Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Foraging and feeding ecology of the gray wolf (Canis lupus): lessons from Yellowstone National Park

The foraging and feeding ecology of gray wolves is an essential component to understanding the role that top carnivores play in shaping the structure and function of terrestrial ecosystems. In Yellowstone National Park (YNP), predation studies on a highly visible, reintroduced population of wolves are increasing our understanding of this aspect of wolf ecology.

Wolves in YNP feed primarily on elk, despite the presence of other ungulate species. Patterns of prey selection and kill rates in winter have varied seasonally each year from 1995 to 2004 and changed in recent years as the wolf population has become established. Wolves select elk based on their vulnerability as a result of age, sex, and season and therefore kill primarily calves, old cows, and bulls that have been weakened by winter.

Summer scat analysis reveals an increased variety in diet compared with observed winter diets, including other ungulate species, rodents, and vegetation. Wolves in YNP hunt in packs and, upon a successful kill, share in the evisceration and consumption of highly nutritious organs first, followed by major muscle tissue, and eventually bone and hide. Wolves are adapted to a feast-or-famine foraging pattern, and YNP packs typically kill and consume an elk every 2-3 d. However, wolves in YNP have gone without fresh meat for several weeks by scavenging off old carcasses that consist mostly of bone and hide.

As patterns of wolf density, prey density, weather, and vulnerability of prey change, in comparison with the conditions of the study period described here, the authors predict that there will also be significant changes in wolf predation patterns and feeding behavior.

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