marked by reduced food availability.
The Iberian wolf’s feeding behaviour is generalist, although its diet is based on ungulates.
Ungulates are the Wolf's preferred wild prey. In Portugal, the Roe deer (Capreolus Capreolus), wild boar (Sus scrofa) and Red deer (Cervus elaphus) are the three major species of ungulates that make up part of the Iberian wolf’s diet and their importance depends from region to region. The Iberian wild goat (Capra pyrenaica), present in the Peneda-Gerês mountains, is gradually expanding and may become another relevant wild prey for the Wolf in the future.
The Roe deer, assumed by many researchers as the main natural prey of the Iberian wolf, occurs mainly in Northern and Central Portugal, widely overlapping with the wolf’s current range.
The wild boar is a species that occurs all over continental Portugal, with varying densities, depending on the type of habitat and game management practices. It’s a relevant natural prey to the wolf, due to its widespread presence in this carnivore’s range.
The Red deer is the largest cervid of Portuguese fauna. Its natural populations in Portugal partly overlap with the Iberian wolf’s current range, especially in the district of Bragança.
The Iberian wolf has a distinctive social behaviour, marked by the formation of very hierarchical groups - the packs. These may vary in number of individuals depending on the number and size of prey that occurs in its territory, among other variables. Also, the territory used by a pack varies depending on the availability and abundance of prey. In Portugal, Iberian wolf territories may vary between 50 and 300 Km2. Due to their elusive behavior and mainly nocturnal activity, wolves are difficult to find in their natural habitat.
DISTRIBUITION IN PORTUGAL
In the early 20th century the Iberian wolf was relatively common and occupied several territories from North to South of Portugal. Currently this canid has a much more restricted range (approximately 20 400 km2) only comprising the North of the Douro River region and a smaller area south of this river in the Northern Central region of Portugal, giving rise to two sub-populations.
The sub-population North of the Douro River occupies about 13,600 km2 and is in contact with the Spanish wolf population. According to the Wolf National Census 2002/03 this sub-population has 54 packs.
The sub-population South of the Douro River has a more restricted area (6,800 km2) apparently isolated from the rest of the population. According to the Wolf National Census 2002/03 this sub-population has no more than 9 packs.
Generally, the species occurs in mountainous areas of these regions reflecting a lower human population density and a less intensive agricultural activity.
Humans have a key role in wolf distribution, ecology and behavior. However, the reverse is equally true. Since the first hominids to present day there are several historical and cultural records of this interaction. Cave paintings, legends, fables, religious representations, livestock guardian dogs, stone traps “fojos”, are all clear examples of the influence that this animal has on Humans.
Predation on livestock (cow, horse, sheep and goat) is one of the biggest problems in the conservation of this Carnivore, mainly in areas where wild prey populations are scarce or absent. There are several ways of protecting livestock from wolf predation, such as livestock guardian dogs, tending to livestock and appropriate means for confining livestock which have revealed effective in minimizing the impact of predation.
Currently, the conservation of this species tends to be increasingly determined not only by biological aspects but mainly by economic, political and ideological issues. Accurate and objective information about the wolf is very important to ensure a sustainable coexistence with this predator.