December 30, 2009

On Axel again.



Since our last (Dec. 15) post of Brutus’s pack’s detailed movements, the pack covered its usual area on Ellesmere from Nov. 22 through Dec. 8. The pack visited the weather station on Dec. 8. From the station, the wolves headed north and then cut across Eureka Sound westward to Axel Heiberg Island again on Dec. 9, where they stayed for about a week. At some of the Axel locations they remained for 2 or more times, including some of the locations visited earlier. This is a pretty good indication that they killed muskoxen there. Then on Dec. 15, the pack cut back eastward across the fiord and passed by the weather station. The station staff photographed them and estimated there were 23-25 members in the pack (see photos). It is becoming ever clearer that the pack has taken advantage of the fiord’s freezing to extend its territory onto northwestern Alex Heiberg. It will be interesting now to see how many more times the wolves visit Axel and when in early summer they stop using it because of thawing.

In this second photo of Gaudet’s the wolf on the left still sports facial blood from sticking his head into a recent muskox kill.

Although not sharp, this photo from Al Gaudet, Officer in Charge of the Eureka Weather Station documents for us that on December 15 Brutus was traveling with his pack, as expected. The weather station folks estimated that the pack included 23-25 wolves on this visit.

December 22, 2009

A spaghetti map for Brutus’ movement


Brutus’ locations (small circles) since capture on 08 July 2009 to 30 November 2009. Each location is joined to the next consecutive location 12 hours apart with a line, resulting in what we call a “spaghetti” map. This joining of the dots can help us identify separate trips to a given area when there are several locations from other times. The lines joining consecutive locations are straight lines and the true path taken is likely anything but. However, it does provide us with the general direction and distance traveled. The most obvious trip we see is the one taken to Axel Heiberg Island to the west as Dave has pointed out earlier. That 129 kilometers (80 mile) trip began in the evening of 18 November and ended in the evening of 21 November, for an elapsed time of 84 hours. With the locations coming at 12-hour intervals we can’t precisely say what Brutus was doing, but no doubt he was hunting and likely resting at times too. We can also add up the distances traveled between locations and estimate a minimum distance traveled. Since monitoring began, we have received 289 of a possible 290 locations. The cumulative distance from point-to-point that Brutus has traveled up to 30 November is 2,726 km (1,683 miles). The average distance between these consecutive 12-hr locations is 9.5 km (5.8 miles) and has ranged from 0 (resting) to 41 km (25.3 miles). That 41 km distance occurred on Brutus’ trip to Axel Heiberg Island on 18 November. So far, the north-south extent of the Brutus’ locations is 93 km (57.4 miles) and the east west extent is 109 km (67.3 miles). Note that the fiords would all be frozen now and can be crossed on foot.

--Dean.

December 15, 2009

Brutus does Axel Heiberg!



Contrary to his other 2 visits to nearby Axel Heiberg Island just west of Ellesmere, Brutus (and no doubt his pack) actually spent much time inland on Axel rather than just along the shore.

This time, they spent at least 2 full days there, traveled at least 47 miles ( 75 km) on the island, and got as far as 11 miles (18 km) inland. Both muskoxen and arctic hares inhabit Axel, and our wolves probably partook of both. That would be the only reason to travel so far, and from the positioning of the locations we have some evidence of possible muskox kills (more about this in a later blog). Upon returning to Ellesmere, the wolves headed back to the center of their territory, and their last location was the farthest east we have ever found them, some 67 miles (107.2 km) from their farthest west location on Axel.

Remember, amount of daylight = 0; current temperature = -20 to -37 C.

Dave

December 01, 2009

Another trip to Axel Heiberg!

Picking up where we left off last time, Brutus spent much time in the southeast end of the pack’s territory and then on Nov. 14 headed about 6.5 miles (10.4 km) farther south than we had ever found him before.

He then traveled 14.1 miles westnorthwestward crossing the southeast arm of frozen Eureka Sound back to Axel Heiberg Island. 12 hours later, he was back on Ellesmere, a trek of some 8.4 miles (13.4 km), where he remained about a third of a mile (0.5 km) inland for at least the next 12 hours. Did the pack make a kill there? Of course we don’t know, but that would be one good explanation for why he (and probably the rest of his pack) spent so much time in one spot. The area is fairly flat and low, not too far from a small lake and the kind of area that muskoxen like to frequent.

Why the pack crosses to Axel Heiberg and then quickly returns to Ellesmere is still a mystery. From my work much farther south in Minnesota, I have long suspected that in autumn after the pups leave rendezvous sites and begin traveling with the adults, the parents take them around the outer extent of their territory more-or-less introducing them to all their area. Or perhaps, with the newly formed ice, the pack is just asserting itself by venturing out farther and scent-marking new areas. We’ll just have to keep watching for more data that might shed light on this question.

With temperatures reaching -37 C, we keep hoping that the collar holds up and keeps working!

Dave

November 24, 2009

I thought viewers might be interested in checking the current weather where the wolves are roaming.

To see current weather, visit the National Climate Data and Information Archive Web site.

Select "Nunavut" and then select "Eureka."

Need help converting Celsius to Fahrenheit? Visit CalculateMe.com.

Dave

November 17, 2009

After returning from Axel Heiberg Island, Brutus and probably his pack spent most of their time in the south end of their territory. In several places, 2 consecutive locations were the same, possibly representing kills.

Certainly a pack this size will have to be making kills frequently. How they do that in the 24 hours of darkness is a good question that we wish we could answer. The fact that the pack is spending so much time in the south end of its territory implies that many muskoxen may be spending their winter there too.

