Wolf Awareness is a non-profit Canadian organization dedicated to the conservation of wolves through research and public education about wolf ecology.

How We Know What We Know About Wolves – Part One

Date: 18th April 2017

Of Butterflies and Wolves

By W. H. “Hank” Halliday

The next couple of columns will delve into the mysterious world of wolves and wolf researchers, which, at times seems to be stranger than fiction. Much of what we’ll talk about will apply equally to other large mammals, although there are variations in the methods used. Researchers have habits that seem odd but that’s often what it takes to enter into the world of the wolf and other carnivores.

Wolf packs can travel 20 or 30 km. in a night of hunting and through terrain that in many cases is almost impossible for researchers to navigate. However, in areas with logging roads, wolves will use them as an easy route when traversing their territory. And this is when an odd habit of wolf researchers meshes with what appears to be an equally odd activity of butterflies.

Wolves claim their territory by actively defending it from other packs. Obviously they can’t be everywhere at once so they leave calling cards in the form of feces (scats in researcher talk) and urine. The chemical composition of these markers is complex and to the canid reading (sniffing) these, it is evident whose calling card it is. If it doesn’t belong to your pack then someone is trespassing – either you or an intruder.

Enter the researcher. Depending on location and the season, patrolling logging roads and looking for scats is one of the many activities that provide information on what the wolves have been doing when no one was around to directly observe them. Spotting scats on a rough logging road would be a difficult task if help was not at hand. That help comes in the form of butterflies. Nutrients and moisture are plentiful in the scats. Butterflies of various species will congregate on the pile to feast on this bonanza. This process makes the scat quite colourful and visible for the researcher.

Butterflies congregate where a wolf has left its calling card.

Wolf researchers collect and double bag these treasures, noting both the location, time and date. The double bagging is an effort to reduce the odour, particularly during the hot days of summer. Since wolves are carnivores, a lot of partially digested meat passes through their digestive systems and ends up in the scats, giving them a powerful scent.

Gathering scats might sound like a weird pastime, perhaps even certifiable, but the collection of scats is only the beginning. Back in the laboratory some unfortunate undergrad will have the unenviable job of searching through each and every scat. Extracting the solid contents for analysis gives a record of what the animal has been catching and eating.

Under the microscope, hairs can be identified and related to the species of animal that once wore it. Moose hair is different from deer hair, rabbit hair is different from mouse hair. This identification along with the amount of each kind provides information on what and how much of each species the wolf in question has had in its diet. While we’re on the topic of hairs, since every species’ hair is unique, researchers also gather hairs by other methods – a wire brush fastened where an animal might rub against it while passing will gather hairs that can also be processed.

Most suburban and rural areas have a close relative of the gray wolf, the coyote, and these animals behave in a similar manner, often leaving scats on hiking trails. If you’re out and about and come across one of these canid markers, don’t touch it but do observe and use your newfound researcher information. If you see bones and hair in the scat it’s probably coyote. Domestic dog food contains neither.

Congratulations! You’ve just taken your first steps towards being a wolf researcher.

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