Wolves CAN climb trees, but both the tree structure and the individual wolf determine whether a wolf will climb a tree and how far they will climb if they do.
In their natural habitat, wolves are denning animals, and when not roaming freely, they prefer to keep all four feet on the ground.
What drives their behavior when wolves do climb trees, though?
How far can wolves climb, and how skilled are they at climbing?
Wolves Are Not Physically Built For Climbing
The archetypal wolfpack roams wooded areas and flatlands as a pack, traversing rugged territory and crossing hills and valleys.
The typical wolfpack does not perch in trees. Only one Canidae genus is well known for climbing trees – the fox.
Wolves lack the physical characteristics necessary to climb trees:
- Wolves have no opposable thumbs to hang onto branches as they climb.
- Wolves do not have retractable or semi-retractable claws.
- Wolf claws are dull and geared toward running rather than climbing.
- Wolf forelimbs do not rotate, providing less climbing security.
Lack of Opposable Thumbs
There are thirty-six Canidae species, none of which have opposable thumbs.
Instead, all Canidae species have four leading digits, and most Canidae have a dewclaw further up the foot.
People once thought that the dewclaw served no purpose, but more recent research shows that the dewclaw:
- Stabilizes a dog’s wrist joint while running.
- Provides more traction for a dog while running.
- Allows dogs to “hold” items to keep them still while chewing.
Not all wolves have dewclaws, and researchers believe that wolves that do have them have domestic dog DNA in their ancestry.
However, researchers labeled wolves without dewclaws as 100% wild.
Whether a wolf has dewclaws or not, this weaker digit has no functional application in tree climbing.
When feline paws are at rest, the claws lift off the ground and get hidden by the fur around the digits.
When the Canidae paws are at rest, the canid nails still touch the ground.
“Retractable” claws keep the cats’ nails sharp and allow for a better grip for climbing.
“Nonretractable” feet give Canidae species better traction while running, which means that nails are thick but dull and useless for climbing.
Foxes – the only Canidae species known to climb trees, have retractable claws.
The Canine shoulder has limited movement because there is no three-way rotation.
This diminished forelimb movement provides added stability while running but makes tree climbing impossible.
Foxes, however, can climb well because they can rotate their forelimbs.
While wolves are not perching at the tops of trees, some wolves – like Alawa at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York – have been spotted perched on tree branches – but how are they doing it?
The secret behind tree-climbing wolves is that they are not climbing at all!
Using their muscular hind legs, wolves can leap and propel themselves onto lower branches of trees.
From lower tree branches, these wolves can hop from “platform to platform” so long as each tree branch they bounce is thick and sturdy.
A combination of low, sturdy branches and a muscular, fully grown wolf can easily give the impression of a “tree-climbing” wolf even though there is no climbing!
Why Are wolves not Better Adapted to Climbing Trees?
If wolves physically changed to enable tree climbing, it would cost a considerable amount.
Wolves run and walk on their toes rather than the pads of their paws – this prevents excess wear on their paw pads and allows for more agile movement.
If wolves had opposable thumbs, though, their weight distribution would shift, and they could no longer run only on their toes.
This change in posture and movement would mean fewer prey items for the wolfpack and a necessary change in diet or decimation of the wolf population.
Retractable Sharper Claws
Wolves use their non-retractable claws to gain traction as they run on their toes.
If wolf claws retracted, they would lose that traction, and targeted hunts would be much less successful.
Canines have forelimbs designed for stable movement, but this also limits the rotation of the forelimbs.
If wolves did have rotating forelimbs, they would be much less graceful as they ran and more prone to injury.
Higher rates of injury in wolves’ forelimbs would mean less prey captured to feed the wolfpack and reduced wolf populations.
Tree-Climbing Wolves Would Change the Landscape
If wolves could physically climb trees, the tradeoffs could result in a reduced wolf population, but what if those tradeoffs did not exist?
If there were no tradeoffs and wolves could climb trees…
Humans Would Have No Escape If Cornered By Wolves.
Wolf attacks on humans are rare, but in the uncommon instance that an attack does occur, a tree can offer a haven until help arrives.
Wolf Populations Would Be Higher
Hunters have decimated wolf populations; however, if wolves could climb trees, they may escape death by camouflage or climbing up to higher vantage points.
The Wolves Natural Habits Would Change
Look at the leopard as an example of a sizeable tree-climbing predator. We can only imagine that the wolf would take on some leopard habits.
For example, like a leopard, a wolf would likely drag prey items into higher branches of a tree for safekeeping.
Trees Would Have to Be Much Stronger!
If wolves were tree-climbers, there is no doubt that trees would need to be much sturdier!
A single adult male wolf can weigh 150lbs and a female 100lbs – the average pack has six members – this means that a wolf pack with two adults and four juveniles (approx. 70lbs) weighs 530lbs.
Now, imagine the tree that has to support a wolf pack of thirty-six members!
Conclusion / Summary
Wolves cannot climb trees in the traditional sense, although they can leap to low-hanging branches that are strong enough to hold their weight.
If wolves physically adapted to climb trees, however, the tradeoffs of that change could spell doom for the wolf population as a whole!