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The Iberian wolf is a subspecies of the grey wolf, or gray wolf, that can be found in Portugal and Spain. Officially known as canis lupis signatus, it is smaller and lighter than its counterparts located in areas of Eastern Europe. Its fur, depending on the season, can be reddish brown, light brown or shades of gray. The male Iberian wolf in adulthood weighs in at about 88 pounds (40 kg), and the female adult at about 66 pounds (30 kg).
The Iberian wolf’s name derives from its once prominent presence on the Iberian Peninsula. The wolf was threatened with extinction in the 1970s before conservation measures were introduced, and only about 500 or fewer remained. They were hunted because they were considered pests. The population bounced back and remains at about 2,500, but its territory is not as widespread as it once was.
Iberian wolf characteristics include distinctive dark markings on the animal’s tail, front legs and along its back. White marks are also present on the upper lip. Its likeness has been imprinted throughout history on everything from ancient vases and dishes to cave paintings. The likenesses usually represent a bloodthirsty creature, linking it to the many superstitions that have surrounded wolves. In ancient times, for example, they were associated with death and the afterlife. An early tradition recommended killing the wolf because it was said it could curse someone with its gaze.
The Iberian wolf still maintains a presence on the Iberian peninsula, mostly in the northwestern area. Sighting one in the wild is considered a rare event, especially since they have learned to be wary of humans after their near-extinction, mostly attributable to human hunting and official government programs to remove it from the area. There are tour groups designed specifically for people who want to see an Iberian wolf in its natural habitat.
Its near-extinction has led to a gene study at Cornell University in conjunction with Portuguese conservationists and researchers. Portugal’s classification of the Iberian wolf as a protected species led to the study, which will focus on DNA samples. The samples will help in tracking the wolves on the peninsula, studying their habitat, identifying disease and promoting conservation of the remaining Iberian wolf population.
Wolves are social creatures that live in packs, with breeding occurring between the alpha males and females. Contrary to the evil creature of lore and superstition, these wolves can create strong and loving bonds. Their reputation as evil may have stemmed from their hunting of livestock that angered farmers and ranchers if food in the wild was scarce. They have even been known to befriend and aid humans, as shown by the story of Marcos Rodriguez Pantoja. He was befriended and aided by a pack of wolves in Spain when he was a child left for years on his own in the wild.