Just as wolf movements and activity at this time of year are unknown, so too are the movements and behavior of their shaggy prey. Hopefully we can draw some inference about muskox distribution during winter from examining the locations of the wolves.

Dave

November 05, 2009

Brutus Crosses to Axel Heiberg Island!


Lying immediately west of Ellesmere Island is Axel Heiberg. On maps, the 2 islands appear as a single entity dissected by fiords. The closest distance between islands is about 8 miles (12.8 Km).

That area is where Brutus and presumably his pack crossed to Axel sometime between October 18 at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Central time (times on the map locations are UTC, Zulu, or Greenwich Mean Time).

Remembering that each location is 12 hr apart, we can do some quick calculations to find how much time they might have spent on Axel. Assuming a 5 mph (8 kmph) travel time, they would have spent about 5.5 hr traveling the 27.5 mi (44 km) between their last location on Ellesmere to Axel and back to their first new location on Ellesmere, leaving 18.5 hr as the most time they could have spent on Axel. Of course they could have spent much less time. The location on Axel is just 1.27 mi (2.0 km) inland, but again, they could have traveled farther inland. Nevertheless, we can’t help but wonder why they did not spend more time on Axel.

Could there be another wolf pack there whose scent marks our pack detected? Did our wolves find no muskoxen they could kill? Did they maybe kill a calf, eat it, and then decide to leave? Our guess is that they detected another pack. Otherwise, one would think that after all that travel across the fiord, they would have spent more time searching farther and wider and finally made a kill there. But who knows? Hopefully later travels to the area will give us more insight.

Dave


Note:
The Google Earth maps we are using to plot the data were taken during summer when some of the fiords are relatively ice-free and the ground is barren, right now, the entire area is covered with snow, the fiords are frozen, and it is dark, 24 hr/day.

October 27, 2009


Here on this new map that covers Brutus' locations from September 24 through October 13 one can see several interesting things:

1. the pack's visit to the Eureka Weather Station on October 2 (see Oct. 14 entry);

2. the pack's visit on October 3 to the vicinity of a couple of old kills we found along the S. shore of the fiord in mid July; and

3. Brutus' visit to the shore of the SE arm of Eureka Sound on October 6
(Map 2). If you have Google Earth and zoom in on the area you will see that this shoreline is at the base of a pretty high ridge, possibly > 900 ft. (270 meters) high.

The Weather Station reports that the fiords are frozen and a layer of snow
covers everything. By early November, the sun will have set, not to be seen again until mid February. Dave

October 14, 2009


It looks like the pattern we began to see during the past installment is continuing. Most of Brutus' locations are different rather than often showing him returning to a given point which presumably would be where the pups are staying. This tends to confirm that the pups are probably moving more often with the adults as observed by the weather station folks on October 2.

Dr. Pierre Fogal, a leading scientist working out of the weather station for the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC) snapped a few valuable photos of the pack as it passed by the weather station.

Dave

October 09, 2009

An interesting pattern has begun to develop in Brutus' movements. Until Sept. 19, Brutus had not been away from the den or rendezvous site for more than 3.5 days. However, from September 19 through September 24 (5 to 5.5 days) each location was different, indicating that he was not at a den or RS. Quite conceivably he had the pups with him during this time. Then from September 24 through at least September 27, (at least 3 days) his locations were only at the rendezvous site.

For now we are lacking locations for September 28 - October 2, but the Weather Station reported that on October 2 Brutus and a pack of 18-24 including pups passed by, so the pups might have been away from the rendezvous site for the entire period between September 27 and October 3 for which we now have data.

During all the locations we obtained from October 3 through 7 (5 days) Brutus was never in the same location, which could mean the pups are still traveling with him.

In 2 more days we hope to receive at least some of the September 28 through October 2 data, which will tell us much more about this new travel pattern.

Do these movements mark the start of the pups abandoning their rendezvous site and joining the pack on its nomadic movements around the full pack territory?

Dave

October 02, 2009

"Since our last installment, Brutus (and pack?) spent most of the time south of the fiord in the area inaccessible to us from the ground during summer. Brutus returned to the rendezvous site (RS) on September 25, so it is clear the pups are still there. Sometimes better-developed pups accompany adults for long distances while less-developed pups remain at the RS.

We have now received approvals to post maps of Brutus' locations, so accompanying this is a series of maps, starting from afar and closing in on the actual study area. The close-up shows all of Brutus' locations through September 15, 2009. Now with this map, you may want to re-read some of the earlier entries where we refer to the impassable mud flats, the weather
station, fiord, etc. Doing this will help you gain perspective on the many events described earlier.

To gain a better idea about the terrain, you may want to download Google Earth, www.earth.google.com, search for "Ellesmere Island, Eureka" and zoom in on some of the areas shown where the wolves frequent. Of course, the area was satellite-photographed at different times, primarily mid-summer. Currently the ground is snow-covered, and the fiords frozen. Will the wolves start crossing them to other areas to gain more prey? Stay tuned.

Dave


September 25, 2009

Brutus' pack was at the Weather Station!

Well, we received a new download of Brutus location data, and it confirmed that it was Brutus' pack that the Weather Station (WS) folks saw on September 12 and again on September 14. Not only does this give us a good count on Brutus' pack size, but it also tells us that the pups are moving quite far. Generally in September pups remain in a rendezvous site, and both before and after the trips that took them by the WS Brutus, they were at the rendezvous site. They then remained there for all of September 15 and 16.

The trips to the WS area and possibly beyond, amounted to a journey of at least ll miles (17.5 km) each way. This shows that the pups are developing well, and it makes us wonder just when they will leave the rendezvous site for good and become nomadic around the territory with the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, the area is losing about an hour of light per day, so before long it will be dark till next spring.

