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Wolf Colors: What Colors Can Wolves Be? (Common & Rare)

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Wolves come in a variety of colors. They can be brown, black, gray, white, or any combination of these colors. 

There are some wolf species that only have one color (most commonly gray), but most wolves will have a combination of colors.

Wolves will also vary in color depending on their geographical location, as well as species. 

Red wolves are the rarest wolf population because they live exclusively in North America and were once hunted to near extinction for their fur.

What Colors Can Wolves Be?

The color of wolves is the color of their coat. These colors are different from species to species and will be one of the following: gray, black, white, brown, red, or variations of these. 

Most wolves’ coats will be a combination of these colors.

The gray wolf is the most common of all wolf species, which is why the color gray is most common in wolves. This wolf lives in many regions, from North America to Europe.

The rarest wolf coloration is a red wolf, as this is the rarest species of wolves.

Close up portrait wolf in autumn forest background

The mix of Gray, Brown, Black, and White

The most common wolf color is a mix of gray, brown, black, and white.

Most wolves will have a combination of these colors, such as gray wolves with spots of white and black.

One interesting fact about wolves and their coat color is the relation between color and health [1]. Black males are estimated to have a higher survival rate than their gray counterparts. The opposite is true for gray female wolves.

Grey wolf looking at the sky

Gray

The gray wolf is the most abundant species of wolves in North America, as well as the world. They can be found in Russia, North America, Europe, Northern Mexico, and everywhere in between.

It’s estimated that there are between 200,000-250,000 gray wolves in the world. [2]

This is because gray wolf habitat ranges from forests, mountains, plains…all throughout different climates. 

Gray wolves usually have a mostly gray fur coat with white, black, or brown sections throughout. Their back will typically be darker than their abdomen.

grey-wolf

Brown

Brown is a dominant color in wolves and therefore occurs more frequently than most other colors. 

Brown wolf coats can also be quite dark or lighter depending on their habitat and sun exposure, ranging from dark brown to a lighter tan color.

White

White wolves, known as the Arctic wolf, have a light-colored fur coat. They will rarely be completely white, though they’re much lighter in color than the gray wolf. 

The white wolf is often seen in areas with a lot of snow, as it helps them blend in with their surroundings. They’re found in regions such as Canada and Antarctica.

This species is a subspecies of the gray wolf, which is why they will often have a bit of gray color on their back.

she wolf

Black

Black wolves are also a subspecies of gray wolves and are often seen among gray wolves [2]. It’s believed that these wolves got their black color genes from domestic dogs due to wolf-dog hybrids.

Aside from their coat color, they’re exactly like gray wolves. They’re also found in packs of red wolves. Only about 1-3% of wolves are black. [3]

Black wolves can be seen in all regions where gray wolves live, from Asia to North America.

lone-black-wolf-in-the-water

Red

The red wolf (Canis Rufus) is the rarest of all wolf colors. Only about 0,0001% of wild wolves have this color. They will often have a mix of red and brown colors. 

Most red wolves are kept in captivity to avoid the extinction of the species.

red wolf

Yellow Wolves

A few select species of wolves have a yellowish, golden, brown coat color. These are all species related to the African yellow wolf. While their coat isn’t completely yellow, it’s close.

Related: Yellow wolves

What Is the Rarest Wolf Color?

The rarest wolf color is red. Red wolves are considered an endangered species under the Endangered Species act since 1973. It’s believed there are only about 15-20 wild red wolves, while there are about 240 in captivity.

They used to run wild throughout the Southeastern U.S.

Degradation and alteration of their habitat, as well as being hunted by humans and predators, resulted in the population of red wolves diminishing.

What Does the Color of a Wolfs Coat Mean?

The coloration on each animal’s coat often varies depending on where it lives within its territory and reflects adaptations known as camouflage behavior. 

These color variations help wolves blend in, both to avoid being seen by their prey, but also to stay hidden from other predators. 

For example, wolf packs living in mountains may have lighter coats to blend into snowy surroundings during winter months while wolf populations residing in forests will likely be darker colored for camouflage among trees and foliage when it is green out.

wolf hunting in autumn forest

Black Males Have Higher Survival Rates

One study, the Yellowstone Wolf Project, suggests that wolves with different colors have different survival rates, as well as a better chance of staying healthy.

The theory isn’t complete, but one theory is that the gene that impacts coat color also impacts how bacteria or viruses bind to cellular receptors

Dan Stahler realized that the split between gray and black wolves in Yellowstone park wasn’t a coincidence, but rather a natural selection to achieve the highest possible survival rates.

The Yellowstone population is about 55% homozygous gray, 42% heterozygous black, and 3% homozygous black.

Homozygous means the wolf has two of the same color genes, while heterozygous means they have two different. The gene for a black coat is dominant, meaning if a wolf has one black and one grey gene, they’d have a black coat.

The study shows how wolves prefer to mate with heterozygous black wolves, and not homozygous black wolves. The homozygous black wolves also did very poorly in terms of fighting disease.

wolves playing together

Gray Females Have a Higher Survival Rate

The study on wolves in Yellowstone park showed how heterogynous black males had the highest survival rates, but this is different for females.

Here, the gray females have the advantage.

How Does a Wolf Get Its Color (3 Genes)

Wolf coat color is dependent on three genes that direct pigment growth. 

These include the extension locus, which determines whether or not melanocytes move to a certain area of skin; agouti locus, which determines if black hairs are produced instead of brown (in this case it’s an inhibitor); and finally the MC-IRS gene, which tells how much red/yellow pheomelanin vs. brown eumelanin is present in hair follicles.

This makes sense because wolves can have two different types of fur: guard hairs for protection from the elements as well as underfur for insulation against cold temperatures.

Homozyguos vs. Heterozygous:

Wolves can be split into two groups when it comes to color genes:

  • Homozygous
  • Heterozygous

In short, homozygous means that all of the wolf’s coat color genes are similar, for example, gray. On the other hand, we have heterozygous, where wolves will have genes with different coat colors.

If two homozygous wolves mate, they will create offspring with the same trait. But, if a homozygous wolf mates with a heterozygous wolf, or two heterozygous wolves mate, they can produce both homozygous and heterozygous wolves, left up to chance:

1. Homozygous (gray, gray) + Homozygous (gray, gray) = 

  • Homozygous (gray, gray)

2. Heterozygous (gray, black) + Homozygous (gray, gray) = 

  • Homozygous (gray, gray)
  • Heterozygous (gray, black)

3. Heterozygous (gray, black) + Heterozygous (black, gray) = 

  • Homozygous (gray, gray)
  • Homozygous (black, black)
  • Heterozygous (gray, black)
  • Heterozygous (black, gray)

Conclusion

Wolf colors can vary between species and regions. Their coat can be either gray, brown, black, white, or red. However, the most common color for wolves is gray. Most wolves will also have darker spots on their back.

Red Wolves are very rare and usually only seen in Eastern US where there have been breeding programs since the 1930s trying to protect them from extinction.

About Dennis Stapleton

Dennis Stapleton has a passion for animals, especially dogs, and their relatives. He’s intrigued by their social structure and loves to write and teach about the world's most popular pet animal.

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