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Book Review: Wolves on the Hunt

By (July 14, 2015) No Comment

Wolves on the Hunt:wolves on the hunt cover

The Behavior of Wolves Hunting Wild Prey

L. David Mech, Douglas W. Smith & Daniel R. McNulty

University of Chicago Press, 2015

Douglas Smith, David McNulty, and the world’s foremost published authority on the subject, L. David Mech, have collaborated on a gorgeous new book from the University of Chicago Press called Wolves on the Hunt, which represents in one slightly oversized popular volume some of the most comprehensive research to date on the way wolves hunt their prey. It’s a subject fraught with legend, as our authors promptly acknowledge:

Many people – especially those opposed to wolves – think of the wolf as a killing machine. And in a general sense they are right. The wolf has evolved to kill prey much larger than itself. Watching a wolf or a pack of wolves kill a deer or moose or elk, one is impressed with their prowess. Whether it be a wolf clinging to the nose of a moose or seizing the throat of an elk, one cannot help but watch in awe at the spectacle. Even just finding the remains of a wolf-killed caribou or a domestic cow, with leg bones strewn, ribs chewed, and the stomach contents frozen in a pile on a blood-soaked mat of snow fills one with wonder – and some people with disgust. At first glance, it certainly appears that a wolf, or especially a pack of wolves, can kill just about anything it wants. In fact, many laypeople even believe that wolves kill for the sheer sport of it. The reality is different and far more interesting.

Distilling countless hours of research, tracking, and observation in the field, Wolves on the Hunt presents that far different and more interesting picture in great variety, and the portrait that emerges of wolf hunting attitudes and strategies is richer than any popular book (even Mech’s own earlier volumes on the subject) has ever provided.

Here readers are presented with wolves who carefully assess the risks of any potential hunt and decide against more of them than they undertake. Here are wolves who teach the craft of hunting to upcoming generations. And here too are the various prey animals who have evolved in tandem with their most able and cunning predators. Wolves are dauntingly superior animals, capable of detecting minuscule prey-scents in the air over immense distances, capable of running 40 miles an hour for hours on end without appreciably weakening, capable of delivering pulverizing bite-pressure, and of course highly skilled at hunting as a coordinated team. But our authors remind us that the large prey animals of wolves – musk oxen, moose, bison, caribou, and deer – are also extremely formidable, and injury to a hunting wolf usually means death.

Wolves on the Hunt makes a sustained case for wolves as risk-averse predators, preferring to single out young animals, old animals, or weak animals – and highly, almost preternaturally, skilled in detecting weaknesses that are in no way obvious to human observers (including the wolves on the hunt!baffling ‘grandmother effect,’ where not the children but the grandchildren of a mother pregnant during a season of scarcity or trauma will have physiological weaknesses their parents somehow avoided – one of a handful of observations scattered throughout this book that look on the surface like arrant nonsense and yet appear to be backed up with verifiable field data). Wolves cut their intended prey out of the protection of the herd, run it to exhaustion, and then close in for the kill, with one forward hunter latching onto the throat, or another latching onto to nose while two go for the flanks or one springs upon the back, all worrying the flesh so that blood loss will further weaken the victim – who is of course usually neither dead nor unconscious when the feeding begins.

Wolves on the Hunt is heavy on data and observation. It’s written artlessly but directly, with the aim of updating and broadening some popular misconceptions about the way wolves operate in the wild. As a work of natural history, neither it nor anything else can match the lyricism of Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men, but as a general-audience monograph, it’s one of the most valuable works of science-writing to appear this year. Kudos to the folks at the University of Chicago Press for giving it such a handsome volume.