Dave

September 22, 2009

Our Ellesmere wolf pack evidently visited the Eureka weather station during the past week, an email from station manager Al Gaudet revealed. Adding to the telemetry data from our pack, Al indicated that on September 12 he counted 18 wolves including 4 robust pups. A few days later, one of the station's equipment operators reported "24 with lots of young ones." It is hard to get a good count on that large a pack because the members keep shifting around while they travel. Hopefully one of the station folks will get good photos before light dwindles and disappears there in a few weeks. Then we might get a more definitive count.

As for the radio-location data, the last we have is on 6:00 pm September 11, so we cannot confirm from our location data that this was our study pack. (The position of the receiving satellite in the Argos system was adjusted in the past few days, so that may explain why the collar hasn't been able to reach the satellite with its locations.) We expect to get the September 12 and later location data in a few more days. We can't wait!

Dave

September 18, 2009

Brutus' Locations

We continue to be thrilled to download Brutus' locations and to try to deduce the behavior of him and his pack. We suspect the pack has moved the pups again to a new rendezvous site back across the river flats that we found so uncrossable last summer. We also suspect several of the locations as indicating muskox kills. Because the locations are precise to within a few yards or meters, next summer we should be able use hand-held GPS units to check these sites for kill remains.

Here is an example of a long move that Brutus made in no more than 12 hours.
The distance was 21.32-miles (straight-line), but we really suspect that he did not cross over the top of Blacktop Mt, but rather went around. This would make the distance he traveled much more than 21 miles.

Dave

August 27, 2009

Again, reporting from my St. Paul office, we have determined that the Ellesmere pack has almost certainly moved its pups to a new rendezvous site some 10.9 miles (17.6 km) to the northeast, which puts it across the river flats that we were unable to cross with our ATVs last month. The pups were last at the former rendezvous site through July 25 and probably were at 2 intermediate rendezvous sites between then and August 5 when they were at the new site.

The collar is working very well, and we now have received almost all the
possible locations that it has received from the GPS satellites.

Dave

August 06, 2009

August 6, 2009

With a new download of Brutus' location data today, I noticed that Brutus (and probably several members of his pack) had traveled to the N. side of the fiord to an area frequented by muskoxen, some 25 miles (40 km) north of the pups. Because he had stayed in a single spot for > 12 hr, I surmised that the pack had killed a muskox there--quite an inference to be made from my office > 2,500 miles to the south! Next summer, we hope to visit that probable kill location and check for bones."

Dave

Editors note:
We've posted video of the wolves howling on
July 8th.

August 05, 2009

August 4, 2009

Today while sitting in my Minnesota office analyzing Brutus' locations emailed to me by the satellites, we found that his pack apparently has moved the pups some 4.25 km (2.6 mi) to the NW of the den. After July 18, none of Brutus' locations were at the den, but 5 were at the new location. Such a move of the pups is common during mid-summer, both in the arctic and elsewhere. Wolves usually move the pups to new locations, sometimes closer to prey or food supplies but other times for reasons unknown.

The new locations may or may not be near dens or other refuges and are referred to as rendezvous sites. The pups are usually kept at these rendezvous sites until they reach adult size and can travel with the rest of the pack. That takes place about October in southern areas, but in the arctic, that time is unknown. We eagerly await Brutus' signals to reveal that information.

Dave

August 03, 2009



Before leaving Ellesmere, Dean and Dave asked other area scientists who might be flying near Brutus' den to try to swing by and gather further information. Thus permafrost researchers, Mark Ednie and Philip Bonnaventure, took these photos of the den surroundings and the wolves home at the time.

Meanwhile, back at the office in St. Paul, MN and Yellowknife, NWT, Dave and Dean continued to trace Brutus' wide travels on their computers. The farthest straight-line distance between his most distant locations so far is 37 miles (59 km).

July 18, 2009

July 18, 2009 - Heading Home

The first leg of the journey home is always the most crucial because we must be able to connect with the once-per-week commercial flight from Resolute to Yellowknife. It is also logistically the most difficult to arrange, but we were lucky to get on a twin otter cargo flight complete with 2 ATVs, a barrel of hazardous waste, our gear, and 3 Inuit women. Despite a poor weather forecast, we made it into Resolute by midnight and then enjoyed the luxury of a commercial hotel and began our transition back into the rest of the world. All that remains is to catch our plane out of Resolute.

Dave & Dean

Editors note

Here is a map Dean made with Google Earth. It shows the
weather station location, their observation point referenced in their daily postings and the for the collared male - a.k.a. "Brutus" because Dean and Dave think this big fellow may be the wolf known as "Brutus" in the 2006 Blog. See the dot with the 11 July 6 a.m. label. That location is 40.7 km (25.3 miles) from the observation point. Click the image for a larger view.

July 18, 2009 - The 2009 Research Expedition Continues!

Editors' Note

Dean and Dave left Ellesmere last night to begin the first leg of the long journey home. But this year, something's different. The 2009 Ellesmere Island Arctic Wolf Research has not ended!

Dean and Dave left a fellow researcher behind to carry on the important work, a teammate who will report in regularly. Nature has superbly adapted the big male wolf wearing the GPS/ARGOS tracking collar to lead the expedition day and night in the months to come, hopefully for as long as two years! When the e-mails from the ARGOS satellite come in, Dave and Dean will be able to plot the travels of the "researcher wolf" as he wanders and hunts, probably with the breeding female and others of his family, throughout the dark, frozen winter. We may be able to provide updates about this, so don't drop the Blog! Check in from time to time and see if we have posted something new.

