Wolves prey on a wide variety of animals including deer, elk, moose, bison, rabbits, and beavers. The hunt is led by the Alpha Male and Alpha Female, who are accompanied by all the adults and yearlings. The wolves locate prey by chance encounter, airborne scent, or a fresh scent trail. Once located, the wolves stalk the prey, looking for signs of vulnerability. Their main targets are the old, young or sick. Since wolves prey on the most vulnerable animals, they play an integral part in improving the genetic variability of their prey. In the end, the wolves outrun the prey, drag it down, and tear at it until it is too weak to fend off the pack. When hunting in a pack, wolves often try to capture and kill deer, moose, caribou, bison, wild sheep, wild goats or musk oxen, and these large ungulates (hoofed animals) make up most of a wolf's diet. Although wolves hunting in packs tend to capture such large prey items, lone wolves will on occasion bring down a large hoofed animal or one of its calves. During spring, wolves often prey upon juvenile ungulates. Wolves will also eat smaller animals like beavers, rabbits, hares, voles, fish, muskrats, lemmings, raccoons, shrews, marmots, woodchucks, shellfish, ground squirrels, mice and birds. Wolves hunting alone often catch such animals. Wolves will also eat animal carcasses they have found but did not kill themselves. Wolves will also eat insects, earthworms, or garbage and, when especially hungry, vegetable matter, such as berries or nuts, though none of these items make up a significant part of a wolf's diet. They will also eat grass as a purgative. Wolves will sometimes turn to eating domestic livestock as well.
Despite the fact that wolves are skillful hunters, they often go days or even weeks without food. This is because prey animals have many ways to escape from or defend themselves from wolves.
A kick from the hooves or a lunge from the horns of a musk ox can be fatal to a wolf. Moose often defend themselves by fighting with the wolves, and they often inflict fatal wounds on wolves by kicking with their sharp hooves or lunging with their antlers. Moose that try to fight off an attacking pack of wolves are often successful. Moose may also try to run from wolves, as do deer, which are very swift, or they may retreat to a deep body of water or a fast flowing river. Moose that attempt to flee from wolves are often killed or injured, however, as wolves are usually capable of outrunning a moose. Once wolves catch up to a moose, they start to attack it from the sides and hindquarters. Sometimes, one wolf will attempt to bite onto the muzzle of a moose while the rest of the pack attacks the animal's hindquarters and the sides of its body. Deer, which lack the strength and ferocity of the moose, almost always run from wolves, and they are often capable of outrunning a pack of wolves. A stampede will expose the weak, vulnerable calves which will be attacked by the entire pack. Sometimes, one or two wolves will chase their prey right into another group of wolves. Wolves will also try to run their prey into exhaustion, or they may surround a herd and drive it into the open to expose the weakest animal.
If the wolves do get the chance to attack an animal, they will surround it and bite its neck, rear, head and sides to bring it down. Wolves rarely (if ever) hamstring a prey animal. The cause of death of the prey animal is usually massive blood loss, shock or both, although wolves may snap the neck of a smaller animal. The wolves will immediately start to devour the animal. The rump or hindquarters of the prey animal, as well as the internal organs, are usually the first parts of the prey animal eaten, and the muscle and flesh are usually the last parts eaten. Adult wolves are capable of eating about 14 kilograms (20 pounds) of meat at once, because wolves often go for long periods of time without eating, so once they do get food, they eat as much as they possibly can. If they cannot eat the entire carcass at once, they will often return to it later, if it has not been taken over by bears or other animals. Wolves snarl and snap at each other while they eat.
Nuzzles or Nuzzling: This expression/action is used when greeting others, or as a submissive act towards a higher ranking wolf.
Licking: Is an action used while greeting as well, and as a submissive posture. Normally lower ranking wolves will lick up at the higher ranking wolf under their chin, or on there muzzle.
Ears: Are very important to a wolf's survival. They use there fantastic sense of hearing to hunt down prey, listen for danger, etc. They can hear up to many miles away.
Teeth: Their large K9's extend up to 2 inches in length. They have a total of 4 K9's. Two in front and two on the bottom. These are used to ripe through tough hide and raw flesh. With their molars, they can crush the thigh bone of a moose.
Muzzle: They use there muzzle mostly to howl, leave scents and interact with other wolves.
Paws: With their paws, they can run swiftly and easily on the top of the snow. They have webbed like feet that spread as they run/walk over the snow.
Nose: They can sense/smell prey from one to a half mile away. They use the wind as well, to let them know where prey is.
