They say foxes are sly and elusive creatures, but even more elusive is the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), commonly referred to as the Simien fox. Despite its foxy nickname, bushy tail, and reddish fur, the Ethiopian wolf is actually a true wolf. This means that it is more closely related to the Eurasian grey wolf (Canis lupus) and coyote (Canis latrans) than to any of its canine neighbors in Africa . Unfortunately, despite being an accomplished predator, its elusive nature is due to more than just the stealth of a hunter. The Ethiopian wolf is an endangered species with less than 500 adults remaining in the wild , making it the rarest canid in the world .
The Ethiopian wolf lives in groups of between 3–13 adults. Ethiopian wolf packs consist of several males and one to three females . Although only the alpha female (i.e., the most dominant female) breeds each season, all wolves help with raising the pups . Normally, the alpha female only mates with the dominant male from her own pack, but females have been known to mate with males of neighboring packs, which can help to improve the genetic diversity of these endangered canids [3, 6].
Despite living in a pack that works as a team to defend its territory, Ethiopian wolves prefer to hunt solo and spend two-thirds of the daylight hours looking for food on their own . Ethiopian wolves are specialist predators, meaning they are adapted to hunt particular types of prey. Their long and narrow snouts make them well equipped for hunting small animals .
These cool canines are best at hunting small rodents, and their favorite food is the giant root-rat (Tachyoryctes macrocephalus). To avoid becoming wolf-chow, root-rats listen for alarm calls (alarm calls are vocalizations that signal the presence of a predator) of other Ethiopian wolf prey, like the black-clawed brush-furred rat (Lophuromys melanonyx), and get a head start on hiding from Ethiopian wolves ! In a cool counter twist, Ethiopian wolves will often conduct their solo hunts in the proximity of gelada monkey troops (Theropithecus gelada), herbivorous monkeys that do not pose a threat to the wolves’ rodent prey; this allows the wolves to hide their presence and catch their distracted prey. The monkeys are very defensive against other predators, but uniquely tolerant of the wolves for extended periods. When hunting with their monkey pals, the wolves are twice as successful at grabbing a meal !
Ethiopian wolves are severely threatened by disease and human activity. Rabies has run rampant in Ethiopian wolf populations due to close proximity and physical contact between wolves . Additionally, domestic dogs from the human settlements adjacent to wolf habitat can further transmit disease, directly compete for prey, and sometimes even hybridize with Ethiopian wolves . Lastly, expansion of livestock grazing areas takes away the places the Ethiopian wolf can safely occupy .
Despite their low population size and endangered status, there is hope for our wolf friends! The Simien Mountains and Bale Mountains National Parks protect approximately 40% of the wolves’ habitats, and thanks to the creation of the Arsi Mountains Regional Park and various boundary extensions, 87% of their geographic range is now protected in some form . In addition, many community-led initiatives, such as the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Programme, are making an impact by administering rabies and canine distemper vaccines to wolves and to the feral dogs spreading these diseases. There are also Wolf Monitors and Wolf Ambassadors who monitor the wolf packs’ status and inform the public of updates. While the Ethiopian wolves are still currently endangered, the many programs in motion provide hope that one day they will be able to do their wolf-y thing in peace.
Christofer Brothers is a graduate student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. He is interested in predator-prey interactions in flying insects and environmental factors that influence those dynamics. He also has an unhealthy love of puns.
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Edited by Meredith Lutz and Jessica Schaefer