July 17, 2009

July 17, 2009 - Last Day

While waiting last night at our observation point for a wolf to come by so we could place our second tracking collar, we continued to scan across the fjord for wolves visiting the remains of the muskox kill from 3 days ago. After several hours, we finally spotted first one wolf and then a second heading away from the remains. They approached what, through the spotting scope (from a distance of 4 miles), appeared to be a large, dark rock with several white rocks lined up on either side. There were two wolves that kept hanging around the rock and moving back and forth behind it. We couldn't recall seeing a group of white rocks lined up along the shore quite like this, and we began wondering if they might also be wolves, although for quite some time none moved except the 2 behind the rock. Then suddenly when we took another look, one of the white rocks was gone!

That's when we began to see that the arrangement of the whole group of rocks was odd, unless the dark rock was a fresh muskox kill, and the cluster of white rocks was our wolf pack! That turned out to be the case, so we spent the rest of the evening watching at least 8 wolves, including the collared wolf, according to the signal. Unfortunately, a candidate wolf for our second collar never appeared near us, and we resigned ourselves to just having one collar out to follow for the next 2 years.

However, we took great satisfaction that we were getting excellent location data from our collared wolf and that the animal is the breeding male of this pack.These facts and what we will learn from them will warm us for the next 2 years as we check and plot the locations e-mailed to us, thus bringing us back to this remote study area and the great time we had.

July 16, 2009

July 16. 2009 - We Found the Den!

We homed in on the signal from the collared male via a helicopter currently at the airstrip for use by researchers - and we found the den! We saw 3 adults there, and one pup came out. Two other adults were nearby. But, none of them had a collar even though the signal was strong and nearby.

Thus we persisted in homing in on the signal but were puzzled when we could see no other wolves.Then we noticed a crack or dark fissure in the ground, and once we looked for the collared male in it, we were amazed to discover 7 wolves down in the cool shadows of the crack! They sure found a solution to the record heat, and despite some circling with the helicopter, they appeared completely unfazed and never moved from their shaded napping spots (see photo).

The den was not where we originally thought it was, although still far across the fjord, about 18 km (approximately 11 miles) from our observation point and a 27 km (about 17 miles) trip around the head of the fjord. It was fairly nondescript, most probably an old fox den that the wolves had dug out and enlarged (see photo).

We also spent several hours watching the muskox carcass we found day before yesterday. Yesterday morning, we saw one wolf there and another about midnight.

We still have not deployed the second GPS/ARGOS collar, but we have one more night to do so. Dave & Dean

Editors' Note

Go to the 2008 Blog and scroll down to Day 1 to see a photo of the Rock Den. Dave Mech found this beautiful outcropping of huge boulders and sheltered crevices some 23 years ago. Wolves probably have used it as a den site for centuries. It overlooks a broad expanse of valley where muskoxen graze in the distance.

Several good vantage points have allowed researchers to observe (without intruding) the wolf families with their pups for many years. However, the wolves have not used the Rock Den every year that Dave has been conducting this long-term study. Why is an unresolved question. Maybe ice was still in the cozy cave at the base of the rocks. Some years, no den site and no pups at all were found despite thorough searching. Perhaps in those years, the wolf pack in the area did not have pups because prey numbers were down. An early winter (August!) with heavy snowfall can mean hard months ahead for the muskoxen. A deep crust forms on the snow mantle, and the muskoxen can't get to the plants that nourish them. No
muskoxen and hares, no breakfast, lunch and dinner for the wolves!

The old fox den where the wolves have their pup(s) this year seems to us humans far less luxurious than the Rock Den! But it's not a problem for the wolves. Water is nearby, the fissure gives them protection from the heat and the bugs, they can see forever - and the muskoxen are there. Clearly, traveling miles every day is no problem for them. Wolves are built for tireless locomotion!

It is amazing that these great predators are able to dispatch with an adult muskox. Even the youngest calves are strong and present a challenge, but an adult is 400 to 800 pounds (estimates vary) of charging fury. Perhaps the wolves found an adult that was weakened by age or injury, but even so, this reminds us of how difficult it is for wolves to acquire food for the pack, including the ravenous pups, when they have to take on animals that outweigh them by several hundred pounds.


See the 1986 documentary White Wolf for some unforgettable footage of wolves chasing and killing a muskox calf.


The annual Ellesmere Island Wolf Research Expedition includes a
muskoxen and hare indexing. Dave and Dean will do a count in designated areas for comparison with past years. This gives them useful data on the fluctuation in numbers of the prey species.

More images can be viewed on our Flickr Photostream.

July 15, 2009

July 15, 2009 - Things are looking up! Stay tuned!

We began our day yesterday at our observation point overlooking the fjord, but with added interest in learning where our collared male might be now. The 11 muskoxen we saw on Monday re-appeared again as they foraged along the gullies. We heard the VHF signal from the collared male, and he was still across the fjord but much farther east than the night before last. We continued to listen for his signal throughout the day while waiting for wolves to show up - hopefully with one that we could collar. With the spotting scope and binoculars, we scanned the area where we heard the signal. We saw a wolf, but it was challenging to discern what was happening with the heat waves coming off the land.

We then saw a second wolf, and Dave was puzzled by what appeared from 4.5 miles away like a dark barrel with some red showing nearby. We observed the two wolves greet each other and then go towards the "barrel." Only it wasn't a barrel! Instead we then realized that this was an adult muskox the wolves had killed, probably last night. We continued to watch the kill site to figure out how many wolves were there and determined that there were five and the collared male was one of them.

We will rise early tomorrow morning to continue to watch the kill site.

On another interesting note, we learned from the nearby weather station that in over 45 years of weather keeping, today we broke an all-time record for a daytime high temperature at 20.9 degrees Celcius. That is close to 70 degrees Fahrenheit - an arctic heat wave.

