When people think of wolves, they often think of two things: howling and the hunt. Images of a pack of wolves devouring the guts of a caribou may come to mind. Most may not know that the way in which wolves hunt and eat is actually impressively organized.
The leader of the hunt is not always the alpha. In fact, it’s usually a female member of the pack who has no high ranking. If the alpha male or female were to be injured while leading the pack in the hunt, their whole hierarchy system would fall apart for a time. So, just like in a lion pride, the females are in charge of training and leading the pack in hunts. The female wolves are often 20-25 pounds lighter than the males and are faster and more agile so they can sprint into position while taking down prey or dodge out of the way of sharp antlers.
Wolves will normally hunt at dusk and dawn to avoid potential human contact, and have been known to hunt by the light of the full moon – though wolves have amazing night vision. During the winter, wolves will go after large prey up to 10 times their size like bison, elk, or wild boar. These herbivores will have enough meat for the wolves to gorge themselves on and sustain them through the cold months, plus they had a high fat content. In the summer, wolves will go after smaller game like mountain goats or young deer. When a wolf hunts alone, they go after small prey like rodents, birds, rabbits and even fish. In hard times, wolves will resort to consuming fruit, berries and nuts to survive. They also munch on grass and vegetation to aid in digestion.
When preparing for the hunt, the huntress will literally train and have a sort of briefing session with the rest of her pack. She will indicate what they will be going after by digging up leftover remains of that animal (sometimes chunks of meat or a hoof) from the edges of lakes and ponds (the cool mud acts as a refrigerator) and run with it to simulate the chase. When the wolves have practiced their plan of attack, the alpha male steals the remains from the huntress to let the others know that once the kill is made, he is to go in first for the kill.
Wolf packs have been known to trail their prey for 100 miles and have a sensitive enough olfactory sense to detect that prey for up to 1.75 miles away. They use everything from the prey’s hoofprints, urine and droppings, hair and skin particles, or even dropped off parasites to follow the scent. They can even tell if their quarry are sick, old, injured, or in general poor condition. Wolves will often go after the weak and sick of a herd. This may seem cruel, but it actually helps the health of the herd to pick off the stragglers who slow their migrating.
Once they have caught up to their prey, the wolves can use a myriad of different techniques. One way is that the pack splits up into two or more groups while one wolf will chase the animal towards the rest of the pack hiding in the foliage. Another is that they will single out their prey from the rest of the herd and try to get it on the run where the whole pack will chase it. This is often safer because neither horns nor hooves are plowing through the pack, but running away and the animal is less able to defend itself. However, large animals like a male bison can still prove dangerous even if they are not the ones being hunted. In defense of their herd, a swift kick to a wolf’s head can mean certain death. Wolves can run up to 30 to 40 miles an hour for the duration of an hour in pursuit of their kill. Or, they can stay the course on a slower pace and starve a healthy herbivore by denying it rest, food, water, or herd safety. This can go on for up to two weeks. Wolves normally have a 1 in 10 chance of being successful on a hunt. But when they finally do get their prey, they either bring it down by the nose or rump, and a solid bite to the neck followed by a few firm shakes, and the hunt is over. Wolves have a jaw strength of 1,500 pounds per square inch. To put that in prospective, human pounds are broken at 400 pounds of pressure.
A single wolf can eat between 5 and 20 pounds of meat at a time. Without knowing where
your next meal would be coming from, it’s ideal to eat as much as you can even if they can’t move afterwards. If there are still leftovers, the wolves will store the food in a surplus cache and urinate on the spot to know where it is later.
Contrary to what someone may believe, the alpha male does not hog the meal. He may eat first, but he also delegates out how much each wolf is to eat and which parts. Betas, the pack enforcers, need strength to protect the pack and are usually the largest of the wolves. As a result, they are allotted more food and have bigger appetites to keep them fit and ready. Higher ranking wolves are privileged to eat the vital organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys. There are multiple advantages to eating these organs. Not only do they give the eater a distinct scent to let everyone else know their rank in the pack, but the nutrients in these organs can actually alter the coloration of the wolf’s face. An alpha’s face will have darker, more distinct markings while lower ranking wolves have softer color features.
When defending their portion, wolves will bare their teeth, fold back their ears and duck their head in a sign of defense. The alpha will do all of this, plus flicking his tongue to assert his dominance. Meal time can be a particularly tense time in pack life with all that growling and sharp teeth and the omega wolf, the lowest ranking pack member, comes in to break up the tension with play or foolishness.
After they have had their fill, wolves are not likely to move right away. Running on a full, bloated stomach can lead to intestinal problems and have the potential to be fatal. If they are forced to run for an emergency reason, they will often regurgitate the contents of their stomach to avoid this. They use this time to relax, indulge in play, and grooming sessions to reenforce pack bonds that may have been strained during the feed. Wolves have been known to chew on sticks and twigs to clean their teeth as well. In addition to this, the pack will howl to glory over their conquest and defend their hard earned meal from other predators.
There’s a lot of controversy out there about whether wolves should be hunted or not. I’m here to say that wolves, just like any other animal, are vital to the ecosystem. As I said before, wolves pick off the old and sick from herds to help their migratory patterns. They also serve as a regulator on large game in the wild. Even where bears or coyotes roam, they are solitary animals and don’t have the numbers to take down big game like elk or bison. If these prey animals become overpopulated, they can create an imbalance in the ecosystem. They can overgraze and vegetation can be striped from the landscape, causing soil erosion and if it gets out of control, there will be nothing for them to eat at all and cause smaller game to suffer. Farmers or ranchers may make the stance that wolves will eat their livestock, but this isn’t true. Wolves will not go anywhere near human civilization, let alone a wandering calf who has the human scent all over them. If a wolf ever hunted down cattle or attacked a human, that wolf was often starving and/or very sick and not in the right frame of mind to know the difference, or they were desperate.
Here’s a video giving an excellent example of how important the wolf is to the ecosystem.