The arctic wolf is a fierce predator of many large and small mammals in the arctic regions. Yet, in particularly harsh winter conditions when food is scarce, do the arctic wolves become the prey? What are the predators of arctic wolves?
For the most part, arctic wolves are the apex predators of arctic food webs. Yet, in particularly harsh winters when food resources suffer, polar bears and rival wolf packs may engage in fatal conflict with arctic wolves. Young wolf pups are particularly vulnerable to these dangers. However, arctic wolves have adopted certain behaviors to protect themselves from this predation.
Read on to learn more about the importance of arctic wolves in arctic ecosystems, how they protect themselves from predation, and why humans can be considered predators of the arctic wolf…
Where do arctic wolves live in the world?
Arctic wolves, also known as white wolves or polar wolves, primarily inhabit the Arctic regions of North America and Greenland. Their range spans across the northernmost parts of Alaska, Canada, and parts of northern Greenland. These majestic predators have adapted to survive in the harsh and unforgiving Arctic environment, where freezing temperatures and limited food sources pose significant challenges. They are well-suited to this extreme habitat, with their thick white fur that provides insulation and camouflage against the snowy backdrop. Arctic wolves are highly territorial and tend to establish their dens in remote, secluded areas away from human settlements.
Is the Arctic Wolf Predator or Prey?
The arctic wolf is the apex predator of terrestrial arctic ecosystems and is often called a keystone species. This means that they are an indicator of the health of the arctic ecosystem. If arctic wolves are found in healthy numbers, this reflects large, herbivorous prey populations which in turn feed upon diverse and plentiful plant communities.
Currently, the arctic ecosystems are governed by a bottom-up control of resources. This means that the ecosystem’s diversity and productivity are determined by the vegetation which sustains herbivorous populations.
Bottom-up regulation makes the arctic wolves particularly vulnerable to harsh winters which can reduce the abundance of plant resources and consequentially, prey populations. This was seen in 2001-2002 when a population of arctic wolves disappeared from the Fosheim Peninsula in Ellesmere Island due to a decline in muskox numbers spurred by extreme weather events.1Source: Decline and Recovery of a High Arctic Wolf-Prey System on JSTOR (gla.ac.uk)
Notably, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity in the arctic due to climate change. One effect of this is increased ice cover. This can block off plant resources to herbivores causing widespread starvation and the decline of prey populations. With food becoming scarce, this increases competition with other large predators in the arctic and can result in the predation of the arctic wolf.
What Are the Predators and Threats of Arctic Wolves?
Due to the vastness, isolation, and harsh arctic conditions, there are very few large mammals around to predate the arctic wolf. And if there are, these are rare occurrences.
Nevertheless, arctic wolves can be preyed upon under certain conditions such as when food is scarce or due to territorial behavior.
Here’s a list of predators and threats of the arctic wolves…
With a height of up to 8ft and weighing in at 1,600 pounds, the polar bear is a fierce carnivore in the arctic region.2 Polar Bear | National Geographic. Compared to the arctic wolf – which reaches heights of 5ft and weighs up to 175 pounds – the polar bear is a large and dangerous enemy to make.3 (Wolf | National Geographic)
Yet, by occupying coastal habitats in the arctic and eating primarily ringed, bearded, and harp seals; polar bears tend not to encounter the arctic wolves which are found further inland and do not prey upon seals. Therefore, the risk of conflict and predation is relatively low. 4 (Diet composition of polar bears in Svalbard and the western Barents Sea | SpringerLink (gla.ac.uk)
However, with the onset of climate change and the melting of sea ice, polar bears are set to move further inland in the Arctic. This will cause them to shift from marine food webs to terrestrial food webs. As a result, the polar bears will be competing with arctic wolves for similar food resources and engage in conflict with arctic wolves more frequently. 5(Source: Can polar bears use terrestrial foods to offset lost ice‐based hunting opportunities? – Rode – 2015 – Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment – Wiley Online Library) This phenomenon is called intraguild predation and occurs when two species are reliant on the same prey resources.
As polar bears are much larger than arctic wolves, fights are incredibly dangerous and could result in severe injury or death.
One extraordinary encounter between a polar bear and a pack of wolves has been captured on camera. Check it out in the video below.
Rival Arctic Wolves
Although it sounds strange, arctic wolves are sometimes their own worst enemy. They livein social packs and are fiercely territorial. In the arctic, they maintain large territories that can surpass 1,000 km2 6(Source: How do wolves choose the size of their territory? (wolf.org) and are marked out by their scent and urine.
By marking out territories, rival wolf packs are unlikely to enter another pack’s territory, yet conflicts can still arise. This often occurs in particularly harsh winters when wolves become starved and desperate for food.
These encounters can be fierce and even fatal, particularly if young wolf pups are involved.
Watch below as a pack of arctic wolves try and protect their pups from an aggressive rival wolf.
Humans prey upon the arctic wolves, both directly and indirectly.
Arctic wolves are directly hunted by humans due to popular sport hunting in Canadian regions and for their furs which are commonly used for warmth. This can annually decrease arctic wolf populations by 25%.7 (Source: Northwest passages: conservation genetics of Arctic Island wolves | SpringerLink (gla.ac.uk)
Humans can also indirectly cause harm to the arctic wolf through the emission of fossil fuels that have contributed to the onset of global warming. Global warming has widespread negative effects in the arctic including reductions in prey populations. 8(Source: Is climate change affecting wolf populations in the high arctic? (gla.ac.uk)
Additionally, harmful toxins released by urbanization and industrial activity also threaten the arctic wolves. Industrial activity can cause a build-up of toxic mercury in the Arctic. This is extremely harmful to the arctic wolf and all wildlife inhabiting the tundra. 9(Source: Tundra Threats Explained | National Geographic Society)
How Do Arctic Wolves Protect Themselves?
