November 08, 2010

Genetic Results for Fifth Pup

The new results from the fifth member of the litter we observed in July are now in.  They confirm that Brutus was probably not the father of any of the pups.  (See September 15 posting).  In addition, the data were insufficient to determine whether the pups had 2 mothers.


October 19, 2010

Sunset on Ellesmere

Again the sun sets at 80° North, not to be seen until late February.  Despite the loss of Brutus, his pack clearly is thriving without him as the attached photo sent by Eureka Weather Station Manager, Rai LeCotey, attests. 

October 14, 2010

Brutus Immortalized at Weather Station

In honor of Brutus' contributions to science, he has been mounted and placed on display at the Eureka Weather Station along with a plaque explaining his background.  A map of the GPS locations his collar provided will be mounted nearby.

The plaque reads:
Canis lupus arctos

The breeding male of an arctic wolf pack that often denned near the Eureka Weather Station, Brutus first caught the attention of the staff in 2003 when he began coming regularly to the facility. The regal young wolf was a standout, and he and his family were frequent and fascinating visitors to the station over the years. He sired at least 5 generations of pups, and at approximately age 9, he became a celebrated pioneer in wolf research. From July 2009 to April 2010, he wore a collar tracked by satellite, and his far-ranging travels with his pack were recorded by wolf researchers and followed on an Internet blog by thousands of people. In April 2010, data from the collar reported no new locations, raising concerns that Brutus had died. Weather station personnel launched a search, and on a snow-covered hillside, they found the big wolf's body. A necropsy determined that he had died of natural causes. Brutus lived a very long life as a hunter and pack leader in one of the most challenging environments on earth. To honor his contribution to the world's knowledge of wolves and to preserve their countless personal memories, the staff brought Brutus home to Eureka.

We are still awaiting word from geneticists about whether the last batch of pup scats included one from the last of the 5 pups we studied last summer. The pups are doing well as the accompanying photo of them by WS staff shows.



October 01, 2010

The Pack Minus Brutus

Following is a quote from a 27th September 2010 report by Weather Station manager, Rai LeCotey, about our study pack. This represents the first piece of information we have since leaving the study area in July.

"There are lot of wolves in the pack again this year and from what I can see, there are 14 pups, 2-3 adults and 3-4 nannies for a total of about 20 wolves. so far. The pups are very shy of us and run away when we drive up so it's hard to count them all, while the adults and nannies don't seem to mind us taking pictures of them."

From this report it appears that the wolves from both active dens we found in July, some 10 miles (16 km) apart have reassembled into one pack now that the pups have become more mobile.

You can imagine how much we wish we had had GPS collars on a few of these wolves!


September 24, 2010

Cause of Brutus' Death Indeterminate

The final results from Brutus' spleen are back from the veterinary pathologist, and no sign of cancer was found, other than that the spleen was enlarged. However, hemangiosarcoma is not distributed throughout the whole spleen, and researchers warn that unless the entire spleen is examined it is impossible to know whether the spleen was cancerous. Unfortunately we were unaware of this possibility when we sent pieces of the spleen to the pathologist. All we knew was that the spleen was enlarged. In dogs, 75% with enlarged spleens have hemangiosarcoma. Thus chances are good that Brutus, too, endured this fate.  One symptom is that the animal loses its appetite.  Is that why Brutus starved? Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure.

September 15, 2010

Brutus Probably not the Father of the Pups

These pup-poop results just in from the geneticists:

"We feel confident in saying that these pups are not from this father [Brutus]."

The above was based on genetics of a specimen from Brutus and of 24 pup scats that were each assessed at 22 loci. Only 4 of the 5 known pups were represented by the 24 scats, so the possibility remains that Brutus could have been the father of the fifth pup. This possibility is enhanced by the fact that 2 females were nursing the pups, so possibly the fifth pup, not yet represented genetically in our sample, was from Brutus.  Several more weeks will be necessary before we get any more info on this. 


August 20, 2010

Progress on the Pup Poop

Good news so far regarding the pup poop.  The geneticists HAVE been able to extract DNA from the pup scats.  This approach to obtaining DNA is always a challenge.  So far the geneticists have been able to determine that they have DNA from 4 of the 5 pups.  The workers will now analyze a second batch of scats in hopes that they can identify the 5th pup.

August 11, 2010

Post-Ellesmere progress

We have been trying to catch up on office work that accumulated while we were on Ellesmere. However, we have not forgotten our important follow-ups to the Ellesmere adventure, and we've made some progress.

Recall that Brutus had an enlarged spleen when he died. Parts of that spleen are now being examined by a Veterinary Diagnostic Lab in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and we eagerly await the results. The dog literature indicates that about 75% of dogs with enlarged spleens suffer from hemangiosarcoma, a form of cancer. Although this condition has not been reported in wolves, few wolves as old as Brutus have been necropsied. One of the cancer's effects is to curb an animal's appetite. Is this why Brutus died from starvation?

July 21, 2010

Winding Down

Although our main interest for the past several days was trying to gather as much info as we could from around the den, Dan was also focused on getting as many data as he could from the Brutus location clusters. We could afford no more helicopter time, so the only method of obtaining more such data was to find and search clusters from the ground via the ATVs. This quest meant long, bumpy trips for only a few data. Nevertheless, Dean and Dan made 2 such ventures of 45 miles (75 km) and 57 miles (95 km) and found remains of possible kills during each. These trips squeezed out the last possible data from that work, and we were all satisfied that we had done all we could have to make the most of this year's expedition.

