Wolves are predominantly carnivorous. While they could technically be considered omnivores because they can eat vegetation and different fruit, they can not survive on a diet without meat for a long time. In the wild, meat makes up the vast majority of the food they eat.
Wolves are apex predators, which means that they are at the top of the food chain. Their diet consists of ungulates (hoofed animals), small mammals, carrion (dead animals), and fish. In areas where ungulates are scarce, wolves will prey on large reptiles and mammals, such as bears, moose, and bison.
They primarily eat meat, but can also survive on fruits and vegetables if necessary. In general, wolves prefer to hunt in pairs or small groups, although they will occasionally hunt alone. When asking specifically what do wolves eat, it really does change depending on the breed. As species of wolf are spread far and wide, it is only natural that different breeds have different diets and hunting habits. So let’s take a look at them.
What Different Wolf Breeds Eat And How They Hunt
Maned Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Whereas other large canids hunt cooperatively to capture ungulate prey, Maned wolves specialize in small prey. At night Maned Wolves search for rodents, hares and birds. Fruits are a large fraction of their diet. Most interestingly of all, a large portion of the diet, over 50%, according to some studies, is made of fruits and plant matter, especially Wolf Apples, the tomato-like fruit of Solanum lycocarpum. Captive maned wolves were traditionally fed meat-heavy diets and developed kidney stones. Zoo diets now feature fruits and vegetables, as well as meat and dog chow.
Red Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Unlike the Grey Wolf, the Red Wolf eats mainly small animals including rabbits, raccoons and rodents. Red Wolves will occasionally eat insects and berries. Because they are smaller than the Grey Wolf, large prey is difficult to capture and therefore it is rare for them to eat larger prey such as deer unless they have help from other wolves.
Eastern Wolf: Diet and Hunting
The Eastern Wolf preys on White-tailed Deer, Moose, rabbits and rodents including beaver, muskrat and mice. Preying on American Black Bear was also reported. Studies in Algonquin Provincial Park showed that three species accounted for 99% of the wolves’s diet, Moose (some of which is scavenged), White-tailed Deer and Beaver. The wolves tend to prey more frequently on American Beaver in the summer and on White-tailed Deer in the winter.
Arctic Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Arctic wolves, like all wolves, hunt in packs. They mostly prey on Caribou and musk oxen, however, they will also kill a number of Arctic Hares, seals, ptarmigan and lemmings, as well as other smaller animals. Moose are also common prey, their long legs may render them slow and at times, stuck, in thick snow, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by wolf packs.
As grazing plants are scarce, they roam large areas to find prey up to and beyond 2600 kilometres squared (1000 square miles) and they will follow migrating caribou during the winter.
Grey Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Grey wolves are carnivores. Their natural diet is solely meat and they often prey on animals larger than they are including – deer, moose, caribou, elk, bison and musk-oxen as well small animals such as beaver, hares and other small rodents.
Ethiopian Wolf: Diet and Hunting
The Ethiopian Wolf is a carnivore. The Ethiopian Wolf preys on rodents ranging in size from hares to the Giant Mole Rat to that of the common grass rats. They also eat eggs, goslings and young ungulates and they will occasionally scavenge on carcasses. Ethiopian Wolves also catch their prey in shallow holes.
Eurasian Wolf: Diet and Hunting
The diet of Eurasian wolves varies enormously throughout their ranges. Eurasian wolves commonly prey on medium sized ungulates like moufflon, chamois, saiga, wild boar, red deer, roe deer and livestock. Eurasian wolves will occasionally eat smaller prey such as frogs and hares. In Europe, their largest prey is the wisent, while in Asia, it is the yak.
Because of increasing shortage of natural prey, wolves are sometimes forced to give up their pack-hunting habits and scavenge for food around villages and farmhouses. Many rural villages have open dumps where the local slaughterhouse disposes of its waste. Many wolves feed there alongside feral or stray dogs.
Italian Wolf: Diet and Hunting
The Italian Wolf is a nocturnal hunter which feeds primarily on medium sized animals such as Chamois, Roe Deer, Red Deer and Wild Boar. In the absence of such prey items, its diet will also include small animals such as hares and rabbits. An Italian wolf can eat up to 1,5 – 3 kilograms of meat a day. The Italian Wolf will occasionally consume berries and herbs for roughage. The Italian Wolf has adapted well in some urbanised areas and as such, will usually not ignore refuse or domestic animals.
Mexican Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Mexican wolves prey on white-tailed deer, mule deer and elk, however, they are also known to eat smaller mammals such as rabbits, ground squirrels and mice.
