Researchers from Oregon State University, the National Park Service, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently published a paper outlining the first known observations of wolves hunting harbor seals and sea otters in Alaska’s Katmai National Park. Biologists have widely accepted that seals, sea otters, and other marine species comprise much of a coastal gray wolf’s diet, but evidence that wolves actively hunt these critters (rather than just scavenging them) hasn’t surfaced until now.
The paper, published on Oct. 3 in the research journal Ecology, draws on multiple observations made from 2016 to 2021 in Katmai National Park. The study was born in 2016 when a wolf clenching a sea otter in its jaws trotted past NPS biologist Kelsey Griffin and her colleagues. Griffin was eating her lunch while on break from studying marine debris and bird mortality at the time.
“I was just blown away,” Griffin told Phys.org. “I have never seen anything like that before … I just got lucky.”
She reached out to ADFG and got connected with researchers from OSU who were already studying gray wolf hunting and predation habits in coastal Alaska. Later in 2016, the group of researchers watched and filmed a wolf hunting down a harbor seal near the mouth of a creek. The wolf jumped into the water of Hallow Bay and grabbing the harbor seal’s tail, thrashing it around. It proceeded to feed on the harbor seal for a half hour after exhausting it in a fight.
In addition to Griffin’s experience in 2016, the group documented two other instances of wolves eating sea otters in 2018 and 2019 in Swikshak Bay. Then, in 2021, they observed three wolves hunt and eat a sea otter on an island in the Bay during low tide. While they didn’t witness the wolves in the act of killing the otter, they investigated the area after the wolves cleared out to find a large pool of fresh blood where the trio had emerged with the carcass. This indicated that the otter had been alive when the wolves caught it.
For this team of researchers, there was nothing new about wolves eating sea otters. They published a different study in January 2023 that documented how the canines relied on sea otters for most of their diets after eviscerating the Sitka blacktail deer population on Pleasant Island in the Alexander Archipelago. Sea otter remnants first popped up in wolf scat analysis in 2015.
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“This is really exciting documentation of behaviors we believe have never been directly observed by scientists,” OSU doctoral student Ellen Dymit said. “It kind of forces us to reconsider the assumptions that underlie a lot of our management decisions and modeling around wolf populations and populations of their prey, which often assume that wolves depend on ungulates, like moose and elk.”
Wolves across North America are notoriously generalist eaters, Yellowstone Wolf Project technician Taylor Rabe told Outdoor Life in August 2023. Whatever is on the landscape is fair game, whether they hunt down a living animal or sniff out a dead carcass. In coastal Alaska, they do both.
“Wolves are opportunistic,” Rabe said. “They will take something if the opportunity presents itself.”