Our last night's observations around the den were routine. Only the short-tailed female was there with the pups, but the pups put on a great display of play and local travel, a gratifying end to a most successful research trip.

As we prepare to spend the next few days returning home, we are anxious to see the results of our future analyses. Was Brutus the father of the pups? Were both nursing females mothers of the pups we watched?

And a still lingering question is why Brutus starved last winter. Dean submitted organs and tissues, including those from Brutus' enlarged spleen, to a Veterinary Diagnostic Lab for a finer anaylsis.

As we learn the answers to these questions, we look forward to reporting them here.

July 20, 2010

We got the Poop on the Pack!

Because it was important to see if Brutus was the father of the pups we were observing, and to see if the batch of pups had two mothers, our primary quest became to gather a large number of pup scats from the den. With enough scats, some should be from each of the five pups. Then DNA from the fine film of intestinal cells that cling to the outside of the scat should be able to answer these questions. 

But how to get the scats? Ideally, we had been hoping to find a time when the adults were all away, rush up and grab a batch of scats, and get away from the den before any adult returned. Fortunately, our grand opportunity arose the day before our last. At 8:30 p.m. on July 15 when we arrived at our latest observation post, which we later determined was 90 yards from the den, we found that the adults were gone. The pups were not up out of the den either, so this would be our chance. We hurried to the den, took a few quick photos, and began scooping up scats in small plastic bags.  Plenty of fresh pup scats littered the ground, so we were able to collect over 30. Dean took a GPS waypoint for a precise location on the den.

While I was picking a piece of pup poop a few feet from the main den hole, I noticed a pup staring tentatively at me from just below the entrance; then another. "Are  you my mom?" they seemed to be asking. Dean then managed to get a quick shot of one of the pups before they decided that we were not their mom and retreated to the safety of the burrow. Even this short close-up look at the pups felt like a real privilege. We completed our collection and hurried back to our observaton post, not wanting to disturb any returning adult that might have caught us there.

We were elated. The answers to our burning questions about this litter of pups now were literally in our hands. And we had managed to get them without disturbing the pack. A few hours later both adults returned individually. Female 1, with the short tail, sported a bloody mask just below her eyes, a sure sign she had stuck her muzzle into a fresh carcass not long before. She stopped briefly near the den, then went on over a ridge out of sight, and we presume she regurgitated a few loads into caches there for later use. Female 2 headed straight for the den, and the pups came boiling out and nursed. 

Here it was a day before our last, and we had finally gathered the crucial information and specimens we needed from the den.  One more day of watching would be the frosting on our cake.

July 16, 2010

Two Nursing Females!

When just a few miles out along our route to the den north of Slidre Fiord and paralleling it, we encountered a wolf heading in the same direction. It was quite important to see whether this wolf was one of the two we already knew this year or some new wolf. Thus we sped up and caught up with the wolf and stayed some 150 feet behind it. To identify it, we would have to get around it somehow without it thinking we were chasing it. Our opportunity came after a few miles when the wolf veered to perhaps check out some hare sign. We then got a bit ahead of it, and it came up to us. 

This was not the nursing female from the den because that female had a short tail (not sure why).  Neither was it "Wolf 2" because that one had 2 prominent scratch marks across its right foreleg. This was a new wolf. We could see a prominent nipple showing through her fur, and the animal later squat-urinated as only females do.

That this was an animal new to us made it important to see which way she was going after reaching a critical choice point. Thus we continued on, with the wolf following and eventually cutting inland from our route and paralleling us. (This was a common pattern of wolves along this route.)  We zoomed ahead so as to be sure to see where the wolf hit a wide river flats where Remus Creek enters the fiord which was on our right. There, if she continued to parallel the fiord, she was probably heading to the end of the fiord where she could cross the mud flats and head to the south (and second) den that we could not reach. If she headed NE, she was probably going to the den we were watching.

The wolf chose the latter. Thus it would be important to see her return to the den and interact with the other female. However, by this time, her shortcut inland gave her half-a-mile head start. Nevertheless, our ATV route from here was fairly smooth, and I decided to race the wolf back to the den. I zoomed up the river flats and began to gain on the wolf. She disappeared into our canyon where I would have to drive very slowly and carefully for 50 feet, and she was still 300 feet ahead of me. Nevertheless, the last 2 miles to the den lookout consisted of high-speed driving terrain (firm, continuous sandy flats). On the other hand, our route was curvy, and the wolf could cut cross-country again straight to the den. The race was on!

As soon as I reached where we park to walk to our observation site, I parked and scrambled up a hill some 100 feet to where I could see the den. During the last few feet I could see Female 1 and pups streaming SW and knew the new female was already within their sight. I put up my binocs just in time to see Female 1, with tail up, greet the new female whose tail was down. This meant that the new female was subordinate, perhaps the daughter or elderly mother of Female 1. I had won the race by 2 seconds!     

As we settled into our observation site and watched the various goings on, we noted that the pups were especially enamored of "Female 2," swarming all over and around her.  Female 1, which we photographed nursing the pups a few days ago, was lying leisurely off about 100 meters away from the fray. Female 2 lay on her side near the den mound with her belly facing us, and the pups nestled in around her underside as though nursing. We watched intently through the high-powered scope, and suddenly realized that, indeed, they were nursing!   When the nursing female arose, one pup was still clinging to a nipple.

So, are there 2 mothers of this batch of pups? True, one of the pups is smaller than the other 4 so could be from a second litter. The only other explanation is that one of these females is a wet nurse, but wet-nursing is not documented in wolves. Could Brutus have bred both these females? That certainly would not be unheard of in the wolf world, and it gives us even more incentive to try to collect as many pup scats as we can from around this den.