Dean & Dave

Editors' Note

"Wildlife biologist." Even in a world in which, as Richard Louv (author of the book Last Child in the Woods) put it, children are suffering increasingly from "Nature Deficit Disorder," the notion of a career as a wildlife biologist is attractive to many young people. It may become increasingly so as the condition of our planet continues to deteriorate. The trend toward insulating children from nature may be reversing. As organizations and teachers and parents motivate young people to become engaged in solving global environmental problems and in becoming stewards of our earth, environmental careers in the outdoors may see a spike in popularity. We hope so.

But field work is not, as the International Wolf Center's Web Specialist Carissa Winter says, "as easy as throwing on your flannel shirt and jeans, strapping on your gear and walking into the wilderness to be instantly rewarded." Field work can be brutal - bad weather, biting bugs, exhaustion, equipment that fails, accidents, injury - and long periods when nothing happens and there is no guarantee that it will. It is work that earns tremendous pay-offs and sometimes no rewards whatsoever. It demands patience, persistence, a positive outlook and a thick skin, both against the bugs and against dashed hopes.

Carissa, who designs and oversees this Blog, likens the suspense building today to a soap opera! What will happen? Will Dave and Dean find the collared male and be lead to the breeding female? Will they find pups? Stay tuned!

We can't predict the outcome, but we hope you will stick with this adventure in research for two more days. Dave and Dean will have to head home on Friday, so the pressure really is mounting. Send them your strong thoughts!

July 14, 2009

July 14, 2009 - The Pressure is ON!

We saw no wolves yesterday from our observation point, so we are getting desperate to put out the second GPS/ARGOS collar. Only 3 more nights to try to find and collar a breeding female. We did see 11 muskoxen pass by, and we watched a wolf some 5 to 6 miles away across the fjord through the spotting scope. The wolf came within about 200 metres (656 feet) below some 40 to 50 arctic hares, which then all scrambled away to the top of a hill, leaving the poor wolf at the bottom!

We found this wolf while we were listening to a signal from the VHF radio transmitter that is on the male wolf's GPS/ARGOS collar. The photos show us holding the antenna while we are listening. However, we could not be certain that the wolf we saw through the scope was actually the collared male because it was so far away, but it was in the same area as where the signals came from.

Hope springs eternal, and we hope today is the day
we put out the second collar.

Dave and Dean



Editors' Note

In spite of their proximity to the North Pole, Ellesmere Island and neighboring Axel Heiberg Island support a bounty of flora
and fauna. What appears to be an empty landscape is not. Plants range from the simple species such as lichens, fungi and mosses that have no roots to exquisite miniature flowering plants and larger varieties of breathtaking beauty. The simple plants are an important food source for a number of animals. Lichens are tiny and attach themselves to rock. Fungi have no roots, stems or leaves. They are important in northern ecosystems because one of their jobs is to break down dead organic matter. Mosses can grow on bare rocks; they also grow where there is water, such as around little streams formed by melting snow.

Shallow-rooted flowering
plants grow on Ellesmere as well. They include the high arctic daisy, northern arnica, arctic poppy and saxifrage. The flower heads of arctic poppies follow the sun's passage across the sky just as sunflowers do! Purple saxifrage, the official territorial flower of Canada's third and newest territory (Nunavut) grows in the crevices and cracks of rocks. It is the first plant to bloom in the short arctic summer, and tiny hairs on its leaves help protect it from the dry winds that blow across the immense landscape.

Ellesmere
is home to a variety of terrestrial animals including the formidable musk ox, Canis lupus arctos (the arctic wolf), the weasel and the arctic hare. Muskoxen live in herds, and their long hair make them look like they are wearing flowing skirts! The arctic hare is not the same thing as a rabbit or a snowshoe hare. Arctic hares are large (9-12 pounds) with short ears that are black-tipped during winter. Summer colors vary depending on how far north the hares live. In the far north, the hares are almost pure white even in the summer (see photo). Farther south, they are a brownish color on top with white underneath.The young (leverets) are born with fur and with their eyes open. Rabbits, on the other hand, are born without fur and with closed eyes. Hares eat willow leaves, shoots and bark as well as grasses and flowers. In spite of its small size and tiny, winsome face, the weasel is an efficient predator. With its sharp teeth and claws, its speed and its silent attack mode, it can quickly dispatch with lemmings and other animals even larger than it is!

D
ean and Dave report they are happy to see people from Australia, India, Israel, Canada, Japan, Belgium, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Spain, and Denmark are reading the Ellesmere blog! This is proof that the International Wolf Center is "teaching the world about wolves!" Dave Mech and Dean Cluff, our good Canadian friend, have opened the door to the secret world of the High Arctic to thousands of interested followers!

More images can be viewed on our Flickr Photostream.

July 13, 2009

July 13, 2009

Good news; bad news. Bad news is that we still haven't put out the second GPS/ARGOS collar yet, although 4 days left to do so. Good news is that we received the first few locations from our first wolf wearing the collar, and they were most interesting. The main finding was that we think we know where the den is. But it is 27 km (about 17 miles) straight-line distance across the fjord from our observation point.

Thus to get there from where we collared the wolf, the pack must travel at least 37 km (about 23 miles) around the end of the fjord. We tracked the collared wolf from the ground today with the standard radio beacon, and it was still across the fjord where we could also see several herds of muskoxen.

