Wolves are known for their muscular bodies, sharp teeth, and cunning intelligence but do their feeding habits live up to their fearsome reputation?
Wolves are carnivores. Wolves are classified as obligate hypercarnivores; more than 70% of their diet is meat-based. Consumption of other carnivores and omnivores accounts for 5% to 25% of wolves’ diets. Plant matter has been found in wolf scat, but its nutritional contribution is negligible.
Most people will confidently ascertain that wolves eat meat, but the diet of a wild wolf hides many surprises that people are unaware of. Wolves are expert survivalists and will do anything they need to do to survive, resulting in some interesting diet preferences.
Carnivore, Omnivore, And Herbivores, What’s The Difference?
Every ecosystem relies on the delicate balance that exists between energy producers (autotrophs) and energy consumers.
Energy consumers are divided into three groups based on their feeding behavior: herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores.
Primary consumers only eat plant material and are known as herbivores. Herbivorous animals are further classified according to the type of vegetation they predominantly eat:
- Frugivores eat fruit
- Granivores eat seeds and grain-producing plants
- Nectivores eat nectar
- Folivores eat leaves
Carnivores are animals who rely on the consumption of animal meat to survive. They may be primary carnivores (secondary consumers) who only eat the flesh of herbivores, or they may be secondary carnivores (tertiary consumers) who eat the meat of other carnivores.
Blackbirds who eat insects would be considered secondary consumers, while orcas who hunt and eat seals are classified as tertiary consumers.
Obligate carnivores, like lions, only eat meat and will quickly die if forced to forgo their animal-based diet.
Other carnivores are labeled facultative carnivores and are able to supplement their meat-based diet with non-animal feeds. Foxes are an example of facultative carnivores as they predominantly eat small rodents but will supplement their diets with berries, vegetables, and even fungi.
The ratio of meat to non-meat products that a carnivore must consume to stay healthy has allowed scientists to further differentiate between carnivorous feeding behavior:
- A hypercarnivore’s diet is more than 70% meat-based; all obligate carnivores are also hypercarnivores.
- A mesocarnivore’s diet is approximately 50% meat and 50% non-meat based; mesocarnivores are always facultative carnivores
- A hypocarnivore’s diet is predominantly non-animal based, requiring their diet be only 30% meat-based; hypocarnivores are facultative carnivores that are often reclassified as omnivores.
Omnivores are the opposite of fussy eaters; the Latin word for omnivore literally means to “eat everything”!
Omnivores eat plant matter as well as other animals. As such, omnivores move up and down the trophic chain according to their current meal. It can be tricky to differentiate between omnivores, mesocarnivores, and hypocarnivores.
Are Wolves Carnivores?
Wolves are considered true carnivores and are classified as obligate hypercarnivores, with the overwhelming majority of their diet being meat-based.
Are Wolves Primary Or Secondary Carnivores?
Until recently, it was assumed that most wolves were secondary consumers (primary carnivores) that only ate herbivores. A fascinating literature review conducted in 2020 aimed to analyze the global trends of carnivore consumption by different wolves.
It has been hypothesized that human-induced changes to the herbivore-carnivore balance in fragile ecosystems drive the wolves’ seemingly atypical consumption of other predatory species.
Starving wolves are forced to find alternative food sources when an area that is prey-scarce and predator-dense.
The most common carnivores or omnivores consumed are:
- Domestic dogs
- Red foxes
- European Badgers
- Domestic cats
- Grey wolf
- Black bear
European, American and Asian wolves showed differences in their preferences for other carnivores:
- Domestic dogs, cats, and European badgers feature more dominantly in the diets of European wolves
- Asian wolves preferred red foxes
- North American wolves scavenged on the carcasses of other grey wolves, black bears, and raccoons.
While many people may be horrified to learn that wolves will hunt and eat domestic animals, they should be reassured that wolves don’t actually like eating other carnivores. Wolves will only supplement their diet with the meat of other carnivores if forced into an untenable situation.
Consumption of other carnivores typically makes up less than 5% of a wolf’s diet, although starving wolves will occasionally enrich their diet with up to 25% carnivore meat.
What Prey Do Wolves Hunt?
Wolves have a feast or famine approach to eating and will extract as many nutrients as they can from the meat of the prey. Their efficient metabolisms and gluttonous behavior during times of plenty allow them to survive for long periods without food when game is scarce, i.e., winter.
The preferred prey of wolves is large to medium-sized ungulates, i.e., hooved animals.
The North American wolf primarily hunts and eats:
- White-tailed deer
- Dall sheep
- Mountain goats
If ungulates are scarce, wolves may resort to eating beavers, snowshoe hares, voles, and other small rodent species. Wolves are opportunistic hunters and will happily kill and eat convenient prey, even if that animal doesn’t typically feature in the wolves’ meal plan!
Do Wolves Eat Any Vegetation?
A 2014 study highlighted the surprising amount of vegetative matter found in wild wolves’ scat (i.e., poop).
Scat analysis found that wolves often consume:
- Various types of berries, including blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries
- Various types of fruit
One study cited in this article found that 32.6% of fecal samples studies contained some grass. It’s hypothesized that wolves use the scouring effect of the grass bundles to clean their gastrointestinal tract of intestinal parasites, e.g., roundworm, tapeworm, etc.
Dogs and wolves possess D-Type taste buds that allow them to taste the sweet flavors of fruit; who knew the big bad wolf had a sweet tooth! Fruit features more heavily in the diets of curious pups.
Wolves can extract a small amount of energy from fruit due to their high carbohydrate content. However, a wolf’s digestive system is less effective at nutrient extraction from vegetative matter than a herbivore’s digestive system.
Fruit and other vegetative matter form a negligible percentage of a wolf’s diet.
The Anomalous Maned Wolf
Although they bear the moniker Maned Wolf, Maned Wolves are not true wolves; the genetic profile of Maned Wolves lies somewhere between the fox and the wolf. Thus, allowing the Maned Wolf to feature as the lone member of the genus, Chrysocyon.
The Maned Wolf is unique in its feeding habits as it is classified as an omnivore and labeled a facultative mesocarnivore.
50% of a Maned Wolf’s diet is comprised of fruits and vegetables; a particular favorite of this long-legged Canid is the lobeira berry. The remaining 50% of a Maned Wolf’s diet consists of small rodents, rabbits, insects, and birds.
Wolves are obligate hypercarnivores who prefer to eat large to medium-sized ungulates, although they will eat smaller animals if the opportunity arises.
Starving wolves will eat other carnivores, and these carnivores make up 5% to 25% of these wolves’ diets. The vegetative matter has been found in the scat of wild wolves; however, the nutritional contribution of these plant-based feeds is negligible.