July 15, 2010

Are These Brutus' Pups?

After pondering and discussing our observations around the den this year and reviewing our data on Brutus' travels, we suddenly noticed that not long before he died in mid-April, Brutus had visited this den. As we indicated earlier, he had spent many days there last fall, presumably because it was a rendezvous site, to which the pack had moved the pups from the den on the south side of the fiord. However, why did Brutus visit this den on March 31, at just about the time his mate would have come into estrus? Is such a den visit common during estrus? Few researchers would have had detailed enough data to know. In any case, this March visit is evidence that Brutus was with his mate at this time, for presumably it would be the breeding female that would  be interested in the den. That then means that Brutus probably bred his mate, and the pups at this den might be his. That would also explain why we have not yet identified a breeding male associated with the den.    

With that hypothesis in mind, we hope to collect scats from the pups for paternity analysis via DNA. And of course we will be ever on the lookout for a breeding male. Even if we find one around the den, however, it would not necessarily mean that the pups are not from Brutus.  When a female wolf is without a mate, single males floating around the population quickly determine that and try to pair with them and even help raise their "step-pups."

July 14, 2010

A Fifth Pup!

Now, knowing where the den is, and with our newly constructed ATV pass through the canyon, we were on track for some more efficient den watching.

Because this would be our first full session observing at the den, we were full of anticipation at what new info we might learn. First, however, we stopped again at our canyon bottleneck, and having brought a shovel, we spent a few more minutes at improving the pass. Now we can actually drive our machines through the rough spot, rather than walking (and Dean half lugging) them through.  

We began our watch from the same long distance as yesterday, and right away Dan spotted an adult lying flat-out on a mound that seems to be the den mound. As we watched, pups popped up out of the den and swarmed over and around the adult, which we then thought might be their mother. 

"There's a fifth pup!" Dan suddenly announced.

Gradually we moved closer to the den, and when about 250 meters away, we settled in to further observe. About 10:20 p.m. an adult wolf appeared off to our left on a hill 30 meters above us, heading back to the den. Was this the breeding male returning with a load of meat in his stomach? If so, the flat-out wolf (the presumed female) and the pups would rush him, lick up to his mouth, and he would regurgitate to them.

That is all what happened, although we are not sure that the returning wolf did regurgitate.  However, we were surprised to then see the returning wolf stand over the pups and begin to nurse them. This was the pups's mother, so the other wolf must have been an older sibling. We knew it was not the breeding male because it begged from the female, and no one has reported a breeding male begging from other wolves.

This was all interesting to us as we began now to try to figure out the composition of the pack that had the pups at this new den. A burning question was still where is the breeding male, who is he, and how does this little group relate to Brutus?  Hopefully a few more days of observation would help us answer these and other questions.

July 13, 2010

Success!: Finding the Den

Picking up our wolf tracking in the mud and sand where we had left off yesterday, we had to stop and do a bit of "road construction."  Large, sharp rocks blocked our route through the neck of a little canyon that opened to miles of great river-flat driving in exactly the direction we needed to go and through which the wolf tracks led. If only we could get our ATVs through the neck. (Otherwise it was 20-30 minutes around.) Thus Dean and Dan lifted great rocks and soil clumps to fill in a passage throughout the canyon, so we could walk our ATVs through. (Too treacherous to drive them.) While Dean and Dan were doing so about 10:15 pm, I spotted a friendly wolf watching us about 100 feet away that had come over a hill around the canyon neck. 30 min later, Dan spotted another wolf upstream that ducked out of sight. We were pretty elated about seeing these wolves, thinking we were probably on the right trail, for the wolves may well have been coming from the den. Certainly the evening timing was right for that.

After squeezing through the canyon, we drove and walked for hours, howling and searching miles of hills but striking out each time. Ultimately we were heading for the 2009 rendezvous site (RS) that Brutus had used many times last fall. We suspected that that might be where the wolves were denning this year. 

Two miles farther we were closing in on (400 m from ) the RS when Dan, ever on his binocs, spotted a pup there. We then scoped it (20X) and saw 4 pups. To me they looked scrawny, but we will have to confirm that through higher power viewing during the next few days. We saw no adult there, but the breeding female should be returning every 5 hr to nurse the pups.  They seemed 4-5 wk old. We were elated!

After carefully exploring on foot the area surrounding the pups to try to find the best vantage point for viewing them, we decided to head back and not press our luck by moving closer.  We first need to test the tolerance of any adult associated with the den, and no adult seemed to be present. Thus at 3:00 a.m. we headed home, an hour's long, bumpy ride, savoring our success at this most critical part of this year's trip.


July 12, 2010

Searching for the 2010 Den

With our initial searches of the possible kill clusters of locations out of the way, we turned our attention to trying to find this year's den and the pups.

We had already been checking various areas for wolf tracks and had a sense of the general direction to look for the den. We check tracks in pretty standard places where experience has told us we had good chances of tracks showing up if the wolves had been through there.  Thus today we headed out about 10 miles (16 km) to where a certain river flats run into Slidre fiord, along which we are headquartered on the north side. We had previously tracked the wolves to this point. Now we wanted to see whether many wolf tracks led across the river flats at the head of the fiord (the area impassable to us) like they did last year when the 2009 den was south of the fiord. The alternative was for tracks to lead to the north or northeast.  In those directions there was much country to search, but to the north most of the ATV travel was very difficult. Thus we hoped the tracks would lead northeastward.