Tonight as we watched from our observation point, we saw the 2 female wolves that were there yesterday, and they broke out into a howling session that lasted over an hour. We couldn't figure out why until Dean heard howling from across the fjord, some 4.1 miles away! Although it was hard to believe that he heard it that far, I was convinced when he pointed out a wolf across the way along the opposite shore through his 12X, stabilized binocs. Tomorrow we will take our 45X spotting scope along to look across the way. And, we will also keep keen eyes out for a suitable candidate for our second collar.

Dean & Dave

Editors' Note

Several people have asked how Dave and Dean find wolves in such a huge region. One Blogger asked if they had to travel around looking for signs of wolves, hoping to get lucky. All great questions!

Much of Ellesmere Island is too lacking in vegetation to support large herbivores like muskoxen on which the wolves depend for food. It is an arctic desert, and some regions of this huge landscape are locked in ice. There are formidable mountain ranges and bleak areas of rock. But here and there are "thermal oases," areas that receive enough annual moisture to nourish the shallow-rooted plants that feed muskoxen, the primary prey of the wolves. The wide expanses of landscape around the tiny weather station at Eureka on Ellesmere are home to wolves, muskoxen, arctic hares and other animals.

Sometimes wolves travel on a route near the weather station. They are not afraid of people because in this region, they have never been subjected to the persecution of their relatives to the south. They seem to be curious about humans, and some will approach and come close. Since 2006, the wolves in the area have not used the Rock Den (see the 2006 Blog). So finding them has, in fact, been a huge challenge in recent years. Read the 2008 Blog, and you will readily see what a task it was to locate them!

The GPS/ARGOS collars have a VHF transmitter in them (see below). Thus, Dave and Dean hope to be able to pick up a radio signal from any wolves they collar if they can get within range. With the location data sent from the ARGOS satellite by the collar, this may be possible. The beauty of the technology is the capability to receive locations through a computer. Thus, the great question asked at the end of the 1986 documentary White Wolf may finally be answered: What do the wolves do in winter? Where do they go? How far do they travel? It is important to collar a breeding pair. They are the core of the wolf family, and they and possibly some others will probably travel and hunt together even though they will not have pups to feed until late spring.

The standard VHF radio collar is extremely useful in many locations for tracking animals and birds. But a VHF collar alone wouldn't serve any purpose in a region as remote as Ellesmere and with weather so extreme and harsh most of the year. Additionally, the short summer is over by late August, and it is difficult or impossible to get around by foot or ATV until late June after the long, dark winter is over and the mud has dried up.

This VHF collar consists of a transmitter (just like a radio station that emits a signal that cannot be heard), a receiver (just like a radio) and a direction-finding antenna. With the antenna, the researchers can “find” the transmitter either by using direct line or triangulation. Some antennas are hand-held, and others can be mounted on the wings of aircraft.

July 12, 2009

July 12, 2009

Weather better. We did spot two wolves yesterday, one of which was the same one we saw on Friday, plus one new one. This makes nine wolves now that are using the area. One wolf appears to be a yearling based on its small size, and the other appears to be a maturing female based on her abbreviated flexed-leg urination (see Editors' Note). Of special interest was the way the two met. The younger wolf seemed to stalk the older one initially, sniffed it when they met, and then the older one sniffed the tail gland of the smaller one. (See the 2008 Blog for more observations about tail gland sniffing.) We are still waiting to see a nursing female again on which to place our second collar.

Dave & Dean

Editors' Note: Scent-marking is used as a "no trespassing" advertisement of territorial boundaries. Wolves typically leave more scent marks along the perimeter of their territory than within the core. Trespassers onto alien territory are thought to suspend marking until they return to their own territory. Both the male and the female breeders (formerly called the "alphas") in a wolf pack scent mark. The breeding male's scent-marking posture is raised-leg urination (RLU). Male wolves sometimes use standing urination (STU) as well. Females use squat urination (SQU), and the breeding female will often use a flexed-leg posture (FLU). See the photo on July 17, 2008. The female is displaying an abbreviated version of FLU. Her leg is only slightly elevated. The communication function both of anal sac secretions and the glands associated with the hair follicles around the anus are varied and complex. In addition, wolves have a supracaudal or dorsal tail gland which is located on the top of the tail at the surface, about 1/3 of the way down from the tail base. In some pale color-phase gray wolves (white, gray, buff, tan), this gland may be noticeable as a diffused area of darker coloring. The guard hairs are black-tipped, and underfur is absent from this area. Although the specific role of this gland is not known for certain, scientists have proposed that it may advertise individual identity. In terms of the senses, the old adage, "The nose knows" applies perfectly to the wolf. The sense of smell is probably the most acute of all the wolf's senses. Wolves constantly seek olfactory information, both about their surroundings and about each other. The animal's entire body produces scent information, and scientists still have a great deal left to learn about the roles of various odors and the information they convey.

More images can be viewed on our Flickr Photostream.

July 11, 2009

July 11, 2009 - Rain, Rain - Go Away!

Yesterday's observation session started off misty, drizzly, foggy, rainy and muddy, and got worse. But one small female wolf, probably a yearling, came by. Because we were waiting for a breeding female to collar we merely watched the yearling for awhile. Otherwise we sat in misery! Toward the end a lone muskox wandered by, and we managed to photograph it. At midnight we left and went back to camp.

Dave & Dean

July 10, 2009

July 10, 2009 - The Plot Thickens!

We began our monitoring for wolves at our observation point at 6:30 p.m. and sat there until 1:00 a.m., but no wolves came by. We spent much of those 6 1/2 hours speculating on what we had learned so far and pondering the puzzles. Of most interest is whether there are two breeding pairs in the area. We know that there are two potentially breeding males because both our collared wolf and the male from the pair we saw Sunday were raised-leg urinating. For breeding females, we suspect there are two based on appearance and behavior of the wolves we've seen. However, we will need to observe them again to be sure. Another big question is: how far and wide these wolves are moving? But we will have to wait for location data from the tracking collar. We had hoped to collar another wolf today but will have to wait for another day.

