“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.”– Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book
Wolves are social animals, living in large family groups, or “packs.” In general, they are not solitary animals. Perhaps more than anything else, what makes wolves successful as predators is their teamwork.
Known to have great stamina, wolves are coursing predators with the endurance to run long distances while trailing prey or simply traveling to new territory. A wolf on the move can easily cover 50 miles a day for days at a time.
Wolves on the Hunt
Wolves chase and move herds, sometimes even for miles, in order to expose the right opportunity. They test their prey, searching for any weakness and finding vulnerability not only through visual cues, but also through hearing and scent. They take cues from each other such as when to increase speed, when to sprint, when to flank the herd, or when to distract the targeted animal, allowing other packmates to attack from behind. Despite these coordinated efforts, wolves still only succeed in securing a kill in about 15% of attempted hunts, with studies from various locations and prey type showing a range of 5-28%. Because of this high rate of failure, wolves spend about a third of their time hunting.
Individual wolves typically carry out specific roles while working together in the hunt. Smaller and lighter wolves, often the females, are faster and better at chasing down speedy prey. Larger, heavier wolves, often the males, are better at bringing large prey to the ground. The prime age for these hunters is generally around two to three years of age.
The experience of older wolves also plays a critical role in the success of the pack. They are the keepers of knowledge that is passed down through generations in a wolf pack. The knowledge of pack elders encompasses a broad range of information key to survival and success. This includes: knowledge specific to prey, the seasonal movements of different prey species, when to hunt which species, and what strategies to use when hunting a specific prey type. Individual packs can specialize in different prey species even within the same system. It is part of the learned “culture” of a specific wolf family.
The mothers of most large mammalian predator species, like the large cats and bears, raise their young on their own for as little as six months to three years. For most of these young predators, that window with their mother is their time to learn from another of their kind. After that, they are largely on their own.
Wolves, like some other canid species such as African painted dogs, have the benefit of learning throughout their lives from large families that span several generations. For wolves and all highly social animals, the opportunities for learning from others are inherently much greater. And while being social gives wolves a great advantage, there are many ways they do not size up to the other predators they compete with.
Solitary Hunters vs. Pack Hunters
When compared to their larger and more solitary predatory counterparts, wolves are smaller and lack the raw power of bears and mountain lions in North America (and large cats and bears in Eurasia). Bears and mountain lions attack in a manner that is more immediately lethal. Relying on sudden explosive speed, superior force, and the element of surprise, lions and bears overwhelm their prey swiftly, often dealing an immediate lethal bite or blow that breaks vertebrae. With momentary bursts of energy, mountain lions ambush large prey, while bears quickly overpower them.
Both bears and mountain lions have muscular forelimbs that rotate in a way that enables them grasp and take down their prey. Their large claws and powerful bite ensure little chance for prey to escape. In contrast, a wolf’s legs are built for running and their claws are used for traction.
While the long snout on a wolf affords it an excellent sense of smell, this feature also means that the force of their jaws is not as strong at the front of the jaw where the incisors and canines are located. Their canines are meant for grabbing, pulling and tearing, which are all part of how a pack of wolves dispatches large prey. When wolves bite through bone, they use their premolars and molars, where jaw strength is much greater. In contrast, the jaw of a mountain lion is much shorter, thus allowing them to deliver a lethal bone-piercing bite with their canines.
Wolves inability to deliver a singular kill bite or blow, coupled with their smaller size, and the need to subdue a defensive animal with their teeth alone, makes hunting large prey very dangerous for wolves. Many prey species targeted by wolves are equipped with formidable defenses. They can trample wolves underfoot or deliver lethal kicks with hooves. Their sharp antlers or horns are also very capable of killing a wolf, and it is not uncommon for wolves to be injured or even killed during the hunt. However, what wolves lack in brute force and lethal weaponry, they make up for with dogged persistence. Working together as a well-orchestrated team, they are able to bring down prey much larger than any individual wolf.