Studies Show that Wolves Eat Seafood

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dominique Watts (right) and Lem Butler, a biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, work together to capture, collar, sample and release Alaska Peninsula wolves. Photo by Dominique Watts/USFWS

Gray wolves on the Alaska Peninsula eat seafood, and a lot of it. Researchers found that when meat isn’t readily available, the wolves dine on salmon, walrus, beluga, grey whale, and seal, meals that constitute a substantial part of the carnivores’ diets.

For a number of years, U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Dominique Watts has observed, tranquilized, captured, collared, and released wolves, taking a snip of whisker or strands of hair. While conducting aerial surveys, he found that the gray wolves, the largest canines, ate a variety of marine animals, a finding he published last year in Wildlife Biology. Lab tests conducted later on samples from about 40 wolves showed the chemical signature of the prey eaten by the wolves as their whiskers and hair grew. The amount of salmon that the wolves ate surprised even Watts.

"Some of these values were what you might expect if you ran this analysis on seal whiskers," he said, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website. "It made me think we might have a very unique wolf-prey system out here."

Typically moose, deer, and caribou make up a gray wolf’s diet, but a growing body of research reveals that animals living along the coasts depend on other sources of food. Some biologists, including Alaska Fish and Game biologist Dave Person, who has been studying gray wolves on Prince of Wales Island for 12 years, have found that salmon accounts for up to 20 percent of a coastal wolf’s diet.

“Each year they spend over a month in estuary areas, with the pups,” Person said of breeding pairs he studied. “It’s right in middle of pink and chum runs, and we watch them eat salmon all the time. There are lots of places they could go; I think they go there for the fish.”

Wolves aren’t the only ones that rely on salmon. Studies show that more than 22 species—mammals and birds—consume salmon carcasses, including eagles, crows, ravens, and gulls. Even though there are plenty of fish in the sea, we’re finding that salmon seem to be a favorite of fishers, scavengers, and carnivores alike.