The Hopes in a Howl and Science

By Bob Ferris0462_wenaha_male_wolf
One of the distinct advantages for me of working in a small organization versus a large one in DC with security doors and receptionists, is that I get to talk with people and see how they are impacted by our work.  Yesterday was a prime example. 
About mid-day yesterday an animated woman came into our office semi-out-of-breath and beaming. She had a story to tell.  She had just come back from camping in rural part of Cascadia about 150 miles from where a certain very famous wolf couple (i.e., Journey and Wanda) is currently thought to be tending to their pups.
“We heard them,” she said. 
OR-7And what followed was a discussion about wolves and wolf howls—how they sound and how they differ from coyotes or dogs.  We talked about the deceptiveness of distance and a little wolf biology and then I asked her, “Did this enhance your camping experience?“
Of course I knew what her answer would be even before it came bubbling out because I’d had this conversation hundreds of times before.   I did not have to listen to words because excitement was written all over her face and in the tone of her talk.  I cannot say for certain what she heard and whether or not it was a wolf, wolves or “the wolves” and it really does not matter.  She—like so many before her and many to follow—was excited simply by the hope of wolves.  

This concept of excitement over the existence of something that is not seen and often not experienced has been discussed and debated for the two decades that I have worked on this creature of myth and mystery.  The concept of existence value, though demonstrated repeatedly by hundreds of people lining the roads in Algonquin Provincial Park near the US-Canada border hoping to hear a wolf howl (you have to listen very, very closely) or thousands sending comments from New York City on wolf recovery, is a little like the wolf itself; either you get it or you don’t.  
The above operates on the emotional and my wife frequently ponders why we even bothered to hire a wedding photographer, because my expression is always the same. It is her way of saying I am a scientist and while I like the howls, I am excited on a deeper level by the ecological implications of the wolf and all that we are learning about this amazing critter. And I may not have been at that campground and heard that howl but I have been reading the literature and the last month or so has been pretty amazing with four papers of note.
The first one out of the chute is that paper about the BC coastal wolves and how diet and habitat might be creating genetic separation between fish-eating coastal wolves and their inland neighbors.  I am still digesting this but had a short conversation with one of the co-authors, Paul Paquet, about this when we were writing our piece on the ill-advised delisting proposal by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This is an interesting and thought provoking development and it brings to mind long ago, rancorous arguments in the scientific community about the possibility of species living with or near each other diverging in a process called sympatric speciation.  Good stuff.
The second piece in this series has to do with a theme of much interest and debate: trophic cascades.  Thomas Newsome and William Ripple out of Oregon State are the authors of a study that looked at fur trapping records across a broad expanse of Canada to see how wolf populations impact coyote and fox populations.  This article puts the punctuation mark on the idea that trophic cascades—the trickle-down economics of the animal world (only this actually works)—need lots of apex predators across a broad area to work.  
Cristina Eisenberg and I have had discussions about this idea that there is a critical mass required for trophic cascades.  It seems key when we look at how broadly we have to recover wolf populations to get the benefits that we need to accrue.  
The third article is the one on cougars and wolves.  The research found that cougars tended to avoid areas occupied by wolves.  This makes sense and addresses, in part, the concern that wolves act as an additional predator on the landscape when the story is likely more complicated than that.  Here again, the functional outcome probably has a lot to do with density and distribution and argues against the notion that a few wolves in a few places is sufficient.  
The last piece is fun.  It looks at the speculative function of face design and eye prominence in the dog family or canids as it relates Sierra_Nevada_Red_Fox_Keith_Slausen_US_Forest_Service_2010to sociality.  Wolves are the hands down, look-me-in-the-eye champs in this followed by foxes (at right) where we see the eyes but not pupils and then solo wild dogs where it is even hard to see the eyes.  Who knew “gazing” could be so interesting and what are the possible implications here for the social function of face and eye make-up in humans?  All very interesting so enjoy!
Without your help, wolf recovery will remain a shrinking shadow of a promise.  We need your help to move beyond this concept of isolated wolf refuges surrounded by hostile territories.  So whether you gravitate towards wolves because of the howl or hopes of howls or the science grabs you or both, get engaged in the process and please get active.

2 thoughts on “The Hopes in a Howl and Science

  1. Makuye says:

    It takes quite a number of mutations (equaling generations and time) to genetically separate mammals into distinct non-interbreeding species.

    Ecologial niches served by an apex predator can vary more easily, as ecosystems require negative feedback to remain relatively stable across time.

    Niches are important concepts – it is rare that a different animal can closely reproduce the ecological of one lost. Wolves have been across the Northern Temperate to Subarctic and Arctic for well beyond a million years, and during that time, many places now islands were parts of the main (with a nod to John Donne, whose poem might be more widely interpreted with great value).

    Wolves to Euroamericans early on, seemed to contain many separate species or subspecies, when local populations differed somewhat in selection due to prey choices and availability.

    Even now we see differences in leg length to body size between mountain and plains or tundra wolves. The Raincoast wolves adapted behaviorally to some salmon parasites, by selection for choosy head-eaters, for instance.

    In the realm of speculation, I have noticed how much a wolf face can look like a retreating blacktailed or mule deer: Look yourself, and imagine you are an inexperienced young one, running, following, seeking shelter in the group, glancing only a moment toward the most common wolf face. A moment's indecision, hesitation, and you might be culled. 

    Against this speculation, I've traveled with a wolf, stepping within 8 feet of unwary deer. Their senses are not the same not on a par with that of the wolf. I have noted also that the mountain lion, presuming it was stalking us, was always discovered out of sight by the owlf, who then followed it to its proper rest in a tree, more than once. 

    WHile on that subject, I note that recently urban or naive persons believe that "cougars avoid areas occupied by wolves" to mean that they get tickets outta there, to need some help either reading or understanding the concept of pack territories in saturated populations.
    Just as do most ungulates, pumas tend to travel along or spend most time in boundary areas – THIS is what is meant by the headline. I hope this note helps people to understand a bit better, and themselves seek far greater learning about this other social intelligence native to this land.

  2. bob says:

    The whole idea of sympatric speciation is that critters evolve into differing genetic units not because they cannot interbred but because they do not.  The coastal and the inland wolves have ample opportunity and capability to interbred and exchange genes occasionally which would maintain homogeneity, but they apparently are not doing that.

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