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Signs in the field

Tracks

Wolf footprints are generally oval in shape and very similar to those of large domestic dogs. The pad prints of a wolf are on average slightly longer than those of a dog. The middle pads of a wolf are often fused together at the base; however, this is undetectable in the track. The front paws measure up to 11 cm in length and 8 cm in width. Hind paws are smaller, measuring 8 cm in length and 7 cm in width. With regard to the size of the footprints, it should be kept in mind that subadult individuals have smaller tracks. This is especially relevant at the expansion front of the population, where they may predominantly occur.

High degrees of experience, good field conditions and a familiarity with local circumstances are required to be able to distinguish wolf tracks from domestic dog tracks. Only a comprehensive examination of the movement pattern and the behaviour of the animal may reveal whether the tracks were left by a wolf or a dog. To be classified as a wolf track, the track needs to be in the direct register trot (hind paws set in the same place as the front paw, creating a double pugmark) over at least 100 m, with double pug marks of at least 8 cm in length and with a stride length of at least 1.10 m. Consequently, the track may need to be followed over several hundred meters or even several kilometres to be able to exclude a domestic dog. This is only possible in winter during good snow conditions. It must also be noted that the stride length is influenced by a variety of factors and may vary (longer or shorter than 1.10 m) e.g. with age and size of the wolf, movement type (walk or trot), and terrain.

Wolf track drawing

Scats

Wolf scats are usually full of prey hair. Sometimes, bone pieces can be seen too. © Ralph Manz

Wolf scats consist of 4–15 cm long pieces of approximately 2–4 cm diameter. At one end, the scat usually has a pointed end. The colour varies from black to almost white. Often hairs, bone fragments, feathers or teeth of prey species are visible in the scat. Wolf scats mostly have a strong smell.

As wolf scats are used for scent marking they are often deposited in the open, e.g. on trails.

Kills

The wolf hunts by chasing its prey over variable distances and if possible, hunts with pack mates. Small prey species are killed with a bite in the throat. Larger prey are generally first grasped at the hind legs to immobilize them. Prey hunted down are often bitten on the nose and then killed with a bite in the throat. The wolf is an opportunist. Beside prey species, garbage waste and fruits are also fed on. Its prey spectrum ranges from mice to horses. However, it prefers medium to large sized wild ungulate species.

Kills:

Wolves generally do not cover their prey. The skeleton and the entire skin of large prey are discarded. Only parts of the skin, some bones and the content of the rumen remain from smaller prey. When disturbed, wolves may carry away the kill or single body parts to a secure place.

Almost completely used deer calf. © Patrick Deleury

Injuries:

The injuries to wolf prey species are excessive compared to those caused by lynx. They can appear on almost all parts of the prey’s body. Big bones can be crushed. Muscle and ligaments of bigger prey species are often ruptured and there are injuries in parts of the nose and throat bites.

Feeding process:

Wolves often start by feeding on the digestive tract, and on the muscles of the hind quarters and the back, but they may also consume other parts simultaneously. When undisturbed, wolves remain close to the kill until it is totally consumed. Large packs can completely consume large prey in a short time. Smaller family groups or single wolves feed for several days on a kill.

Remarks:

Wolf and dog kills are difficult to distinguish. Dogs hunt as wolves do by coursing and the prey can have injuries in almost all body parts. Therefore, it is even more important to carefully record all other indications and signs.

Vocalisation

Wolves can growl and are famous for their howling. Wolf howling is very characteristic and easy to recognize. However, the howling of dogs, a pack of sledge dogs or a group of golden jackals resembles that of a pack of wolves. Up to an age of about half a year, cubs are not yet capable of howling like the adults. It is more a yipping similar to small dog pups. Sound recordings made in summer-autumn can thus prove reproduction within a pack.

Soundmeter recording of two adult wolves in October 2018 from the Valle de Joux © Stefan Suter

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