We had checked the area to the northeast in 2008, so we knew the travel was better.  Also we knew that Brutus and pack had spent a great deal of time (around 20 to 30 locations) there last fall and had no doubt moved the pups to a rendezvous site there after they left the 2009 den south of the fiord. 

Tracking was easy along the muddy flats, and we soon found both old and fresh wolf tracks leading toward the northeast rather than across the river at the head of the fiord. Once we determined the predominant direction of the tracks, we followed them until early morning to a point about 3 miles (5 km) from last year's rendezvous site. We also howled from a couple of points and searched the surroundings with binoculars. Usually wolves, even pups, within hearing distance will respond to howls, easily leading us to their location. However, no such luck tonight, so we headed home, planning the next day to travel farther northeastward toward last fall's rendezvous site. We looked forward to the next day with high hopes of finding the new den and pups.


July 11, 2010

Checking Possible Kills by Helicopter

Our dilemma in trying to check our many location clusters by helicopter was that we wanted to check as many sites as possible for as long as we needed at each site, like we did yesterday from the ground. With high fuel prices and a larger helicopter than usual being the only one available, we only had an hr of time available instead of the 2 hr  for which we had budgeted. Thus we had to compromise by deciding to spend 1 minute of search time (4 people searching) per site. We also were coming to realize that probably our putative kill clusters more represented where the wolves rested after feeding on the kills rather than the exact sites of the kills. Thus we would have to search farther from the actual locations than we realized. One minute would not give us much time to search farther away. Still this was the reality we had to deal with.

It took several minutes to fly to our first cluster of locations, and we also flew over the 2009 den just to verify its not being used. Thus we only had time to examine 13 clusters. As we swirled around the first cluster, we realized that more time would surely be much better even though the view from the helicopter allowed a pretty good look at everything on the barren ground. And the ease of travel surely beat the bouncing around we would have had to endure on our ATVs even if the area had been accessible to us.        

By the end of the hour we had located several kills and were unsure about a few others where perhaps more searching would have allowed us to find others. After landing, examining our data, and discussing it, we were psyched up enough about the potential of this technique to want very badly to try it again. Thus we decided that we would try our best to scrape up enough pennies for another round if weather permitted and the helicopter was free of transporting other research camps around the area.


A Grueling Journey

Heading out on our ATVs on July 5, we were anxious to arrive at our first cluster of locations that we hoped would indicate a kill. The first hour or so of driving was easy, for it was over sandy river flats with relatively few bumps or impediments. The river weaved back and forth through the flats, so we had to cross it several times, but it was low, and crossing it was no problem. When we arrived at where we had to head inland,  then the "fun" began.

The Ellesmere land surface and topography varies considerably, from flat bare gravel to hilly terrain blanketed with hummocks of various sizes. We found some of the broadest areas and largest hummocks. Wheeled ATV's such as ours can only crawl over the hummocks, and each hummock thoroughly rattles the entire body. We bounced across literally hundreds of thousands of them, many on the way to just Cluster 1 of 5 location clusters that we hoped to check during this day (or night). 

As we approached the first location cluster, our excitement grew. Would we find kill remains?  What would be left there? Would the remains be from a muskox, as we expected, or would they be from a Peary caribou, rather rare in this area? Each of us wanted to be the first to announce "Here it is!"  However, because of the terrain, we had to park our machines and walk for the last several meters, and we did so from different directions. Suddenly Dan MacNulty, always on the lookout with his binoculars, shouted "There!"  

Dean and I rushed over as we too spotted the arched, white backbone. A huge, horned head instantly confirmed it was a bull muskox. With a hatchet, we were able to chop out a piece of the lower jaw with incisors and molars for later aging. But the tooth wear itself told us the bull was old. As we recorded data and collected specimens, elated over the fact that our first check of a hoped-for kill cluster of Brutus' locations was successful, Dan picked up a tuft of stiff white hairs.  "What is this?"

We all pondered the question, for the tuft looked most like caribou hair. We tested it by breaking it, and each hair snapped, confirming it must have been from a caribou. Glancing around the area, we then spotted a large batch of similar tufts only 30 or so meters away. Dan headed right over and picked up a pelvis and upper leg bone of a caribou. Had the wolves killed both a muskox and a caribou here at the same time?  Highly unlikely.

A quick check of Brutus' location data yielded the answer. We noticed that about 3 weeks after the pack's first visit to this site they made another visit and stayed for a shorter period. We had assumed the wolves had revisited the first kill, as they often do. However, a better interpretation was that the second visit to this spot represented a time when they had killed the caribou. It was still quite a coincidence that the pack had made 2 kills in the same basic location.

We were ecstatic! One first check of a kill cluster and we had 2 kills. And one was a caribou.  They are so rare here that we had not expected to find any remains of them at a kill site.

Bouncing millions of times over vast fields of hummocks in only first and second gears, we headed to all the remaining clusters in the batch of clusters we could reach on this trip. Not every cluster yielded kill remains. One was at an old 1970s research shack where we could just envision the wolves gathered around checking it out and then settling in for a long sleep, leaving us with a spurious result. But that was why we were examining so many clusters -- to see what we could learn from them and how many of them represented kills.

We had started on this ATV trip at 2:45 pm.  We returned at 4:45 a.m., 14 hours of grueling bouncing over the tundra, highly satisfied but very, very tired.  And sore. We had visited as many location clusters as we could from the ground. The rest would have to be checked via helicopter. While much less grueling, that would be more challenging, for there would be little time (at $45/minute) to search for remains. Nevertheless, we were anxious to try.


