What Do Wolves Eat?

Written by Rebecca
Updated: October 14, 2022
Image Credit iStock.com/ricochet64
Share this post on:
What Do Wolves Eat
Wolves are almost exclusively carnivores and eat a diet that consists of everything from elk to mice!

A-Z-Animals.com

Key Points

  • Wolves eat meat, they are carnivores and prefer to eat large hoofed mammals.
  • Wolves like to eat elf, deer, rabbits, and mice.
  • Wolves may also hunt smaller mammals such as beavers.
  • Adult wolves can eat up to 20 pounds of meat in a single meal.

Wolves tend to become the apex predators in whatever habitat they occupy, and that’s evident in the fact that they’ve spread prodigiously throughout the world. Species of wolves can be found everywhere from the frozen north of the Arctic down to the humid equatorial states of Central America. The gray wolf is the most predominant type of wolf, but gray wolves include as many as 40 different subspecies, and they share the title of a wolf with at least two other species.

And while wolves are almost exclusively carnivores, the sort of prey they hunt — along with their hunting methods — can vary depending on both the species and the environment. Here are the details and what different types of wolves eat.

2,656 People Couldn't Ace This Quiz

Think You Can?
Wolves are apex predators, meaning they’re at the top of the food chain.

iStock.com/Cloudtail_the_Snow_Leopard

Gray Wolf: Diet and Hunting Habits

The carnivore is also known as Canis Lupus, which is the most prevalent and commonly recognized variety of wolves in the world. They’re also the largest canids on Earth, and they have appetites to match. The average gray wolf can eat up to 20 pounds in a single sitting, but they need to eat almost four pounds of meat a day to sustain themselves in normal conditions.

That, along with the fact that wolves hunt as a pack, leads gray wolves to focus their attention on larger prey species. In most habitats, gray wolves rely on packs of ungulates — or large hoofed prey animals — to sustain their ravenous appetites. Elk, moose, and white-tail deer are some of the more prominent prey species that wolves feed on.

As opportunistic hunters with large appetites, wolves are reliant on the habits of prey populations for survival. The typical wolf can eat 15 to 20 pack animals in a year, and those numbers can grow impressive when you take into account larger pack sizes.

The winter months tend to be the most bountiful for wolves, as it leaves them with more access to weak and undernourished prey — and because wolves often have an advantage over prey when hunting through snow and tundra. Early summer is also a generous time for feeding thanks to the higher presence of younger prey animals.

Wolves also eat smaller prey like hares, raccoons, mice, and beavers — but the necessity of having larger prey to feast on means that wolves often cover long distances as they follow the migration patterns of their prey. A pack’s territory may be as small as 50 miles or as large as 1,000 depending on the scarcity, and their hunting habits can have them traveling 30 miles in a single day.

Unfortunately, the hunting and dietary habits of gray wolves have put them in frequent conflict with humans. Human expansion into territories belonging to wolves placed ranchers into conflict with these predators, and the response nearly drove gray wolves to extinction.

Eastern Wolf: Diet and Hunting Habits

Eastern wolves were once considered a subspecies of the gray wolf, but it’s now understood that the eastern wolf is more closely related to the coyote than it is to its gray cousins. It’s believed that the species known as the eastern coyote is the result of interbreeding between coyotes and eastern wolves. Poaching and hunting have left the eastern wolf population dwindling, and the next few generations may see more cross-breeding with coyotes and the disappearance of the eastern wolf entirely. There are currently less than 500 known to exist in the wild.

Until that happens, eastern wolves primarily hunt in the same way as their larger cousins. Their habitats have been reduced to parts of Ontario and Quebec, and they operate in hunting packs to bring down moose and white-tail deer. But they can also hunt as individuals to bring down smaller prey like beavers and muskrats. The size of an eastern wolf pack is smaller than that of a traditional gray wolf — likely in part thanks to their reduced population and harsher hunting conditions in their remaining habitats.