Dave & Dean

Editors' Note

The collared wolf is wearing a GPS/ARGOS collar. Unlike the VHF radio collar, which is still widely used to locate animals and birds, the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) collar "listens" to the signal from a satellite and can calculate (by triangulating its own location) precisely where the animal is. The data are stored in the collar. Those data include location, time, date and movement. With a GPS/ARGOS collar, the data are sent to another set of satellites (ARGOS) which then sends the data to a computer. The system can be set up to record information at intervals predetermined by the researchers. The ARGOS satellite system sends the data via e-mail, usually a couple of times a week. Dean and Dave said in their previous posting that the big male wolf's GPS/ARGOS collar will send data every 4 days.

It is possible, since tooth wear indicates the male is 8-10 years old (see July 9 Blog), that this is the wolf in the 2006 Ellesmere Blog that Dave and others called "Brutus." There is no way to know for sure, of course, but it's fun to speculate. Go to the 2006 Blog and see what you think!

A Blogger made the following comment just last night: "Will the collar transmit all through next winter? I remember the narrator (of the 1986 National Geographic documentary White Wolf) saying, 'What the wolves do during the long polar winter remains an arctic mystery.' Will this mystery be solved thanks to this one wolf wearing a (tracking) collar?" This is one of the questions Dave and Dean hope to answer, and this is why they hope to collar an additional wolf. The pups that are strong enough to travel with their parents and siblings of the current year and years past (those that have not dispersed to start families of their own) will hunt throughout the dark months. But where? How far will they go? Much can be learned since the "life" of this high-tech collar is about two years.

White Wolf is still available through online book sellers, and it can be ordered from the International Wolf Center Wolf Den Store.

July 09, 2009

July 9, 2009 Exciting news!

After hearing that a pack of 10 wolves was spotted on Tuesday, we approached our observation point at 3:45 p.m. yesterday afternoon with great enthusiasm. And rightly so, for there as we approached we could see 2 wolves curled up sleeping, and soon discovered that there were 3 more nearby.

We had been hoping to help answer so many of our questions about these wolves by using a brand new approach for this area. Although many people elsewhere, including ourselves, have placed radio collars on wolves, we have never done that here. However, after 23 previous summers of just watching the wolves and learning so much from them, it was clear that any new breakthroughs here would require this new approach.



Thus when we found this pack of 5 wolves and saw that some came right up to us, we took the opportunity to dart one with a blowpipe and collar it. Deadeye Dean, an expert at this technique, got the dart exactly where he wanted it - right in the shoulder, and the wolf probably thought it was a big mosquito. In 5 minutes, the male wolf was sleeping peacefully and was oblivious to us weighing him (90 lb), estimating his age by tooth wear (8-10 yrs), and measuring him.

Both we and his pack mates watched him as he recovered from his unexpected "nap," and eventually he, sporting his new, very high-tech collar, led his pack mates back toward the den. None realized that this collar would be recording the male's location twice per day and sending the locations to our email every 4 days, hopefully for up to 2 years.

We then followed the male some 20 km back towards the den but lost him after he crossed a wide river and mud flats that we could not cross.

As we returned to camp, we were elated at how well this new venture had gone and began to look forward to when the location data would start coming to us.

Dave

July 08, 2009

Howling Arctic Wolves, Eureka 08Jul2009

After Brutus recovered and the wolves prepared to leave the area, there seemed to be some disagreement. The wolves stopped, and each began howling. Eventually, however, they headed back toward the den.

video

July 8, 2009

We struck out last evening and night, both with the weather and our observations. But the good news is that while we were sleeping during the morning (we don't get to bed until 3 or 4 a.m.), other workers spotted wolves in the general area. One wolf was seen about 9:00 a.m., and a mile or so away, 3 were seen about 10:30. So, were the 3 "our pair" plus one other, or another pack? Was the single one of the 2 we had seen on Monday night? Only time will tell us.

Meanwhile we readied the equipment that had finally come last evening, which should help us solve some of these puzzles.

And now, we are going to put our soggy selves to bed.

Dave and Dean

Editors' Note: At this time of year in the far north, it is "broad daylight" for 24 hours. The sun does not even dip to the horizon, and it is easy to lose all sense of time. Soon, however, the cycle of light and darkness will begin, and as winter sets in (by late August and early September), the darkness will begin to overtake the light, and before long, the sun will not appear above the horizon. Meanwhile, the biologists can, at this time of year, conduct their research any time, "night" or day!

July 07, 2009

July 7, 2009

Our new-found wolf pair was not as co-operative as we wished in that they did not show up last night, at least up until 1:15 a.m. when we left our observation site. We had sat in the rain for several hours waiting for them, but to no avail. Still, tomorrow's another day. Our big elation of today was that the rest of our luggage finally arrived with some equipment important for our study.

If our wolf pair continues to come by our observation point, there are many more things we can learn. We know now that this is a breeding pair with pups. Not only were the nipples on the female prominent, but we saw the male do a raised-leg urination (RLU). RLUs are consistent with a breeding male. Some of the questions this observation of the breeding pair raises are 1) Where are the pups and how many? 2) How far is this pair traveling to hunt? 3) Where will the pack go next winter when it's -50 degrees and dark for 24 hours a day?

We've been wondering about such questions for a number of years and now have an idea about how to answer at least some of them. However, to do that we will need to see this pair again. Hopefully tomorrow?

