Hunting and Feeding Behaviours
Although social animals, single wolves or mated pairs typically have higher success rates in hunting than do large packs, with single wolves having occasionally been observed to kill large prey such as moose, bison and muskoxen unaided. A wolf hunt can be divided into five stages:
- Locating prey: The wolves travel in search of prey through their power of scent, chance encounter, and tracking. Wolves typically locate their prey by scent, though they must usually be directly downwind of it. When a breeze carrying the prey's scent is located, the wolves stand alert, and point their eyes, ears and nose towards their target. In open areas, wolves may precede the hunt with group ceremonies involving standing nose-to-nose and wagging their tails. Once concluded, the wolves head towards their prey.
- The stalk: The wolves attempt to conceal themselves as they approach. As the gap between the wolves and their prey closes, the wolves quicken their pace, wag their tails, and peer intently, getting as close to their quarry as possible without making it flee.
- The encounter: Once the prey detects the wolves, it can either approach the wolves, stand its ground, or flee. Large prey, such as moose, elk, and muskoxen, usually stand their ground. Should this occur, the wolves hold back, as they require the stimulus of a running animal to proceed with an attack. If the targeted animal stands its ground, the wolves either ignore it, or try to intimidate it into running.
- The rush: If the prey attempts to flee, the wolves immediately pursue it. This is the most critical stage of the hunt, as wolves may never catch up with prey running at top speed. If their prey is travelling in a group, the wolves either attempt to break up the herd, or isolate one or two animals from it.
- The chase: A continuation of the rush, the wolves attempt to catch up with their prey and kill it. When chasing small prey, wolves attempt to catch up with their prey as soon as possible, while with larger animals, the chase is prolonged, in order to wear the selected prey out. Wolves usually give up chases after 1–2 km (0.62–1.3 mi), though one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 21 km (13 mi). Both Russian and North American wolves have been observed to drive prey onto crusted ice, precipices, ravines, slopes and steep banks to slow them down.
The actual killing method varies according to prey species. With large prey, mature wolves usually avoid attacking frontally, instead focusing on the rear and sides of the animal. Large prey, such as moose, is killed by biting large chunks of flesh from the soft perineum area, causing massive blood loss. Such bites can cause wounds 10–15 cm in length, with three such bites to the perineum usually being sufficient to bring down a large deer in optimum health. With medium-sized prey such as roe deer or sheep, wolves kill by biting the throat, severing nerve tracks and the carotid artery, thus causing the animal to die within a few seconds to a minute. With small, mouse-like prey, wolves leap in a high arc and imobilize it with their forepaws. When prey is vulnerable and abundant, wolves may occasionally surplus kill. Such instances are common in domestic animals, but rare in the wild. In the wild, surplus killing primarily occurs during late winter or spring, when snow is unusually deep (thus impeding the movements of prey) or during the denning period, when wolves require a ready supply of meat when denbound. Medium-sized prey are especially vulnerable to surplus killing, as the swift throat-biting method by which they are killed allows wolves to quickly kill one animal and move on to another. Surplus killing may also occur when adult wolves are teaching their young to hunt.
Once prey is brought down, wolves begin to feed excitedly, ripping and tugging at the carcass in all directions, and bolting down large chunks of it. The breeding pair typically monopolizes food in order to continue producing pups. When food is scarce, this is done at the expense of other family members, especially non-pups. The breeding pair typically eats first, though as it is they who usually work the hardest in killing prey, they may rest after a long hunt and allow the rest of the family to eat unmolested. Once the breeding pair has finished eating, the rest of the family tears off pieces of the carcass and transport them to secluded areas where they can eat in peace. Wolves typically commence feeding by consuming the larger internal organs of their prey, such as the heart, liver, lungs and stomach lining. The kidneys and spleen are eaten once they are exposed, followed by the muscles. A single wolf can eat 15–19% of its body weight in a single feeding.
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