Effect of sociality and season on gray wolf (canis lupus) foraging behavior: Implications for estimating summer kill rate

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Background: Understanding how kill rates vary among seasons is required to understand predation by vertebrate species living in temperate climates. Unfortunately, kill rates are only rarely estimated during summer. Methodology/Principal Findings: For several wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park, we used pairs of collared wolves living in the same pack and the double-count method to estimate the probability of attendance (PA) for an individual wolf at a carcass. PA quantifies an important aspect of social foraging behavior (i.e., the cohesiveness of foraging). We used PA to estimate summer kill rates for packs containing GPS-collared wolves between 2004 and 2009. Estimated rates of daily prey acquisition (edible biomass per wolf) decreased from 8.4±0.9 kg (mean ± SE) in May to 4.1±0.4 kg in July. Failure to account for PA would have resulted in underestimating kill rate by 32%. PA was 0.72±0.05 for large ungulate prey and 0.46±0.04 for small ungulate prey. To assess seasonal differences in social foraging behavior, we also evaluated PA during winter for VHF-collared wolves between 1997 and 2009. During winter, PA was 0.95±0.01. PA was not influenced by prey size but was influenced by wolf age and pack size. Conclusions/Significance: Our results demonstrate that seasonal patterns in the foraging behavior of social carnivores have important implications for understanding their social behavior and estimating kill rates. Synthesizing our findings with previous insights suggests that there is important seasonal variation in how and why social carnivores live in groups. Our findings are also important for applications of GPS collars to estimate kill rates. Specifically, because the factors affecting the PA of social carnivores likely differ between seasons, kill rates estimated through GPS collars should account for seasonal differences in social foraging behavior.

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