Submission: This gesture is one of friendliness, harmony, and the most expressed. This is a displacement of the lower ranking wolves within the pack. To show the wolf knows his/hers place and rank within the pack. A wolf showing submission will normally display, ears pinned back licking up at the dominate wolfs chin/muzzle, tail tucked or held low, head held lower then the dominate, and maybe a slight whimper
Passive Submission: This gesture is displayed, as well as performed, by a higher ranking wolf ((i.e. the Alpha or Beta)) showing authority upon or to a lower ranking subordinate wolf. This is to show the higher ranking wolf that he/she knows his/her place within the pack. A wolf will normally display "passive submission" by rolling on his/her back showing their underside, tail tucked in between his/her legs, with ears pinned back. This is for more EXTREME cases of submission. This type of submission doesn't happen often within a wolf pack, because there is a lot of bonds and understanding between the members of the pack. A wolf displaying PASSIVE SUBMISSION, will immediately move onto their back showing their underside, tuck their tail in between his/her legs, ears pinned back, and neck reveled to the more dominate wolf ((normally an Alpha)). The reason why the subordinate shows their neck, is the more dominate wolf can chose whether or not to attack, or accept the Passive submission. The paws are drawn into the body. This posture is often accompanied by whimpering. When the subordinate wolf is ready to submit, it will lie on the ground and expose its side and belly to the alpha wolf. The wolf may also urinate. This act is called passive submission, and the alpha wolf will accept it as though it were an apology.
Active Submission – During active submission, the entire body is lowered, and the lips and ears are drawn back. Sometimes active submission is accompanied by muzzle licking, or the rapid thrusting out of the tongue and lowering of the hindquarters. The tail is placed down, or halfway or fully between the legs, and the muzzle often points up to the more dominant animal. The back may be partly arched as the submissive wolf humbles itself to its superior; a more arched back and more tucked tail indicate a greater level of submission.
If a subservient wolf tries to resist the authority of an alpha wolf, the alpha will try to get the subservient wolf to submit. Sometimes, the alpha will only need to give a stern stare to the rebellious wolf. The dominant wolf may have to growl and bear its teeth at the rebellious wolf or it may crouch on the ground as if it were going to pounce on the offender. A dominant wolf may also hold the muzzle of a subordinate wolf to assert its authority A dominant animal may also place its front paws across the shoulders of a subordinate animal or try to stand over it to assert its authority.
Dominance – A dominant wolf stands stiff legged and tall. The ears are erect and forward, and the hackles bristle slightly. Often the tail is held vertically and curled toward the back. This display asserts the wolf's rank to others in the pack. A dominant wolf may stare at a submissive one, pin it to the ground, "ride up" on its shoulders, or even stand on its hind legs.
Anger – An angry wolf's ears are erect, and its fur bristles. The lips may curl up or pull back, and the incisors are displayed. The wolf may also arch its back, lash out, or snarl.
Fear – A frightened wolf attempts to make itself look small and less conspicuous; the ears flatten against the head, and the tail may be tucked between the legs, as with a submissive wolf. There may also be whimpering or barks of fear, and the wolf may arch its back
Defensive – A defensive wolf flattens its ears against its head. It may also bare its teeth or snap if another wolf comes to close.
Aggression – An aggressive wolf snarls and its fur bristles. The wolf may crouch, ready to attack if necessary.
Suspicion – Pulling back of the ears shows a wolf is suspicious. The wolf also narrows its eyes. The tail of a wolf that senses danger points straight out, parallel to the ground.
Relaxation – A relaxed wolf's tail points straight down, and the wolf may rest sphinx-like or on its side. The wolf may also wag its tail. The further down the tail droops, the more relaxed the wolf is.
Tension – An aroused wolf's tail points straight out, and the wolf may crouch as if ready to spring.
Happiness – As dogs do, a wolf may wag its tail if in a joyful mood. The tongue may roll out of the mouth.
Wolves also use different gestures to ask each other to play. When a wolf wants to play, it will approach another wolf and it will bow down with its front feet on the ground and its rear in the air with the tail wagging. It may also wipe its paw against its face. If the other wolf wants to play, it will approach the initiator, who may then stay in the crouched position or who may then bound away. The two will play fight or chase each other until they are tired. While wolves play, they may growl at each other playfully, let out loud, high-pitched dog-like barks, or gently bite and nip each other. Wolf pups are very playful, and adult wolves occasionally will play. During such relaxed situations, exceptions to the normal pack hierarchy often occur. For instance, during play, a dominant wolf may behave as though it were subservient to a lower-ranking wolf, and a subservient wolf may appear to be dominating a higher-ranking wolf.
During their period of courtship, the alpha male and female will become very close to each other. They stay with each other almost all of the time, even while they are sleeping, and act quite affectionate towards each other. The alpha male and female have a strong relationship all year, but it becomes stronger as they prepare to mate. Once they are established as a breeding pair, they often stay together for life, although infrequent changes in partners may occur. It is untrue that wolves always mate for life, though wolves typically only have one mate at a time. Serial monogamy is not uncommon, whereas polygamy is rare. The male and female often mate several times before the female's heat period is over.
A few weeks before the pups are born, the female will select a den. Most often, the den is a burrow dug into a soft area of a hillside. The den generally consists of a tunnel with an opening just large enough for an adult wolf to enter that leads to an enlarged chamber where the pups will be born. A rock cave, a large, hollow log, an old beaver lodge or an abandoned fox den may also serve as a den. Female wolves have also given birth in a depression right on the ground. Wolves often reuse dens, but will change dens if their current one becomes severely infested by parasites or is disturbed by other animals.