Dave

July 06, 2009

July 6, 2009 (Continued)

Editors' Note - A Blogger wrote to ask if the researchers have seen any prey species. This is an excellent question. At this time of year, the wolves must begin to feed regurgitated food to the fast-growing pups as weaning time approaches. This means the adults must be successful with their hunting in order to feed themselves and the youngsters. Wolves in this region on Ellesmere rely on muskoxen as their primary prey. Healthy adult muskoxen are difficult to catch and kill, so the wolves try to isolate a calf from the herd if they can. Even this is a tough job because the adult muskoxen form a protective circle around the young.They face outward with lethal horns that can kill a wolf or wound it seriously. Arctic hares make a good snack for adult wolves and a meal for a pup. The wolves become adept at catching them despite the hares' bursts of speed and evasive tactics.

Below is Dean's response.

Yes, we have seen some muskoxen and hares.
The first day we saw 4 groups of muskoxen (4, 11, 18, 4) totalling 37. One of the group of 4 was on the north side of the fiord (same side as the weather station) while the others were on the other side (which we can't get to).

Yesterday we saw 4 muskoxen (3+1) and we suspect they are the same ones from the group of 4 we saw on this side earlier. We've seen several hares throughout our travels and at various times of the day, but we see more when they are more active in the evening and night. I've seen one leveret (young-of-the-year hare) so far.

Dean.

July 6, 2009

(Written the night of July 5th) Well, we struck it rich today! After lamenting an intermittent drizzle all day, we decided to try our luck at sitting out at one of the favorite spots where over the years we knew that wolves tend to come by. We started at 7:30 p.m. and sat for several hours straining our eyes at the gorgeous horizon and wiping the rain from our faces, planning to remain there probably till about midnight or so. It was too wet to read any books as we often do while waiting and watching, so to the pass the time we chatted about how lucky we were to be sitting here in this beautiful setting, about our jobs, about wolf behavior, etc.

Suddenly, about 10:50 p.m., Dean tilted his head and said, "Did you hear that?"

How could I have heard anything? Besides being hard of hearing to start with, I had a head band over my ears, a stocking cap over that, and the hood of my rain poncho over that. And it was raining! Nevertheless, Dean's much younger ears had no doubt picked up something of great worth. "A wolf!" he exclaimed. Or was it an old squaw duck that can sound similar from a long distance? But there it was again, Dean said, and he was certain it was a wolf, after he took off all his headgear. Four times the sound came to his eager ears. I still heard nothing, but never for a minute did I doubt his word.

Thus we peered at the distance with renewed enthusiasm, knowing that chances were excellent that at least one wolf would appear. From the long distance Dean had estimated the howl had come, we judged that it could take 30 to 60 minutes before the wolf, or wolves, would get there. However, as time went by and the horizon appeared the same, we began to wonder whether the wolves had perhaps taken a different route.

Then it happened! The image that we had been hoping to see -- a long white form picking its way over the distant hill -- caught our eyes. Immediately we knew it was a wolf. From the way it was looking back, we also knew to expect at least one more, and sure enough, about 150 meters behind appeared another one.

We watched intently as they approached, hoping we had positioned ourselves squarely along their route. Sure enough; within a few minutes, they came by. As we had hoped, they actually stopped and inspected us. We immediately saw that one was a nursing female, and the other no doubt was her mate.

We were elated that we were able to make such a valuable breakthrough on one of our first days out and what we might learn from this pair in the coming days.

Dave

To view more images, visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/intlwolfcenter/sets/72157621041610908/

July 05, 2009

July 5, 2009

We are still waiting for some of our gear to arrive by plane from Yellowknife. The weather has been overcast and socked in all along the route from Yellowknife to "way up here," but we are hoping a plane will arrive tomorrow. Weather problems are always a possibility in this region. The wolves did not den this year at what Dave calls the Rock Den (see Day 1, July 3, 2008 for a photo of that den site). However, weather station personnel report seeing fresh wolf tracks last week at the end of the fjord, so Dave and I figure the wolves may be using the same den site they used last year. Today, we are heading out to Blacktop Creek to scope out that area. Then we will consider the best strategy for finding the wolves. The challenge is on!

Dean

Editors' Note: So you can get some notion of what Dean and Dave will have to do, we suggest you page down and read last year's postings. The two searched long and hard for the den site. They finally figured out where it was located, but it was a long distance across some impassable mud flats. If the den is, in fact, located this year at the same place, they might be able to plan a way to get within a respectful distance for some observations. But first, they need to figure out if the wolves are there with their new pup crop. The plot thickens!

July 4, 2009

After the long flight from Yellowknife to Resolute to Eureka, we arrived safely at the weather station air strip on Ellesmere. We have only been here a short while and need to get some much-needed sleep, but we did some looking around. We didn't see any wolves, but we did find tracks, so that is a hopeful sign! We will send more news as soon as we can. We have a few equipment and technical glitches with transmitting our postings to work out, but that's the way it goes on expeditions like this!

Dave

July 03, 2009

July 3rd, 2009

Well, it's time. All the preparation, the anticipation, and the waiting are over. Dave arrived in Yellowknife last night. This morning we went over the equipment, finalized a few details this afternoon, and now we're ready. In a couple of hours we board the plane to Eureka. There's a fuel stop in Resolute on Cornwallis Island. I checked the weather just now. Not great. It's 1 degree Celcius (30 degrees Fahrenheit) there with a band of rain showers passing right through Resolute. It's a bit better in Eureka. It's 4 degrees Celcius there (39 degrees Fahrenheit) and mostly cloudy. Conditions are forecasted to improve slightly, so we're optimistic. Here we go. In a few hours, we'll set foot in a very different land. Let the adventure begin!

--Dean.