National Geographic Society Newsroom

Wolves Prefer Seafood to Steak

Photo Joel Sartore/NGS In a remote neck of Canada’s backwoods the deer catch a break during the fall. That’s when the wolves go fishing. “Although most people imagine wolves chasing deer and other hoofed animals, new research suggests that, when they can, wolves actually prefer fishing to hunting,” researchers from the University of Victoria and...


Photo Joel Sartore/NGS

In a remote neck of Canada’s backwoods the deer catch a break during the fall. That’s when the wolves go fishing.

“Although most people imagine wolves chasing deer and other hoofed animals, new research suggests that, when they can, wolves actually prefer fishing to hunting,” researchers from the University of Victoria and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Canada, announced this week.

The study, published in the journal BMC Ecology and funded in part by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, shows that when salmon is available, wolves will reduce deer hunting activity and instead focus on seafood.

Chris Darimont led the team that studied the feeding habits of wolves in a remote area of British Columbia. “Over the course of four years, we identified prey remains in wolf droppings and carried out chemical analysis of shed wolf hair in order to determine what the wolves like to eat at various times of year,” he said.

For most of the year, the wolves tend to eat deer, as the scientists expected. During the fall, however, salmon becomes available and the wolves shift their culinary preferences, they found.

wolf-2a.jpg“One might expect that wolves would move onto salmon only if their mainstay deer were in short supply. Our data show that this is not the case, salmon availability clearly outperformed deer availability in predicting wolves’ use of salmon,” Darimont said.

Photo Joel Sartore/NGS

The wolves’ taste for fish is likely based on safety, nutrition and energetics, Darimont explained. “Selecting benign prey such as salmon makes sense from a safety point of view. While hunting deer, wolves commonly incur serious and often fatal injuries. In addition to safety benefits we determined that salmon also provides enhanced nutrition in terms of fat and energy”.”

The work gives researchers as much insight into salmon ecology as wolf ecology. “Salmon continue to surprise us, showing us new ways in which their oceanic migrations eventually permeate entire terrestrial ecosystems,” said Thomas Reimchen, also of the University of Victoria. “In terms of providing food and nutrients to a whole food web, we like to think of them as North America’s answer to the Serengeti’s wildebeest.”

National Geographic featured Darimont’s research a few years ago in a television documentary and a related National Geographic News story about Canada’s rain forest wolves. In that coverage our writer Stefan Lovgren noted that researchers found that wolves are excellent salmon fishers. “The wolves stand at the riverside or at estuaries, using their muzzles to make their catch. They eat only the head of the salmon, avoiding the body and viscera,” he wrote.

The decapitated salmon play an important role in the ecosystem, Lovgren reported. “Scavengers will eat the body. Flies may come in and leave their eggs in the carcass.The eggs then turn into larvae, which are eaten by birds. In the forest canopy these birds later excrete the nutrients from the flies–nutrients that the flies got from the fish.”

bear.jpgLooking around Thomas Reimchen’s Web site, I came across the Salmon Forest Project . A coauthor of Darimont’s salmon-eating wolves research paper, Reimchen has been documenting the complex relationship between temperate rainforest and healthy populations of salmon and bears.

Photo Robert Sisson/NGS

“Our research group has observed that black bears and grizzly bears throughout the British Columbia coast transfer large quantities of salmon carcasses from rivers into forests and these nutrients are incorporated into a broad diversity of plant and animal taxa,” a passage on his site notes.

The research uses nitrogen and carbon isotopes to quantify the uptake of salmon-derived nutrients by mosses, herbs, shrubs, trees, and insects.


“One of the results to emerge from our studies has been the detection of salmon signatures in the yearly growth rings of ancient trees, and this offers new opportunities for identifying historical salmon abundance.”

The relationship between salmon, predators [including wolves, we now know], scavengers, and the forests themselves once spread from California to Alaska, Darimont notes. But perhaps not for much longer. “There are multiple threats to salmon systems, including overexploitation by fisheries and the destruction of spawning habitats, as well as diseases from exotic salmon aquaculture that collectively have led to coast-wide declines of up to 90 percent over the last century,” he says.

Illustration Hashime Murayama/NGS

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn