What the wolf lacks in size, power and weapons it makes up for with collaboration and intelligence. For instance, smaller and less strong than mountain lions, wolves are working together to take prey that is much bigger than an individual wolf; prey that might otherwise elude them. While individual wolves have been able to subdue big prey animals, working with their pack has their benefit. Opportunists are wolves. They test their prey, feel any weakness or vulnerability by visual signs, and even by hearing and scent. Unlike ambush predators relying on the element of surprise and a brief and intense burst of energy to secure their prey, wolves are predators of endurance. To find the correct animal, they chase their prey, often over longer distances, sometimes even a few miles. On the hunt, wolves typically carry out their particular function in the hunt together, often based on age, gender and social standing. While wolves will consume hares and other tiny prey or big hoofed animals like deer and elk, as their preferred targets. Individual packs will be dedicated to hunting particular species of prey. While elk, caribou, deer, and moose are the most common, it can also be a bison, muskoxen, sheep, or even salmon.
It is not unusual for wolves to be wounded or even killed during the hunt by being kicked by a hoof or gored by an antler. The prey they select most often is weaker and/or more susceptible in some manner than the other herd animals. They may be wounded, sick, old, very young or inferior in genetic terms. But even healthier prey may be in a fragile situation. This method enables the most competent prey animals to survive and pass on their genes over time and helps to restrict disease spread within the herd. This is an ancient tale of evolutionary achievement shared by a predator and prey.
So going to the original question, how wolves hunt?
It is during a hunt that collaboration within a pack of wolves is more evident. Before making its move, a wolf pack can trail a herd of elk, caribou or other big prey for days. They are hunting, evaluating the herd, searching for an animal that shows any sign of weakness during this moment, and this is just the start. Wolves also need to factor in other circumstances affecting the hunt; weather and terrain can tip the scales in favor of the predator or prey. For example, a wide open plain favors the ungulates who can outrun the fastest wolf if they are full-grown and healthy. Crusty snow or ice favors the wolves whose broad round paws have developed to perform like snowshoes and bring them over the ground without effort. An experienced wolf knows that hoofed animals break through the crust and can get stuck in profound snow.
Wolves have learned to utilized these circumstances. The wolves understand that their mere existence will eventually panic the caribou, following closely behind them. It’s established in the snowdrifts when the rearmost caribou spoke, leaving the difficult path and trying to run to the center of the herd. It’s all over when that occurs. This same gang of wolves shifts their tactics in hot weather, herding the caribou into a dry riverbed where many of the ungulates are stumbling on the round rocks.
A wolf pack therefore weighs many factors when selecting its target and, as circumstances change during the hunt, the target may change. They may initially pursue a calf, but if a large healthy bull stumbles suddenly, they all realize they’re going after the larger dinner. Conversely, they may wait if too many variables seem to favor the prey. Sometimes it’s better to remain a little hungry until the odds get better than spending valuable energy on a fruitless chase.
Other wolf observers have noted that fewer than half of the wolves on a hunt are in fact engaged in physically bringing the prey down. The youngest wolves often only observe and learn from the sidelines. Based on their specific experience and capacity, each of the other pack members contributes. Speedy, lightly constructed women often assume herding roles, going back and forth before the prey, creating confusion and preventing escape. Slower but more strong males can more aggressively and rapidly bring down a big animal.
Wolves are not equipped to rapidly dispatch their victims; prey die from shock, muscle harm or loss of blood. If it can, the prey will be seized by the nose by one of the stronger wolves and held tight, helping to bring about a more expeditious end, but the animal can still take many minutes to succeed. Equipped only with running feet and biting jaws, wolves do their utmost. The ferocity and clear brutality of a wolf pack is truly a defensive measure. Being seriously injured by flailing hooves and slashing antlers is not uncommon for a wolf. A well-placed kick might break the jaw of a wolf, making him unable to feed himself. Harassing the prey is much safer and letting it tire before going closely. Harassing the prey is much safer and letting it tire before going closely. A hunt is a masterfully coordinated group undertaking, far from being a mob scene, well worthy of our admiration.
While the alpha male is in the thick of the hunt, it would be an exaggeration to say he’s leading it. The alpha may choose the animal to be followed, or if it goes badly, he may break off the hunt. But he’s not barking instructions like a general on the battlefield to his subordinates. The wolves seem to understand what to do, and they are doing it as one.
The young wolves are watching the adults’ conduct and seeing how they play the game. They are witnessing how adults change their approach depending on prey type and circumstances. They learn how each situation is handled by the hunters: what to do when the prey is dashing for open ground, or jumping into a river, or turning to protect themselves.
Finally, when juvenile wolves join the hunt, they imitate the more skilled wolves and perfect the accurate herding and tackling abilities. They have become a component of a well-oiled machine by the moment they are fully grown adults. Even if during the hunt they could verbally interact with each other, it would be pointless. They understand precisely what to expect and what to expect from the others.
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