July 09, 2010

Searching Possible Kill Sites

As soon as we were organized, had 3 ATVs running, and determined that neither the old den nor the 2009 den were being used, we headed out on a long journey to search sites where we expected to find the remains of kills that Brutus and pack had made during July 2009 through April this year. To select such sites, we reasoned as follows. First, we knew that we would not be able to find sites where the pack had killed small prey such as arctic hares or muskox calves. We already knew that the pack of 20+ wolves would consume these animals quickly and leave little trace. However, much of the wolves' prey consists of adult muskoxen which weigh several hundred pounds. With such prey, wolves eat their fill and then rest and sleep, and this takes over 12 hours. Thus by choosing consecutive 12-hr locations with short distances between them (example: 0 to perhaps 300 meters as opposed to movements of many miles), we should get an indication of where the wolves had fed on a large animal. 

For example, in the following table of hypothetical but typical distances between 12-hr locations, we would choose location 5 to indicate a possible kill of a large animal:

    Location     Km from previous 12-hr location

          1                            29.473

          2                              9.982

          3                            14.321

          4                            19.598

          5                            15.551

          6                              0.023

          7                              0.009

We had already selected over 50 such sites distributed far and wide over our wolf pack's range. Most such sites were inaccessible to us except by helicopter, but there was one grouping of 5 sites all within reasonable range of our ATVs. Thus at 2:34 p.m. on July 5, we started out to examine these 5 locations.


Where are the Wolves Denning This Year?

Although we were anxious to check out the possible kill sites, our first order of business was to try to determine if the wolves are denning in either of the dens we know about. We quickly determined that they were not in the den last used in 2006, although we had not expected them to be. Because we cannot reach the 2009 den from the ground because of impassable mud flats (see earlier posts), we had to rely on help from the Canadian military. They are in the area each year from May through July and have a helicopter, so we asked the pilot to fly high over the 2009 den on one of his regular flights and see if any wolves were there. We soon learned that the 2009 den was empty. 

So where are the wolves denning? Or did they even have pups this year? Because Brutus starved to death, could that mean the pack would not produce pups because the female is in poor nutritional condition? We think not, although one never knows for sure. Our reasoning is that the breeding pair dominates the pack and thus gets the most food. Brutus was 10-yr old, so perhaps a younger wolf usurped his breeding position. This could have been an outside male, as sometimes happens, or there could have been a second breeding pair in this very large pack of 20+. Thus we believe there must still be a breeding pair in the area. There are plenty of tracks around; we just have to try to figure out where the den is, not an easy task in the huge area.  And we could easily fail.

First, however, we need to check out as many potential kills as we can to see if our inferences from the location data are valid (see earlier posts).


July 07, 2010

Back Again to Ellesmere for a New Challenge in 2010

We began our  2010 trip to Ellesmere on July 3 with colleague, Dan MacNulty, to try to examine the clusters of consecutive similar locations that might represent places where Brutus and pack made kills and then slept off their full stomachs.  Wolves can eat 22 lb (10 kg) at one session and then usually sleep nearby, although they sometimes travel a mile (1.6 km) or more away first. Thus chances are good that 2 similar 12-hr locations indicate kill sites and that the actual kill remains can be found close to at least some of these location clusters.  Travel to most of the widespread kill locations will require a helicopter, but there is one stationed at the Eureka Weather Station during summer to support various High Arctic research projects. We can reach a few of these sites on our all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

We had hoped to get all the way to Ellesmere on July 3, but our hopes were dashed when we reached the Inuit village of Resolute Bay, Nunavut and learned that the aircraft that was supposed to relay us to Ellesmere was being repaired. Thus we overnighted at Resolute.  We were awakened early the next morning and given 15 minutes to prepare to be shuttled to the airport where we waited 1.5 hr to catch our flight. We munched fruits, nuts and our leftover sandwiches for breakfast on the cargo plane that we hoped was now fixed. The only other passengers were two men headed to nearby Axel Heiberg Island to help service a research camp there. Because of the high cost of these flights ($12,000) we were happy to be able to split the cost with another project.

After flying over much of the Arctic Ocean and several of the Queen Elizabeth Islands and marveling at the ice fields, glaciers, sharp cliffs, and barren landscape, we reached Eureka about 11:30 a.m. on July 4th.  As we descended, we were pleased to spot a few herds of muskoxen. We spent the rest of the day organizing and preparing to head out on our ATVs to check out a few of the possible kill sites.


June 30, 2010

Yes; No Collaring This Year

It's official, the Inuit have refused to allow any more animal collaring, and our application to collar has been denied.  Again we were very lucky to be given approval to collar last year.

Thus we will concentrate on checking out > 50 probable muskox-kill locations based on 2 or more of Brutus's consecutive locations being in the same place.  We also hope to do a helicopter count of muskoxen and the few Peary caribou in the area.

Much of the information we obtain will be very useful to help explain Brutus' pack movements and behavior last year.  We will keep folks posted with new entries as we learn more.


June 28, 2010

2010 Trip: No Collaring?

Although we had hoped to collar a few remaining members of Brutus's pack in July 2010, that possibility is now in doubt.  We were very fortunate to receive approval in 2009 to collar Brutus because native people in Nunavut and other areas of northern Canada do not easily accept collaring animals. We are scheduled to arrive on Ellesmere Island on July 3, weather permitting, but our permit application for collaring has not yet been approved. We understand that there is considerable opposition to our
collaring more wolves or any muskoxen.

