How do Wolves Hunt?
An Iconic Sound
Humans have always admired the wolf’s prowess as a hunter, often going as far to consider them to be the finest and most successful of all hunters, even when in direct competition for food. Humans, throughout history have also been acutely aware of the wolf’s awesome strength and power. These wonderful creatures have been known to track their quarry for up to 100 miles a day, and successfully bring down prey up to 10 times larger than themselves. Thanks to painstaking work carried out by behavioural experts, we now have a fascinating insight into what actually happens before, during and after a kill. We also now know a great deal about the amount of collective skill and cooperation that is required to carry out a successful hunt as a pack.
Tactics of the Hunt
For the wolf, a successful hunt depends largely on making careful preparations before the hunt. Individuals constantly revise their skills, as well as practicing and refining their techniques so that every member is more than ready to play their part when required.
A typical wolf pack will contain a number of individuals that specialise in certain areas, such as pup rearing and hunting. The specialist hunters are usually female; this is because they are roughly 25 per cent smaller than the males, meaning that they are much faster and agile than the bulkier males. There are often a couple of wolves within the pack that are capable of sprinting like a greyhound, reaching speeds fast enough to either catch or force their prey into an ambush. Usually, the hunter will not be the alpha or breeding female, as the risk of injury for a hunter is high, and the alpha is far too valuable to the survival of the pack. She will, however, keep a close eye on proceedings from the sidelines and ensure that the lower ranked wolves remain disciplined during the hunt. This is often a very difficult, so she will often initiate practice sessions before a hunt to drill the discipline home.
Nowadays, the term alpha when used in wolf circles is a misnomer, as it often implies dominance. The alpha wolves in a pack do not dominate other individuals in any sort of coercive sense. Instead, they simply enjoy the greatest amount of social freedom in the pack, by never having to submit to anyone and of course enjoying the privilege of being the only two individuals permitted to breed.
The practice sessions are initiated by the alpha female who excretes an odour which informs the pack of which way to turn. She uses her body to push them either to one side or the other. Then, she will select exactly what prey will be hunted, usually using the seasons as a gauge to make the appropriate choice. For instance, in the winter, a large animal with a high fat content, such as bison and elk will be chosen, whilst the summer is reserved for smaller animals such as mountain goats and young deer. She makes her choice by digging up some cached food, which was probably deliberately buried for use in the training sessions. In the summer, she’ll often bury food around lakes or ponds, where the cool mud just above the waterline acts as a natural refrigerator.
Having shown the hunters and the rest of the pack which food she wants them to hunt, she proceeds to demonstrate the movements that the prey animal would make before being chased. She normally does this while carrying the food morsel in her mouth. The alpha male will be allowed to take the food from her and act as if to defend it, showing that he now has control, effectively simulating a real hunt. Once he has control, then the pack begins to feed.
Occasionally a wolf will opt to hunt alone, but is usually far more cautious and rarely hunts anything bigger than a rabbit. Usually they will catch creatures such as rodents and birds, and occasionally will compete with bears for fish during the salmon season.
Wolves vs. Elk
- Rewilding in the UK
My hub exploring the pros and cons of whether the wolf and other large animals should be reintroduced to the UK.
- Wolves: The Pack
My Hub profiling the complex structure of a wolf pack.
- Wildwood Trust
A UK charity devoted to protecting native British fauna and also aims to reintroduce lost fauna, including the wolf to the UK.
- The UK Wolf Conservation Trust - Working to Keep Wolves in the Wild | UK Wolf Conservation Trust
The UK Wolf Conservation Trust is a UK non-profit organisation working to keep wolves in the wild.
- International Wolf Center Home
The International Wolf Center provides complete wolf information on their biology, environment and interaction with humans.
Ever fancied actually living the life of a wolf. Now you can with this wonderful simulation game set in Yellowstone.
More on the Grey Wolf
On the Trail
Wolves, like all members of the canine family have an exceptional sense of smell. The domestic version of the wolf that brings love and joy to millions around the world possesses a sense of smell ten thousand times more sensitive than ours, and although it has yet to be scientifically verified, it’s thought that the wolf’s sense of smell surpasses its domestic counterpart. Some scientists even go as far as suggesting that the wolf’s sense of smell may be one hundred thousand times greater than ours. They’re capable of detecting potential prey at a distance of 2 miles if the wind is with them.
When wolves track an animal, they follow the scent of the animal’s hoof-prints, urine and droppings. They can also smell any hair, skin, particles or parasites in its tracks. They cannot visually track footprints like we can; of all the creatures on Earth only we can track in this way. But the wolf doesn't need that skill, for their sense of smell more than compensates for it. They can even smell the tooth decay of an old animal. Indeed, their information processing skills are complex enough to allow them to gauge whether the prey is in poor health, old or injured, and even how far ahead it is.
A successful hunt requires various techniques depending on the size of the quarry. For instance, wolves will stalk slowly in long grass when targeting a smaller animal; they also employ ambush tactics to catch smaller, faster prey. During such an ambush, the pack splits into two or more groups, and one will pursue the animal towards the remaining pack members, usually hidden away, using the trees and bushes as effective camouflage. Wolves have even been observed picking up snow in their mouths, so that their breath remains invisible to their prey. Once the prey is caught, usually a bite to the neck and a few shakes is enough to kill the animal.
Another technique used is intimidation. The pack will single out their prey and try to force it to run, this may sound counter intuitive, but an animal with large hooves or horns is less dangerous when moving away from them, rather than standing its ground. Wolves have been recorded reaching a top speed of 40 miles an hour, and if required can maintain this sort of pace for an hour, they are truly one of nature’s greatest endurance athletes. When chasing a large ungulate, such as elk or moose, they can continuously harry and pester their quarry enough to deny them food, water, rest and security for up to a fortnight. The wolves wound and gradually weaken the animal by snapping at its flanks from time to time, the result being that the large herbivore will eventually give in due to blood loss and exhaustion.
Defending Your Prize
The Spoils of the Hunt
Once the prey has been killed, the pack feeds in an orderly and disciplined manner. Thought it may surprise you, the alphas don’t always feed first, but they do control exactly what each wolf eats and when. The betas, the rank below the alphas are usually made up of the largest wolves and act as enforcers in the aftermath of a kill, and are rewarded for their deeds by helping themselves to more food than lower ranked individuals.
An individual wolf can consume up to 20 pounds of meat in a single sitting, it sounds a lot, but it’s important that the wolves gorge themselves in this way, as it could be days or even weeks before their next substantial meal. If they have the good fortune of having more food that they can eat, then they will bury it and mark the spot with urine in order to be able to locate it when food does become scarce.
Once feeding has finished the wolves indulge in play and grooming to reinforce bonds that may have been tested during the highly tense and risky hunt. Wolves, on average only make a kill in one out of every ten hunts. This is in stark contrast to their relatives in Africa, the African hunting dog that makes a kill in eight out of every ten hunts, marking them out as one of the most successful hunters in the world. After reinforcing and renewing strained bonds, the wolves will take the opportunity to rest in order to aid the digestive process. However, their alertness never dwindles, and if they need to flee for whatever reason then they can. If this happens, then the wolf will regurgitate its food, as running on a full stomach slows them down, as well causing them discomfort.
After the hunt and feast, the pack will howl to protect their hard earned meal from other predators, including bears. Once they've had their full, they will abandon what’s left, leaving it to scavengers such as ravens, eagles, foxes and coyotes.
© 2012 James Kenny