Wolves, even if judged only on their ability to adapt to different environments, are among the most successful animals on earth. They are able to exist and thrive in a variety of different climates and terrains. One thing that is essential to their survival is the ability to work together while hunting, which improves the probability of success. There are several elements of how wolves hunt in a pack.
Wolf packs occupy and control a specific area of land known as a "territory." The size of the territory can vary greatly based on several factors, including the number of wolves in the pack, the abundance of prey and the geographic location of the territory. Some territories in Alaska and Canada can cover 1,000 square miles. Just locating prey within an area that large can be a challenge. Operating in a pack means there are more wolves looking for prey.
Once the pack has located prey animals from a distance, the pack begins stalking. Wolves' primary prey are large animals, such as white-tailed and mule deer, moose, elk and caribou. All of these animals have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, and are capable of quick escape. The wolf pack tracks the prey from downwind using their own sense of smell. The wolves stay out of sight until they are ready to attack.
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When ready, the wolves will confront the prey animals in force and often try to single out sick, hurt or young animals to attack. Most animals will flee when confronted, although larger animals such as moose or bison may stand their ground and fight. In this situation, the wolves will circle and continually test for weakness, then attack when they find an advantage. Wolves may choose to try other prey rather than risk attack on a large animal willing to fight.
If the selected prey flees, the pack will pursue it to make the kill. While wolves can hit speeds of over 35 miles per hour for short distances, they can also run for extremely long distances. Wolves have been observed employing strategy in pursuing prey, chasing animals to other waiting wolves or having members of the pack lag behind to catch prey that circles.
Wolves take down animals by latching onto either their nose area or onto the rump and bringing them to the ground. Wolves do not hamstring the animals to cripple them, although this has been a common belief for years. While the numbers of the pack aid in bringing down large animals, an individual wolf is a formidable killer and well able to take down an animal on its own. The prey usually dies of either blood loss or shock.