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Wolves are extraordinary predators that play an extremely important part in a healthy, thriving ecosystem. Wolves are called apex predators, which means that they are at the top of the food chain.
As predators, they serve to help keep the ecosystem in balance by hunting primarily on prey that is weak, sick or elderly, leaving stronger and healthier animals to survive and produce viable young. Other competing predators would be cougar, coyote, bear and humans.
A predator's life is not an easy one. Almost every time they are hungry, wolves must find and bring down prey. Each predator has its own tools and hunting strategies. Wolves use their incredible sense of smell combined with excellent hearing abilities to help them find prey. Wolves do chase and test their prey, looking for the animals they can kill while expending as little energy as possible and decreasing chances of injury. Large ungulates like deer, moose, elk and caribou are a wolf's primary food source. Wolves will also eat smaller animals like beaver, rabbit, mice and ground squirrel.
Wolves mature sexually at around 22 months of age. Most often the alpha pair are the only wolves in a pack to mate and produce pups, however in areas where prey is abundant and life is mostly stress-free, multiple litters within a pack can occur. The breeding season for wolves occurs roughly from January through March, depending on the latitude. Animals in the highest latitude usually have the latest season. Pups are born in the spring (following a 63 gestation period). The entire pack takes a part in raising the young. The average litter size is four pups.
When hunting large game, the wolf pack separates out and surrounds its prey. Wolves usually bite the shoulders and flanks. While some pack members approach the prey from the rear, other wolves seize the prey by the nose.
Hunting can be dangerous for a wolf. The antlers and the hooves of a large animal like a moose or a caribou can injure or kill an attacking wolf. As hunters, wolves have a low success rate. One study shows that for every twelve moose tracked, only one was caught.
Wolves are built for a feast or famine diet and can "wolf" down up to 20 pounds at one feeding. If wolves do not finish what they have killed, the leftovers will feed the scavengers - fox, coyote and raven.
Wolves must travel many miles in order to find suitable prey. Scientists have estimated that one wolf needs at least ten square miles for a "home" territory. In the Arctic, wolves often follow their main prey, caribou, as the caribou migrate, often thousands of miles.
In nature there is a place for both predator and prey and, although their relative numbers fluctuate, predator and prey can maintain the equilibrium necessary for the survival of both if given the opportunity to do so naturally.