Do wolves ambush beavers? Evidence shows wolves employ versatile hunting strategies

Wolves usually hunt by running down and outlasting their prey. They are not thought of as ambush predators. But new research is changing that and showing that wolves have more versatile hunting strategies than previously thought.

For years, wolf biologists have debated whether wolves have advanced cognitive abilities that allow them to switch hunting modes and ambush prey using more complex hunting strategies. Understanding how wolves successfully hunt and kill prey provides valuable information about the behavior of wolves and their prey. Researchers have speculated that wolves do ambush beavers—who are often important summer prey of wolves in many areas of North America and Europe—but because there are no observations of wolves killing beavers this prediction has remained unconfirmed until now. 

According to Thomas Gable, lead author of the study and conservation science doctoral student in the University of Minnesota College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, their study provides the first documented observation of a gray wolf killing a beaver and fortunately it was caught on video.

Based on the video evidence, Gable can confirm that wolves do ambush beavers. This is consistent with other research Gable and colleagues have done in northern Minnesota where it appears that wolves primarily hunt beavers by ambushing them.

Gable and research colleagues think wolves possess high-order mental abilities which allows them to use cognitive processes such as foresight, planning, and understanding to successfully hunt prey. Wolves are likely able to observe beavers and learn the most effective strategy to kill them. Because beavers spend short periods of time on land close to water feeding, wolves need to be in the right spot at the right time to ambush.

In addition to changing the way researchers think about wolves as predators, this study provided valuable insight into the interactions between wolves and beaver. Even though beavers are valuable prey for wolves, most research has neglected studying wolf-beaver interactions.

“This research is also important for the management of other iconic Minnesota wildlife.  Wolf predation on beavers could impact how often wolves kill moose and deer. That’s the direction that Tom’s research is going” said Joseph Bump, associate professor in the conservation sciences department at University of Minnesota and a co-author of the study.

A paper detailing the results of the study was just published in the journal Ecosphere.

Trent Stanger, Remigny, Quebec; Steve K. Windels, Voyageurs National Park, and Joseph K. Bump, University of Minnesota, were also a part of the study.

Watch the video here.

-- Susan Thurston-Hamerski

For comment, contact: Thomas Gable, doctoral candidate, CFANS Conservation Sciences