Tundra Wolf: Diet and Hunting
Like all wolves, Tundra wolves are carnivorous. They primarily prey on large mammals such as deer, wapiti, moose, caribou, bison, musk ox and mountain sheep. Their smallest prey taken consistently is beaver. An adult Wolf can consume as much as 9 kilograms (20 pounds) in one feeding.
How do wolves eat?
Wolves don’t eat everyday. In fact they may go several days without a meal and then gorge on a big feast. Ever wondered where the term ‘wolfing it down’ comes from? well wonder no more. This is known as a feast or famine cycle, and it’s how most breeds of wolf live.
On average, wolves consume around 10 lbs of meat per day, but as they don’t eat every day this can mean they eat around 20 lbs of meat in one meal. They can survive on much less, say around 3 lbs of meat per day. But growing or pregnant wolves need more.
Are there any foods a wolf can’t eat?
As a member of the canidae family, foods that are toxic to dogs are also toxic to wolves. Foods that are safe for us humans can potentially be fatal to wolves. Here are some of the most toxic food for wolves:
- Chocolate – It’s the Theobromine in chocolate that can cause problems for canid species including wolves. This vasodilator acts as a stimulant of the heart as well as a blood vessel widener. The higher the cocoa content the more dangerous the chocolate.
- Most Pitted Fruit – Fruit with a pit or stone such as prunes, apricots, peaches, plums or cherries are all dangerous for wolves. While the flesh of these fruit is generally ok, every part of the plant, stem and stone are toxic. They contain Cyanide which disrupts cellular oxygen transport. This in turn means that blood cells can’t get enough oxygen and symptoms can be nasty.
- Figs – The compounds in Figs that are harmful to wolves are the Proteolytic enzyme (ficin), and psoralen (ficusin). In small amounts this can be ok, but it can cause gastrointestinal and dermal irritation.
- Grapefruit – The fruit is ok, but skins and plant material can cause problems including vomiting, depression and dermatitis.
- Raisins/ Grapes – Although we are not 100% sure why Grapes are dangerous to wolves it is believed to be the tannins in the grapes that cause kidney problems. Symptoms of poisoning may result in sickness and diarrhoea as the body tries to process the toxins.
- Star fruit – Star fruit contains soluble calcium oxalates, which bind with calcium in the body. If enough is eaten, it can result in acute renal failure and death.
- Acai – Acai contains theobromine, the same compound that makes chocolate toxic to wolves.
- Onions – Any plant belonging to the onion family is not healthy for wolves to eat. These include: Leeks, Shallots, Onions, Chives and Garlic. They commonly cause blood disorders and anemia, leading to more severe health issues.
Wolves wold never come into some of these foods in the wild generally. But as they encroach onto homesteads, bins or waste left at campsites and lodges, these could be a potential source if not disposed of properly.
Hunting Tactics Of Wolves
Wolves are typically very efficient predators. They will typically stalk their prey until they are in a position to make a successful kill. Wolves have been known to take down animals much larger than themselves, such as elk and moose. They hunt in packs, which allows them to take down larger prey.
Their hunting tactics vary depending on what they are hunting. Wolves that hunt deer use stealth and cunning to get close to their prey. They will often circle their prey, trying to cut off its escape route. When they attack, they go for the throat, severing the jugular vein. Wolves that hunt smaller prey, such as rabbits, use speed and agility to run them down. They will also use teamwork to surround their prey.
Why wolves target young, sick, or injured animals
Wolves typically target young, sick, or injured animals when hunting ungulates because they are the easiest prey to take down. Young animals are not as fast or as strong as healthy adults, and they are less likely to be able to defend themselves. Sick animals are often slower and weaker than healthy ones, and injured animals may be slowed down by their injuries.
Healthy ungulates have evolved strong defences against predators, such as heightened fight or flight response that kicks in very sharp senses of smell and hearing, and a very fast pace. Sharp hooves are also common with ungulates. So it is in a wolves best interests to target the weak for a greater chance of success and less chance of injury.
The importance of the wolf in the ecosystem
The wolf is an important part of the ecosystem. They help to keep the populations of other animals in check, which helps to maintain a balance in the ecosystem. Wolves also play an important role in controlling the population of deer and other ungulates. If there were no wolves, the populations of these animals would grow out of control, which could have a negative impact on the ecosystem.
Not only do they help to keep populations of ungulates healthy, but they also play a role in controlling the spread of diseases. Additionally, their scavenging habits help to clean up the environment by getting rid of dead and decaying animals.
Threats To Wolves
While most people think of wolves as apex predators, they are actually quite vulnerable to being killed by other animals. Bears, coyotes, and cougars are all potential threats to wolves. In addition, humans have hunted wolves extensively throughout history, which has led to their populations declining in many areas.
Despite the challenges they face, wolves remain a resilient species that has adapted to survive in a wide range of habitats across the globe.