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.