Of wolves and moose

A few weeks ago, a friend urged me to check Return of the Wolf on amazon​.ca “Right now!”

Oops,” I thought. “Some info in the product de­tails must be wrong. And then a sick fore­bod­ing – maybe someone had pos­ted a dread­ful review?

I quickly googled the page and was baffled to see or­ange text pro­claim­ing #1 in Bestseller in Wildlife un­der the title. It took few minutes for the sig­ni­fic­ance to sink in.

I let out a little shriek and im­me­di­ately emailed the link to friends and fam­ily.  At the time I wasn’t sure if rat­ings were based on hits or ac­tu­al pur­chases. I now know it’s the lat­ter. And that rat­ings are re­con­figured hourly.

A little later in the day I googled amazon​.ca and saw that Wolf had slipped to #2. Okay, so I’d had my fif­teen minutes of fame. And to keep things in per­spect­ive, a moose cal­en­dar was #4.

Wolves and moose have a long re­la­tion­ship as pred­at­or and prey. Researchers have wit­nessed single wolves take down an adult moose so it can be done.

But most wolves tackle the 360 to 450 kg (8001,000 pound) un­gu­lates as part of a pack. Even then, it’s es­tim­ated that they’re only suc­cess­ful one to nine per­cent of the time.

It’s dan­ger­ous too as the moose may kick or stomp a wolf with its sharp hooves, bat­ter it with its heavy antlers or use them to flip the can­id end over end.

So, when it comes to a phys­ic­al con­front­a­tion, a healthy adult moose is more than a cap­able match for a lone wolf or even a pack.

But how do wolves and moose fare when it comes to hu­man emo­tions? I’d nev­er thought about it un­til I saw the an­im­als so closely linked on the amazon​.ca best­seller list.

For a couple of weeks I ran­domly checked Return of the Wolf’s status on amazon. The book slipped down to #8 and then ping-ponged to #157 and back up to #22 with nu­mer­ous stops in between. And through it all, the moose cal­en­dar held steady at #4.

How keen is a wolf’s sense of smell?

Imagine simply in­hal­ing and be­ing able to tell who has passed by and how long ago, what sex they are and what their gen­er­al health is, where they’ve been, what they’ve eaten and what mood they’re in.

To a large de­gree, a wolf nav­ig­ates the world through its sense of smell. The tip of its nose is a com­plex land­scape of minute ridges and creases, which, when com­bined with the out­er edges of nos­trils, cre­ates a pat­tern as dis­tinct as a hu­man fingerprint.

Each nos­tril can be moved in­de­pend­ently, al­low­ing wolves to de­term­ine which dir­ec­tion a par­tic­u­lar scent is com­ing from. Inside the broad snout are ap­prox­im­ately 280 mil­lion scent re­cept­ors, a princely amount when com­pared to a German shepherd’s 225 mil­lion, a dachshund’s 125 mil­lion and hu­mans’ scant five to six million.

A wolf’s nose alerts them to danger, the pres­ence of pack mem­bers or en­emies, fe­male wolves in heat and prey. Each wolf has dis­tinct­ive scent glands on dif­fer­ent parts of their body so smells unique, at least to oth­er canids.

Scientists know that wolves can smell prey 2.5 kilo­metres (1.5 miles) away. Gordon Haber, who spent most of his life re­search­ing wolves in Alaska, was con­vinced that wolves could smell a dead moose or cari­bou bur­ied un­der three metres (ten feet) of snow, even if the wind was blow­ing the wrong direction.

In Wolves on the Hunt, a ra­dio-collared fe­male wolf with pups makes a beeline for a cari­bou herd more than 100 kilo­metres (62 miles) distant.

What sur­prised the re­search­ers was the tim­ing of the wolf’s jour­ney and the re­l­at­ively straight line she made for the cari­bou. The week be­fore her trek, the av­er­age daily dis­tance between her den and the cari­bou was 242 kilo­metres (150 miles). The day she left, it had nar­rowed by more than half.

If the wolf had veered to the north­w­est, she might have missed the herd en­tirely or not found them un­til later. There’s no way to know if she smelled the un­gu­lates from her den, picked up their scent part­way through her jour­ney or simply headed in the dir­ec­tion she’d found cari­bou before.

But cari­bou are highly mo­bile so the wolf couldn’t have de­pended on memory alone. The re­search­ers spec­u­late that if a hu­man can smell smoke from a forest fire more than 100 kilo­metres (62 miles) away, why couldn’t a wolf smell a cari­bou herd from the same distance?

Photo cour­tesy Wolf Conservation Centre.

WCC is an en­vir­on­ment­al edu­ca­tion or­gan­iz­a­tion that teaches people about wolves, their re­la­tion­ship to the en­vir­on­ment and hu­mans’ role in pro­tect­ing their future.



Wolf howls at Wolf Haven

Wolves vo­cal­ize in a vari­ety of ways in­clud­ing snarls, growls, whim­pers, whines and oc­ca­sion­ally barks. But it’s the howl that fas­cin­ates hu­mans the most. To us it of­ten sounds sad and lonely but, to a wolf, a howl can mean any­thing from “Where are you?” to “Keep out of my territory!”

When I vis­ited Wolf Haven International, about an hour’s drive south of Seattle, I was treated to a 55-can­id howl fest that I’ll nev­er for­get. At the time I didn’t know that each wolf has a howl as dis­tinct as a hu­man fin­ger­print or that wolves in dif­fer­ent re­gions howl in their own dialects.

Wolf Haven is a glob­ally ac­cred­ited sanc­tu­ary that provides a forever home for cap­tive-born and dis­placed wolves. The fa­cil­ity also par­ti­cip­ates in cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams for en­dangered Mexican grey wolves and red wolves, as well as caring for some high-con­tent wolf-dogs and coyotes.

Ladyhawk was five years old when she ar­rived at Wolf Haven in 2005. She was ema­ci­ated, had an eye in­fec­tion and was highly sus­pi­cious and frightened of hu­mans. Over  her el­ev­en years at the sanc­tu­ary, she gained weight and be­came con­fid­ent and well-ad­jus­ted. Even though she was a petite grey wolf, Ladyhawk, was not shy about ini­ti­at­ing play with her much lar­ger pen part­ner, a wolf-dog named Caedus.

The re­ser­va­tion-only tour fea­tured eight an­im­als, a mix of grey and Mexican grey wolves, wolf-dogs and coyotes that were more at ease with lim­ited hu­man con­tact. The rest of the an­im­als are se­cluded for their own comfort.

But Wolf Haven videos provide be­hind-the-scenes glimpses of wolf life most people will nev­er see. This clip shows four Mexican grey wolf pups be­ing startled by a group howl sim­il­ar to what I heard. They weren’t sure what to think, even when their dad showed them how it’s done.

Wolf pups have an in­nate urge to howl but, just like hu­man ba­bies learn­ing to speak, it takes a while to get it right. In this clip, a lit­ter of red wolves listen to a Wolf Haven howl ses­sion then de­cide to give it a try.

But, in ad­di­tion to wolf-to-wolf com­mu­nic­a­tion, howls have the po­ten­tial to be so much more. A study in Yellowstone National Park is in­vest­ig­at­ing if re­cord­ings of ter­rit­ori­al howls can keep wolves away from live­stock, while an­oth­er study in north­ern India is at­tempt­ing to es­tim­ate the pop­u­la­tion of the re­gion’s elu­sive, en­dangered wolves by count­ing in­di­vidu­al howls.