Assuming our permit to observe the Eureka wolves is approved, Dean Cluff, Dan MacNulty, and I will do what we can to locate this year's den and to examine as many probable kill locations as we can, based on Brutus's data. Thus we will report our progress here as we proceed.

And we are still attempting to discuss our collaring with the local Inuit, hoping that they will allow us to deploy at least one collar on a wolf.


June 16, 2010

The Brutus Pack's Kills and Rendezvous Sites

Our analysis of the locations of Brutus and pack so far indicates that between July 9 and December 21, 2010 the pack made about 30 possible muskox kills. Our main assumption in this analysis is that if Brutus remained at, or within .5 km of a location more than once (i.e., for more than 12 hr), the reason was to feed on a kill.

From July through Nov. 17, however, multiple times at a single location could also indicate visits to pups at a den or a rendezvous site. We identified 5 probable rendezvous sites (RS) based on multiple visits/site:

Distance Between Sites
RS First date #VisitsMiKm
1 7-18-1200 6
2 8-5-0000 38 11.318.2
3 8-17-1200 6 8.413.5
4 8-25-1200 20 3.45.9
5 10-11-00 13 13.521.7
The above dates show when Brutus first visited each of the RSs, and their locations are shown in the accompanying map. However, the pack moved back and forth among the sites. For example, Brutus used RS 2 between 8/5 and 8/17, but he also returned there 8/21 - 8/25; 9/15 - 9/27; 10/8 - 10/9; 10/14; 10/22 - 23; and 11/17, while using other RSs in between.

Often during summer the wolves move pups to kills, and then the pups stay there for extended periods, and those become RSs. If that was the case with these RSs, that would add another possible 5 kills to the kill total through December 21.


May 19, 2010

Brutus' Necropsy

Dean Cluff necropsied Brutus last week and learned that:

1. The hole in his rib cage was the result of a scavenger, probably a raven.

2. The carcass was emaciated, with no fat even in the femur bone marrow. Fat there is the last to be used, so when it is gone, the animal dies.

Thus we conclude that Brutus died of starvation. Why he starved is unknown. The last time we know he was with the pack was March 29 (see April 29 blog). He could have been in marginal condition then, which we could not have detected from photos.

He traveled straight-line distances of 110.5 miles (176.8 km), or an average of 9.2 mi (14.7 km)/12-hr period from March 29 to April 4 when he then remained in a single location for at least 36 hr. We presume this indicates a kill. After leaving that on April 6, he traveled a straight-line distance of 70.9 miles (113.4 km), or an average of 5.9 mi (9.4 km)/12-hr period before reaching the location where he died, sometime about April 13-15.

A rough and very preliminary examination of all Brutus' location data from October on suggests that the pack's rate of kill was similar from October through January. However in February it dropped by 45%, and in March by 65% from the Oct.-January period. Had the pack killed most of the vulnerable muskoxen by then?

Was Brutus' kicked out of the pack after the last kill on April 5-6? Was he too old or weak then to compete for food at that kill? Was the kill only a muskox calf from last year that had too little food on it to feed the whole pack? Wolves can eat 22 pounds (10 kg) at a sitting, so a calf would not fully feed all 20 wolves.

Brutus' death raises this and many other questions.

Most of them will remain unanswered, but they help feed our motivation to learn more about this pack and its ecology and behavior. Hopefully this summer we will collar more wolves and thus continue to discover much more. We also will begin analyzing the data from Brutus. So, please check back with us periodically.

Thanks for your continuing interest.


May 12, 2010

Brutus to be Necropsied Soon

On May 6, Rai LeCotey, Weather Station manager who found Brutus' carcass, brought the carcass to Yellowknife, NWT for necropsy as Rai was flying home to eastern Canada after ending his most recent shift at Eureka. As indicated earlier, there was a hole in the left side of the carcass and yellow fluid in the snow beneath. Also Brutus appeared emaciated, and one photo shows blood around one haunch. These conditions are all possible clues to Brutus' demise, but nothing definitive can be determined until the actual necropsy, if then. Dean Cluff, who is headquartered in Yellowknife, will necropsy Brutus during the next week in hopes of determining his cause of death, and we will post the results here.


April 28, 2010

Brutus Confirmed Dead

Hopes were dashed yesterday when we learned that Brutus has indeed died. Weather station staff Rai LeCotey and André Bouchard offered to investigate the site for us and we readily agreed. Doing so would result in a timely assessment of what may have happened. Rai and André traveled by snowmobile to the GPS co-ordinates we had given them, and they did an excellent job of finding Brutus and documenting what they saw. The search was initially hampered with much snow that had fallen in recent weeks and then strong winds that followed. No tracks were visible in the area. The site of the GPS co-ordinates appeared barren but then the investigators noticed a tuft of fur sticking out of the snow. It was Brutus’ tagged ear. As they cleared the snow away, they could clearly see a large hole in Brutus’ left side. No blood was on the fur, no signs of scavenging, just the gaping hole in his side, consistent with being gored by a muskox. Note in one of the pictures how Brutus is not curled up; rather his legs are extended. It is likely that Brutus had one of his organs punctured in an encounter and died quickly. There was a thin layer of ice underneath Brutus when he was lifted from the site. It’s difficult to say for certain from pictures, but the yellowish color suggests urine. Bile fluid from a punctured gall bladder next to the liver could also be there if there was some movement before his death because the puncture wound is on top. Brutus’ remains were brought back to the weather station and will remain frozen until Brutus can be transported to Yellowknife for a necropsy.