Living in harsh arctic conditions, the arctic wolves have had to develop ways of protecting themselves from extreme weather in addition to potential predators.
Some of the ways arctic wolves protect themselves are discussed below…
- Howling: In the vast arctic tundra, maintaining effective communication within a wolf pack is critical to survival. Howling is a vital behavior that lets the rest of the pack know a wolf’s location. In times of distress when an arctic wolf is caught alone by an enemy, howling is essential for the rest of the pack to come to their aid.
- Urine to mark territory: If respective territories are maintained, conflicts are much less likely to happen. One way the arctic wolf does this is by urinating. The wolf’s urine has a very strong scent caused by pheromones. Rival wolves can detect this and know to avoid this area to stay out of trouble.
- Pack Mentality: The arctic wolf is a highly social animal and is rarely found alone. This is because their strength lies in numbers. In times of conflict, they will defend themselves as a group. The arctic wolf may be far smaller than a polar bear, but I’d hate to be the polar bear up against a whole pack of highly coordinated (and probably hungry) wolves.
- White Fur: The arctic wolf’s unique white fur allows the species to blend in with the arctic environment, especially in the snowy winter months. This form of camouflage masks them from potential predators and hunters.
- Shield the Young: Arctic wolf pups are incredibly weak and vulnerable to predation. Therefore, they will stay with the mum and rarely leave the den until they are strong enough to hunt. In the meantime, older wolves in the pack will bring meat back to the den for the pups to eat.
- When in doubt, run: While arctic wolves cannot outweigh polar bears, they may be able to outrun them. Arctic wolves can reach speeds of up to 60kph and polar bears only 40kph. So, when in doubt, run!10 (Source: Wolf FAQs & Answers | International Wolf Center)
What is the role of Arctic Wolves in maintaining the ecological balance of the polar ecosystem?
Arctic wolves, as apex predators in the polar ecosystem, play a crucial role in maintaining the ecological balance of their habitat. Their presence and predatory activities have far-reaching impacts on the dynamics of the Arctic food web. By regulating the population sizes of their prey species, such as muskoxen, caribou, and Arctic hares, Arctic wolves help prevent overgrazing and allow vegetation to regenerate. This, in turn, ensures the availability of food and shelter for other animal species in the Arctic.
According to the Arctic Wolf page on the National Geographic website, the predation by Arctic wolves helps shape the distribution and abundance of other species, influencing the overall biodiversity of the region11 (Source: National Geographic). Their hunting activities also remove weaker or sick individuals from prey populations, leading to healthier and genetically stronger herds. This information is supported by research conducted by the Arctic Biodiversity Assessment, which emphasizes the vital role of predators like Arctic wolves in maintaining ecosystem structure and functioning12(Source: Arctic Biodiversity Assessment).
Additionally, the presence of Arctic wolves helps prevent herbivores from depleting plant resources, which is especially critical in the fragile Arctic tundra. As stated by the WWF, Arctic wolves’ regulation of herbivore populations helps maintain a balance between grazing pressure and vegetation growth13(Source: WWF – Arctic Wolves). By controlling the numbers of herbivores, they indirectly contribute to the health and stability of the entire ecosystem.
What is the Prey of an Arctic Wolf?
Arctic wolves are carnivores. They are often called hypercarnivores as over 70% of their diet consists of meat found in the Arctic regions. However, in warmer months, if meat is scarce, the species may resort to eating leaves and berries for sustenance.
The arctic wolf preys upon a variety of large and small mammals found in the arctic tundra. Their diet is primarily made up of muskoxen, caribou, lemmings, and arctic hares.
For more information on the diet of arctic wolves check out our previous article Are Arctic Wolves Carnivores? What Do They Eat? – Polar Guidebook
Are there any other predators that compete with Arctic wolves for food?
While Arctic wolves are excellent hunters, they sometimes have to compete with other predators such as Arctic foxes and wolverines for limited food resources in the harsh Arctic environment. This competition can be fierce, especially during the winter months when food becomes scarce.
Do Arctic wolves have any natural enemies other than predators?
Apart from natural predators, Arctic wolves also face environmental challenges such as extreme cold, harsh weather conditions, and limited food availability. These factors can impact their survival and population dynamics.
How do Arctic wolves interact with their prey and other predators?
Arctic wolves primarily hunt large herbivores such as muskoxen, caribou, and Arctic hares. They often employ pack hunting strategies to take down their prey, with each member of the pack playing a specific role. Additionally, Arctic wolves may scavenge from carcasses left behind by other predators, further showcasing their opportunistic nature.
Are there any unique adaptations that help Arctic Wolves thrive in their predator-filled environment?
Arctic Wolves possess several unique adaptations that enable them to thrive in their predator-filled environment. These include a thick white fur coat that provides insulation in freezing temperatures and helps with camouflage, keen senses that aid in detecting prey and potential threats, strong jaws and sharp teeth for efficient prey capture, and large paws that assist in traversing snow-covered terrain.