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.


  1. N.K.MillerJuly 17, 2009

    How exciting for all of us that you found the den and share this with us. Thanks for all you do for the wolves!

  2. And thanks to you for the comment! Dave and Dean will read what you said, and that will make them smile for sure. Stand by for the last day's news which will come later today since they have to get ready to leave Ellesmere.