Wolves (Canis lupus) are apex predators in their native habitats across the Northern Hemisphere. Wolves hunt arctic tundra and grassy plains, which typically have few trees. However, they also hunt in mountains and forests where trees abound. This poses the question, can wolves climb trees?
Canines Are Not Climbers
For the most part, canines cannot climb trees. A tiny handful of domesticated dogs can climb trees, at least to some extent. Only two wild canines are considered tree climbers: the grey fox and the raccoon dog (native to East Asia). Besides these few outliers, canines keep their paws on the ground including the 30+ subspecies of wolves.
Can Wolves Climb Trees?
No, wolves cannot climb trees. Like almost every other canine, wolves cannot scale a tree, and it is extremely unlikely they would even try.
But why can’t they climb trees? And how do they overcome this seemingly obvious limitation to retain their apex predator status?
A Body Not Built For Climbing
The wolf’s body structure is not built for tree climbing in any way. For starters, a wolf’s hind legs are shorter than its front legs. That is not good for balance when climbing.
Many prodigious tree climbers, such as squirrels and lemurs, use their long tails to maintain their balance. The wolf cannot use its tail in a similar manner.
A wolf also does not have retractable claws like a cat. And a wolf, obviously, does not have opposable thumbs with which to grab onto branches, as monkeys and apes do.
A wolf also lacks the brute strength of a black bear which, although its claws are non-retractable, can dig its curved claws into a tree and climb it with ease.
There is nothing about a wolf’s body that is built for tree climbing. Does that present a disadvantage to this predator? Not at all.
Wolves on the Hunt
Wolves live and hunt in packs. A typical hunting pack consists of four to eight wolves. The wolves use their numbers to bring down prey animals that are much larger than an individual wolf, such as elk, moose, and even the enormous American bison.
While wolves will prey on smaller animals such as rabbits or even rodents, the average adult wolf needs a minimum of four pounds of meat per day on average to remain healthy. But wolves don’t eat every day. They live a feast-or-famine life. This is why taking down larger prey animals is important. It allows the pack to gorge themselves in order to make up for the days when they ate nothing. A wolf can consume upwards of 20 pounds of meat from one kill.
Wolves can’t climb trees, but it doesn’t matter. Ungulates are the wolves’ primary prey, and these hooved animals are ground-bound. Have you ever seen a deer or an elk climb a tree? Of course not. Wolves don’t need to climb trees because the majority of their prey targets can’t climb trees, either.
Wolves hunt through long-distance runs. Unlike ambush predators who spring into action and use short bursts of speed to capture prey, wolves cover long distances, sometimes several miles, in pursuit of their prey. Instead of a short sprint, a wolf hunt is more like a marathon. This isn’t to say that wolves aren’t fast. They can reach speeds over 30 miles per hour. Any human who tries to outrun a wolf is in for quite a surprise! But, even with the wolf’s speed, several of the wolf’s primary prey targets can actually outrun it. However, in a long-distance chase, the weaker or older animals often get separated from the herd, allowing the wolves to take them down.
Wolves also use the conditions to their advantage. For example, the winter season swings the advantage firmly toward the wolf. Deep snow will slow most ungulates significantly, but wolves bound through the snow with minimal effort.
Tree climbing just isn’t needed when the wolf is so adept at hunting on the ground.
No Need to Flee
One additional reason wolves don’t need to climb trees is they don’t need to flee from predators. Many animals that scurry up a tree do so to avoid becoming a meal for a hungry predator. The wolf doesn’t have this problem. As an apex predator, the wolf does the chasing, not the fleeing.
Wolves Can’t Climb, but They Can Jump!
One final and very important note. If you were ever to find yourself in a highly unlikely but dangerous encounter with an aggressive wolf, one of the final options to protect yourself is to climb a tree. It is solid advice since, as has been noted quite clearly, wolves can’t climb trees.
However, while the wolf couldn’t climb up the tree after you, the average adult wolf has a vertical leap of 12 feet. That is two feet higher than a standard basketball rim!
Granted, a whole host of things would have to go wrong for you to find yourself in this situation. But if it ever did happen, be sure to climb higher than 12 feet up that tree!
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