Red Wolf: Diet and Hunting Habits

Red wolves are often misidentified as coyotes, but they’re a distinct species of wolf. The fact that they’re much smaller than the gray wolf — only four feet long and 50 to 80 pounds on average — has a major impact on their diet and their hunting practices. But extermination efforts by ranchers and the U.S. government have had an impact as well.

The red wolf could once be found in states from Texas to Pennsylvania — but they’ve now been reduced to a small population restricted to North Carolina. Today’s red wolves contend with competition from coyotes that filled in the void left by red wolf exterminations.

While gray wolves rely on large ungulates for the majority of their sustenance and supplement that with a diet of smaller animals, red wolves mostly dine on smaller animals and only rarely hunt for ungulates — which amount to white-tail deer given the limited habitat that they now occupy. Raccoons, rabbits, mice, and other rodents constitute the majority of a red wolf’s diet. While the red wolf is undoubtedly a carnivore, they have also been known to snack on non-meat foods like insects and berries.

Like their gray cousins, red wolves travel in small packs that typically constitute parents and their litters. Fortunately, being smaller than the gray wolf also means having to eat less.

A red wolf can eat two to five pounds in a day depending on its demands, and that means that bringing down large prey consistently isn’t a necessity in the way that it is for gray wolves.

Red wolf packs are very territorial — and while they’re generally shy and elusive carnivores, they can be fearless about protecting their hunting grounds from other threats. The territory for a given pack can cover up to 20 square miles.

Red wolves are often mistaken for coyotes.

iStock.com/karen crewe

Maned Wolf: Diet and Hunting Habits

The maned wolf looks like a cross of a coyote and a hyena bears the name of the wolf but is distinct from both in terms of biological taxonomy. But they also stand apart from other canines thanks to their more adventurous eating habits.

Maned wolves are omnivores, and the average member of the species will subsist on a diet that’s over half fruit and vegetable matter. They’re particularly fond of the lobeira — a berry that translates to “fruit of the wolf”. But the maned wolf isn’t above eating meat. They feed on smaller insects as well as larger mammals like rodents and rabbits.

Wolves are carnivores and their diet is primarily hoofed mammals such as deer and elf. Wolves are also known to prey on moose and wild boar. These large pack animals often prey on small mammals to sustain them until they can prey on a larger feast. Wolves are known to eat rabbits, mice, and even sometimes birds and on occasion some vegetables but not often.

This could be because they occupy an environment with more competition. Gray, eastern, and red wolves are all apex predators. Maned wolves share their territory with fearsome predators like pumas, jaguars, and a variety of fox species. Maned wolves in captivity will consume roughly two pounds of food in a day.

Wolf Feeding Habits and the Ecosystem

Gray, eastern, and red wolves were driven nearly to extinction for the legitimate threat they pose to livestock, but their impact on the larger ecosystem is significantly more complex. As opportunistic hunters, wolves serve a critical role in managing populations of grazing ungulates. Their explicit targeting of young, elderly, and sick prey helps keep those animal populations at healthy levels and prevents the risk of overgrazing. This is true for smaller prey as well.

Rodents and rabbits are known for their prodigious breeding rates, and wolves help keep their population in check. The red wolf in particular has been recognized for hunting nutria — a species that’s not native to the Carolina ecosystem and is considered a pest.

The presence of wolves can also affect the presence of other predators and scavengers within their ecosystems. Both gray and red wolves once served as direct competitors to coyotes — and their dwindling populations helped contribute to the prodigious spread of coyotes beyond the American Southwest. Despite their small size, red foxes are known to fiercely protect their territories from other carnivores.

Carcasses left behind by gray wolves can become scavenged meals for coyotes and foxes, and there has even been evidence of arctic wolves preying on polar bear cubs. Scientists worry that this latter instance might be a sign of fiercer competition being spurred on by climate change.

Next Up…

wolf in a burrow
wolf in a burrow
iStock.com/ricochet64
Share this post on:
About the Author

My name is Rebecca and I've been a Professional Freelancer for almost a decade. I write SEO content and graphic design. When I'm not working, I'm obsessing over cats and pet rats.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.