It is sad to see any life end, but it certainly affects us more when we get to know an individual. Such was the case with Brutus, as many of us found ourselves rooting for him to be a successful hunter and provide for himself and his pack in a challenging environment. However, at the same time we have to respect the muskoxen. They don’t want to be eaten any more than we do, so they put up a fight, and a good fight they often do. Unfortunately for Brutus, this time he got in the way of a horn and paid the price. While we may be saddened by Brutus’ death, celebrate that we still have wilderness and that predator-prey dynamics, the evolutionary game of eat-or-be-eaten, still continues.

Please be advised, pictures may be disturbing to some.

April 27, 2010

Stay Tuned

The download today showed no change in the collar's location, and we have no further information from the weather station. Thus the best evidence is that the collar is either off Brutus, or Brutus is dead. If the weather station folks learn anything more, we will post that information here. Otherwise we will not find out anything more until about July 4, when we will return to the area.

However, we will be assessing and analyzing the > 500 locations accumulated so far and posting preliminary results here. So please check in now and then for further information.

We understand how it might seem sad that Brutus might be dead. However, he lived 10 years, and in most places, only one in 200-300 wolves lives that long. He certainly provided us with much good information, not only during this study of his movements, but also in previous years when we sat near his den and watched him and his many offspring. We hope to collar some of these offspring this summer and post their movements.


April 23, 2010

Serious Trouble

The news from Brutus' collar is not good.  From April 12:12:00 hr through the 16th (9 locations) there has been no change in location. We have not seen such a configuration of locations before, so unless something very unusual has happened, the following are possibilities:

1.  The collar released prematurely.
2.  The wolves chewed the collar off.
3.  The collar malfunctioned.
4.  Brutus is sick or wounded.
5.  Brutus died.

A second download 4 days later contained no new data but adds to evidence that something is drastically wrong. Occasionally no new data during a download means that the collar's Argos (transmitting) antenna was obscured at crucial times or the satellite passings were not oriented well enough to receive the data. Then the satellite just sends what it already has but nothing new. However, a dropped collar or a dead wolf could also obscure the antenna. One more download in a few days should indicate whether the problem is satellite orientation or obscured antenna. 

Whether the collar is off the wolf or the wolf is dead will remain unknown unless weather station folks try to check the location. They are considering snowmobiling there, but the travel distance is about 10  miles (16 km) and the terrain where the collar is (mountainside at 1,300 feet or 450 meters) is rough for snowmobile access.       

Part of the wolf pack has shown up at the weather station twice since April 3, but Brutus was not seen with them.  Perhaps he was with the rest of the pack, but perhaps  . . . .


April 19, 2010

Another Visit to the Weather Station

Again the wolves’ wanderings were pretty routine, although the animals used the south end of their territory more than the north.  The main exception was another visit to the weather station on March 29.  There they were again greeted with cameras as the accompanying shot of Brutus and a few of his buddies attest.


April 12, 2010

Routine, Except...

The pack’s movements from March 13 through the 26th were pretty routine. That is, the wolves used the basic part of their summer and winter range, adding little new to what we know about the extent of their movements. We find it interesting that since February 18 the animals have not visited the part of Axel Heiberg Island that they visited so often earlier in the winter. The fiords are still frozen, so travel across them should not be any problem.  Have the animals pretty well depleted all the vulnerable muskoxen they could find there? This is just one of the many mysteries we will have to ponder and hope we can answer eventually.

An important exception to the routine nature of this period’s movements, however, is the southwesternmost location (circled). Surely something special happened there, perhaps just a kill or perhaps 2 or 3. The wolves spent 9 locations there in an area no more than  0.3 miles (475 meters) across, from March 12 at 12:00 hr through March 15, and then one March 17 location and one March 18 location. In between, they traveled 25.5 miles (41 km) to the north-northwest on March 16 and then back to the circled area.   Why?


March 30, 2010

Back North, Visit Station, and Resume Usual Movements

Brutus and pack continued their northward trek to their usual area and stopped by the Eureka Weather Station on March 5th for about 36 hours. The staff counted at least 20 wolves at that time, including 8 that still appeared to be pups. This represents our highest count of pups. There could be more pups that were unseen or unidentified as pups, for at this time of year some pups will look like adults. Rai LeCotey, Station Manager reported “Half the pack (including Brutus) took off earlier today (I assume to go hunting). The rest of the pack (mostly pups) left later in the afternoon,” and Rai sent a few photos. The pack also visited the station again on March 10th, and Rai sent more photos. The pack then continued its usual movements around the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere.

March 19, 2010

A Repeat --Sort of

As suspected, the pack did head south again, although nowhere near as far as on their January foray. Still, they seem to have accomplished what they probably set out to do, and that is to find more muskoxen and kill one or more. They spent 6 locations (2.5 days) basically in one spot (see close-up map) before starting on their long trek back to the northwest, covering 26.4 miles (42.2 km) straight-line distance in the 12 hr after they left their possible kill. Of course as they head back northward, they are also searching for muskoxen. Day in and day out, they search for food. After all, what else do they have to do anyway?

March 11, 2010

Heading South Again?

After making pretty extensive use of their recent range on the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere and on eastern Axel Heiberg, the wolves may be heading on a new foray. At least, their Jan. 25 location in the lower right of the map certainly suggests another southeastward trek. On their earlier trek to and from the southeast, from January 19 to February 1 (see last few blogs), they seem to have made some kills in the new area. Time will tell if this is a repeat.