The alpha male will become very protective of the den and will lead predators away from it but may run if humans approach. While the female is preparing the den, the alpha wolf (and perhaps other wolves) often start to store meat in a cache near the den.
Mating season anywhere between December and April.
Wolves do not howl only at night. They will howl during the daytime, evening or early morning. They often howl together in a group, and one wolf in the pack will usually start the howling session by pointing its nose towards the sky and howling. The other members of the pack will soon join in excitedly. Under ideal conditions, wolf howls can be heard from as far away as 10 miles (16 km). They often howl before they go on a hunt, possibly to rally the pack together, and they often begin to howl after a successful hunt. That suggests that howling serves to assemble a pack together, as wolves often become separated from each other during a hunt. They do not, however, howl while they are hunting, as that would alert potential prey items to the wolves' presence, giving them more time to escape. In addition, a wolf may howl alone if it is having troubles locating its pack, as pack members seem to recognize each others voices, since individual wolves often have their own characteristic way of howling. Wolves will also howl in apparent grief after the death of their mates, and lonely wolf pups often howl in distress.
Whimpering tends to serve as either a submissive or friendly greeting sound, since young wolf pups and wolves attempting to appear submissive often whimper. Wolves growl when they are attempting to threaten another wolf or are behaving aggressively. Wolves rarely bark, but may do so as an alarm call or during play.
A wolf pack's territory will contain most of its hunting and traveling areas. Wolf packs are often spaced out enough so that their territories do not overlap significantly. When territories do overlap, the two or more packs still manage to stay far away from each other.
A variety of factors determines the size of a wolf pack's territory, which can vary greatly from about 18 square kilometers per pack to 1300 square kilometers per pack. Wolves live within small, well-defined territories when prey animals are abundant and when they can stay in one place year round. The home range of a wolf pack is much larger during the winter than it is during the summer. Other factors that may influence the size of a territory that a pack will defend include climate, the presence of other wolf packs and the nature of the terrain. In areas where there is little suitable wolf habitat and a high density of people, wolves often have rather small territories. Wolves tend to have larger territories in areas where there are many other large predators, such as wild cats and bears, present.
Wolves frequently move into new territories in search of prey, and a pack's territory often expands and contracts in response to the movements of prey animals. Most wolf packs do restrict their journeys to trails and areas they are familiar with, though the boundaries of a wolf pack's territory are rarely well-defined. Wolf packs have been observed traveling very long distances during the winter, and it is not uncommon for one pack to travel over 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) in one day. Wolf packs usually travel in single file, and are usually on the move constantly, except during the breeding season.
Wolves use many methods to define their territories. In territories that are well defined, the most important method wolves use to mark out their territory is scent marking . Wolves use urine to mark out their territory, and wolves can differentiate the odor of their pack mate's urine from a foreign wolf's urine. Wolves have excellent senses of smell, and when a pack ventures onto a territory that has been marked by other wolves, the pack will either leave or risk a fight. Wolves are rarely tolerant of foreign wolves, although R.D. Lawrence, in his book, Trail of the Wolf, does describe a few instances of friendly relations between two different wolf packs.
When a wolf marks its territory, it will raise one of its hind legs and will squirt a small amount of urine on a scent post (usually a raised object like a tree, rock, or bush). This raised leg urination (RLU) is different from ordinary urination, where the wolf will squat on the ground. RLU is usually only performed by alpha wolves (both male and female) although it is usually the alpha male that most commonly performs RLU's. The alpha female usually marks on a scent post that her mate has just marked, although during breeding season, the female may urinate first on the ground. All other females in the pack, as well as low ranking males and young wolves, will squat when they urinate, although exceptions to this rule sometimes occur. Lone wolves almost never perform RLU's so packs do not discover their presence.
High ranking wolves will leave urine marks about every 350 meters when they are marking out their territory. Wolves will also mark the same scent post over and over again. It is sometimes claimed that wolves scent mark to mark out the boundaries of their territories, although some authors (see Lawrence, 1997) claim that wolves do not scent mark to mark out territory boundaries, since the boundaries of a wolf pack are rarely clear and rigid. Instead, wolves may scent mark simply to alert other packs that there are already wolves in the area. The scent marks are like "No Trespassing!" signs for wolves.
Wolves will often place scent marks on spots where other wolves, coyotes, foxes, skunks, racoons, moose, deer and other animals have left marks of urine. Domestic dogs often do that as well. It seems that the scent of any animal on a spot stimulates a wolf to add its own mark to the spot.
A wolf may also rub its lips and neck on a tree or against the ground to mark its territory, and wolves often scrape their paw pads on the ground (usually after they urinate) to mark a territory. This releases odors from the glands in the wolf's paws. Wolves also howl to warn other wolf packs that they have entered foreign territory. Wolves will often answer the howls of another wolf pack. However, wolves will remain quiet if there are pups present so they don't attract attention to the pup's whereabouts. Wolf pups are vulnerable to attacks from large predators, such as bears or mountain lions.