Wolves prefer fish to meat despite their reputation as land predators, a new study has found.
By Paul Eccleston
Researchers found that the Timber wolf prefers salmon when it is available, although it has traditionally been viewed as a ferocious pack animal that hunts and kills deer. A team who looked at the feeding habits of wolves in a remote area of British Columbia in Canada found that when salmon were running up the rivers, wolves opt for fishing rather than hunting.
For most of the year wolves depend on deer as their main source of food but in Autumn they switch their attention to salmon – even though deer are still available.
For four years the team, led by Dr Chris Darimont from the University of Victoria working with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Canada, looked at wolf droppings and had wolf hair chemically tested to see what they were eating.
They concluded: “One might expect that wolves would move onto salmon only if their mainstay deer were in short supply. Our data show that this is not the case, salmon availability clearly outperformed deer availability in predicting wolves’ use of salmon.”
The researchers, whose findings are published in the journal BMC Ecology, believe the wolves target the salmon because catching them is safer and involves less energy, as well as providing better nutrtion.
“Selecting benign prey such as salmon makes sense from a safety point of view. While hunting deer, wolves commonly incur serious and often fatal injuries. In addition to safety benefits we determined that salmon also provides enhanced nutrition in terms of fat and energy,” said Dr Darimont.
Co-author Thomas Reimchen, also of the University of Victoria, said: “Salmon continue to surprise us, showing us new ways in which their oceanic migrations eventually permeate entire terrestrial ecosystems.
“In terms of providing food and nutrients to a whole food web, we like to think of them as North America’s answer to the Serengeti’s wildebeest.”
But the researchers warn that the relationship between wold and salmon, which has been around for centuries, may not be around forever. “There are multiple threats to salmon systems, including overexploitation by fisheries and the destruction of spawning habitats, as well as diseases from exotic salmon aquaculture that collectively have led to coast-wide declines of up to 90 per cent over the last century,” said Darimont.