March 08, 2010

A Preliminary Look at Possible Kill Locations

The wolf pack has continued to travel within its usual range on the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere Island and on nearby eastern Axel Heiberg. Meanwhile here is a preliminary estimate of the distribution of possible kills. We defined kill locations as any spot where the GPS location remained the same at least twice in a row, thus for at least 12 hr. In several cases, the locations were essentially the same as many as 5 times, and the wolves also revisited some of these locations daily or weeks later.

Our reasoning in judging these locations as indicative of kills was that when wolves kill a muskox, which weighs about 600 lb (273 kg), they would spend at least 12 hr feeding on it and sleeping nearby. Generally if wolves don't make a kill, they sleep for less than 12 hours. On the other hand, our technique probably misses kills of calves, especially in summer when a pack of 20 or more wolves could consume them and leave in less than 12 hr. Further refinements of our analysis will be required. Of course, next summer we will be checking as many possible kill locations as we can to try to find kill remains.

February 24, 2010

Return to the Old Routine

Now that the pack has finished its long trip to the south and returned to its usual range on the Fosheim Peninsula of Ellesmere and on northeastern Axel Heiberg, it has resumed its regular routine. The wolves spent February 5 and 6 on Ellesmere, then crossed to Axel for a couple of days and returned to Ellesmere. They visited the weather station twice, and folks, including Emily McCullough, got a a good shot at Brutus. Note the twilight as the sun prepares to rise for the first time in 4 months.


February 19, 2010


. . . and they returned in a hurry to their regular range. In only 3.5 days, the pack covered 145 miles (234 km) or 41 miles (67 km) per day from Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, straight-line distance between consecutive locations. The wolves certainly didn’t travel straight between each point, although on such treks they usually do move fairly directly. Still, they no doubt put on many more miles than we could measure. They also did not seem to make any kills along the way back, although it did look like they stopped at 1 or 2 kills made on the way south. Thus this very interesting push outside of their usual range, whose function we wondered about a few days ago, turned out to be a little hunting trip. By probing into new areas, not only do the wolves find new muskoxen to try to kill, but the muskoxen they do seek are less wary than those that the wolves test in their regular range. If the prey are less wary, they are probably easier to kill, with less risk to the wolves.

Check out the Discovery Channel's Daily Planet featuring Dave's research!

February 04, 2010

Heading Off for Parts Unknown

The pack has again extended its range of travel and seems to be on a major probe into a new area. None of the 400+ locations since July 9 have been this far south. In fact, the farthest-south location before the pack left its main area on Jan 19 was 25 miles (40 km) north of the Jan 20 locations. We’re not sure what the pack is up to except that this move is in accord with earlier probes to Axel Heiberg Island to the west. Probably the pack is searching for more muskoxen, and summer surveys done years earlier tend to confirm that muskoxen do sometimes frequent some of the areas to the south.

February 02, 2010

Where are they headed?

After apparently feeding at a kill during Jan. 7-11, the pack moved 7.9 miles (12.6 km) E. and probably made another kill, where they stayed from Jan. 11 through early on the 13th. The wolves then moved S. and seem to have made another kill. They stayed at that one for 6 locations from Jan. 15 through the 17th and continued on S.

What's most interesting about that southerly move is that their last location, Jan. 19, represents the most southerly move we have ever recorded for these wolves. Because of that and the possibility that the pack might continue farther S., we will try to update this map DAILY until the wolves settle into more of a routine.


January 26, 2010

Brutus’s Big Loop

When last we left Brutus and company at the end of Dec. the pack was pretty much near the center of its range. Since then, the wolves made a great loop from Ellesmere over to Axel Heiberg again and then back to the north end of the Fosheim Peninsula on Ellesmere. Lots of travel across the fiords again. For 8 locations from Jan 7 through early on the 11th (84 hours), the pack stayed in an area about 2.3 miles ( 3.7 km) across, just south of Eastwind Lake, where often muskoxen hang out and where earlier locations suggest the wolves have made a few kills. On Jan 8th both locations were essentially in the same spot, probably indicating a fresh kill.

We have also learned that the pack almost certainly contains at least 20 members and possibly up to 30. Not only have 2 folks at the Eureka Weather Station made counts of 23-28 and 25-30 wolves in the pack, but one of workers, Dr. Pierre Fogal of CANDAC who supplied some of the photos for earlier blog entries, furnished us many new photos including one in which we can count at least 20 wolves.

January 19, 2010

Brutus Especially Active

During the 2 weeks since the December 30 entry, when we last left the pack across Slidre Fiord from the Eureka weather station on December 15, the wolves traveled a great deal, covering almost the full extent of their range both on Ellesmere and on Axel Heiberg. The longest distance between their farthest locations was 68 miles (109 Km). On the 19th they again crossed to Axel, returning on the 24th. Another noteworthy trip was on the 21st when they came within about a mile of the glacier. Of course, they would have no reason to climb the glacier, but it is interesting to imagine them so close to this giant, permanent icefield, looking for more muskoxen no doubt.

January 06, 2010

As we study the dots on the map representing the many movements of Brutus and his pack, we can imagine the pack members as they trek across the snow. The photos (see earlier blogs) taken by folks at the weather station, help, as do our memories of the behavior we observed during summer. In that respect, we suggest viewing our recent posting on YouTube of Brutus dominating one of the subordinate members of his pack last summer, quite possibly one of his sons. This incident was the longest example of dominance behavior that either of us had ever seen. We suspect it was a prelude to forcing a maturing offspring to leave the pack (disperse) and find his own territory, mate, and start his own pack.