Catch a glimpse of a maned wolf on the prowl and you might feel compelled to do a double-take: It looks like a long-nosed, shaggy-haired fox on stilts. Also, its pee mimics the scent of a certain recreational drug. Here are 10 tidbits about the coolest critter you’ve never heard of.
1. IT’S THE TALLEST WILD CANID.
With a shoulder height of up to 35 inches when fully grown, this species is the tallest wild member of the canine family. (Still, it’s nowhere near the heaviest: Full-grown maned wolves max out at just 50 pounds, while the grey wolf can weigh up to 175.) The maned wolf owes its impressive stature to its disproportionately long legs, which probably evolved due to habitat preference. The animals can generally be found in open grasslands in Brazil, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina, leading scientists to theorize that their legs evolved to help them see above tall grasses and shrubs while looking for prey.
2. DESPITE THE NAME, IT’S NOT ACTUALLY A WOLF.
Nor is it a fox, a fact betrayed by the maned wolf’s circular pupils. Real foxes have elliptical, vertically-oriented pupils that help them ambush prey in low-light conditions. Thanks to numerous anatomical quirks, the maned wolf cannot comfortably be classified as any kind of fox, wolf, dog, coyote, or jackal. A 2009 genetic analysis determined that the species’ closest relative was the tawny-furred Falkland Islands wolf, which went extinct circa 1880. (For the record, it technically wasn’t a wolf either.) The last common ancestor of these two mammals probably lived somewhere around 6.7 million years ago.
Researchers think that, among still-living animals, the maned wolf is most closely akin to the bush dog, another strange, New World beast. Rather stocky in appearance, the bush dog is notable for having webbed toes that enable it to dig more efficiently and pursue a semiaquatic lifestyle. Bush dogs are native to Panama and South America.
3. IT HAS THREE MAIN VOCALIZATIONS.
In the above video, you’ll hear a maned wolf releasing what is sometimes called a roar-bark. Booming and guttural, the sound is mostly used by mates to communicate with each other over long distances. When angered or distressed, maned wolves will produce a low growl as a warning. They’ve also been known to let loose high-pitched greeting whines.
4. IT’S AN IMPORTANT OMNIVORE.
Fecal samples indicate that, in the wild, fruit and vegetable matter accounts for a third to one-half of a maned wolf’s diet. The canids will often eat roots and bulbs, but they have a special taste for a tomato-like fruit known as the wolf apple (the fruit's name is derived from the maned wolf’s enthusiasm for it). Also called the loberia fruit, it’s thought to help the animals ward off parasitic kidney worms.
Loberia seeds tend to germinate more efficiently after passing through a maned wolf’s digestive tract. Furthermore, the creatures have a helpful habit of defecating directly onto leaf cutter ant nests. The insects then use this fecal matter to fertilize their in-house fungus gardens. In the process, they cast any seeds they might find into the colony’s garbage piles, where the seeds can easily take hold and grow into fruit-bearing plants. And thus, the whole mutually-beneficial cycle repeats itself.
At this point, we should note that maned wolves are still carnivores. They’re very adept at hunting down smaller mammals, with armadillos and rodents being common prey items. Reptiles, birds, insects, and eggs are also consumed when the opportunity presents itself.
5. MANED WOLVES ARE MOSTLY SOLITARY.
Unlike real wolves, these guys don’t form packs. Although adults do live in monogamous pairs and the two mated individuals will defend a permanent territory of around 15 square miles, the male and the female rarely interact outside of the breeding season. For most of the year, they hunt, travel, and sleep alone. Between April and June, however, the wayward partners come together to reproduce. Following a 62- to 66-day gestation period, the female begets anywhere from one to five pups. In captivity, males will help rear the offspring, but it’s unknown if their wild counterparts follow suit.
6. NEWBORNS HAVE DARK BROWN COATS.
These ridiculously adorable puppies have fur that is so dark it almost looks black. As they mature, their coats adopt a predominantly reddish hue, though each leg’s lower half remains dark (they also have a tuft of white on the tail). Then there’s the so-called mane, a streak of dark hair that runs down the neck, terminating just above the shoulders. (More on that in a bit.)
7. THEIR SLEEP SCHEDULES VARY SEASONALLY—AND BY REGION.
Maned wolves are sometimes cited as crepuscular animals, meaning that they mainly come out at dawn and dusk. This is an oversimplification. In reality, activity patterns vary wildly depending on the date and where a particular animal lives. For instance, maned wolves in Bolivia are liable to wander about at any hour during the wet season, but they’re unwaveringly nocturnal in the drier months. The situation is reversed in Brazil, where individuals tend to be diurnal in the dry season and nocturnal in the wet season.
8. THOSE “MANES” SERVE AS A DEFENSE MECHANISM.
9. MANED WOLVES ARE CLASSIFIED AS NEAR-THREATENED.
The future of these wonderful, stilt-legged canids is very much in doubt. Only around 17,000 mature adults are thought to be left in the wild. Most of these inhabit Brazil, where the local maned wolf population has declined by roughly 20 percent over the past 15 years. Widely suspected of being serial chicken-killers, the animals have long been hunted down and killed by chicken farmers throughout South America. Additionally, maned wolves are susceptible to diseases spread by domestic dogs, many of whom act aggressively towards their distant cousins. But the biggest threat to the animals is habitat loss. As grasslands and forests regularly become farmlands and villages, maned wolves are caught in the middle. Accordingly, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) regards this species as a near-threatened one. This means that, in the not-too-distant future, the maned wolf might well become vulnerable—or worse. Hopefully, increased awareness and captive breeding programs will help turn things around.
10. THEIR PEE SMELLS LIKE MARIJUANA.
Roar-barks are all well and good, but maned wolves primarily communicate with scent. These canines, like numerous other animals, use urine to mark their territories—but their pee is a lot different from what your pupper sprays onto the fire hydrant. Maned wolf urine releases pyrazines, hexagon-shaped clusters of nitrogen, carbon, and hydrogen that create a powerful odor that smells a lot like marijuana smoke.
A Dutch police department learned this fact by accident in 2006. That year, law enforcement officials were summoned to the Rotterdam Zoo in South Holland because guests believed there was a pot-smoker illegally lighting up at the facility. To the surprise of many, their culprit turned out to be a maned wolf who was simply marking its territory.
All images courtesy of iStock.