Since the dawn of history, no other living thing (save, possibly, the snake) has been as reviled by humankind as the wolf. Still, wolves and people have been drawn to each other since the beginning. Canis lupus bounds through our folklore, howls in our dreams, and--occasionally--competes with us on the hunt. As one zoologist imagines it: "Through the cold of winter the wolf made music in the mysterious darkness and sometimes, in curiosity, sat just beyond the dwindling circle of firelight and watched." The curiosity was mutual; this is the feared animal, ironically, that gave rise to man's best friend. Yet only recently has science begun to understand these complex social mammals. Enter biologist L. David Mech. Years of research during the 1960s in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park provided Mech with a level of firsthand knowledge shared by few in the field. In 1970 he compiled his findings (updated in 1980) into the preeminent document of its kind. Thomas McNamee, author of The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone, calls the book the "best single source of information on wolf biology," and refers to its author as "the undisputed king of wolf research." When government officials in the early 1990s decided to embark on an ambitious project to reintroduce wolves into their former range of Yellowstone National Park, they called on Mech's expertise. All this is to say that, if you want to learn about wolves, you cannot ignore this seminal work or its author. Chapters cover wolf evolution, range, and physiology; society and pack behavior; reproduction; hunting and predator-prey relationships; and the species' uncertain future. Like any self-respecting scientist, Mech includes all the hard data, but he presents his work in an engaging manner that is accessible to a broader audience, drawing heavily on anecdotes and personal experience.
"Many people strongly dislike the wolf," Mech writes, "others rush to its defense. But no one denies that the animal is strong, powerful, intelligent, keen, and dynamic." While persecution by man has severely restricted its current status, the tide is turning, thanks to education and conservation efforts. After all, a night without a howl echoing somewhere across the landscape would surely be a colder, less alive night. --Langdon Cook