The American people’s relationship with top predators — especially wolves — is complex and ever-evolving. About three decades ago, it was mostly just animal-rights groups and their supporters who fought for the wolves’ right to exist; they were often considered a nuisance. But now there’s plenty of scientific evidence proving what’s good for wolves is good for their prey, the plants those prey eat, and indeed, positively affects the entire ecosystem. That’s ultimately good for humans too — unless you’re competing with the wolves, like a rancher who grazes animals or a hunter who wants to shoot the same deer or moose that wolves need to eat. But at this point, even some ranchers and hunters have come over to the pro-predator side.
Much of that change in the perception of predators is down to studies that have proven how precisely cougars, wolves, bears, tigers, lions, bald eagles, alligators and other apex predators affect the land around them. None have been studied longer than the wolves and moose in Isle Royale National Park, a Guam-sized island in Lake Superior. For almost 60 years, the populations of these two groups have been tracked — as well as their effects on the plants and other animal communities on the island. (You can read the reports here, including the recent 59th annual report.)
As the video above explains, there used to be as many as 50 wolves on Isle Royale; however, that number has dwindled, mostly due to inbreeding that caused a debilitating spinal condition to proliferate among the too-closely-related wolves. Just 10 years ago, there were still around 30 wolves but by 2015, there were only three wolves left. Now, there are just two, a closely related male-female pair that probably won’t breed. (The female of the pair has aggressively fought back when the male attempted to breed with her.)
Already, the moose population on the island has boomed, “undoubtably because of lack of predation,” John Vucetich, a wildlife ecologist from Michigan Technological University told Science magazine, adding that the two remaining wolves are now “… swimming in moose.” Despite the wolves’ regular predation on moose, there’s been a 20 percent increase in moose in just one year, which scientists estimate is about five to 10 times higher than on mainland areas. Beaver populations have also risen sharply. There’s just not enough wolves to keep either population in check.
So what’s so bad about so many moose? Well, as most ungulates do, moose spend their days browsing on vegetation, so the more moose, the more food they need — and the plants on the island can only take so much nibbling. An aquatic plant, which was found in abundance just six years ago, is now only found in places where moose are not. Long-term, this means the island will soon run out of food to keep the ever-larger moose population alive, and many will starve once food becomes scarce. Previously, the wolves have kept moose populations low enough so they didn’t overeat the vegetation, keeping the system in balance.
A plan to rebalance the ecosystem
This is why some people think the best solution is to bring a fresh influx of wolves to Isle Royale National Park. The plan is to release 25-30 wolves over the next three to five years. So far, park officials have trapped four wolves on the mainland beginning in late September and released them on the island. Three of the wolves are female — with the hope they will successfully breed.
This new blood would potentially rebalance the predator-prey relationship and the idea is that the rest of the ecosystem would follow. Introducing so many wolves over several years is hardly natural either, others argue, saying that humans should just be hands off and let nature take its course. The original 50 wolves had found their way to the island on their own, having moved in from Canada; perhaps they could do so again if given the chance.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in April 2017.
A male and a female wolf have been photographed with their two pups on the northern part of the reservation.
For at least the past four years, a large male wolf has been observed roaming parts of the Warm Springs Reservation. Now, the wolf, his mate and two pups have also been seen on trail cameras.
On Aug. 27, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Branch of Natural Resources confirmed that the single male first observed in 2014, and his mate, first seen in 2016, have produced two pups.
“In early September 2014, biologists suspected that a large male wolf of unknown origin, more than likely from Northeast Oregon, had a mate on the Warm Springs Reservation and Mount Hood National Forest, when remote cameras captured several images of two or more wolves in the area,” said wildlife biologist Austin Smith Jr., of the tribes’ Natural Resources Branch.
“Initially, last year, we had been getting multiple reports from technicians and contractors working in the area, that there was a group of wolves in the area,” said Smith. “We were trying to verify that, but we couldn’t confirm that there was a pup.”
In August, Smith thought there might be new pups, so he and a high school intern walked to the “rendezvous site,” where the wolves had been seen last year. “We managed to track them to an area and we saw a pup, about the size of a dog. We saw it take off, and ended up setting up a camera.”
After they saw the pup, Smith notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which keeps track of wolf activity. At the end of 2017, Oregon had at least 124 gray wolves, including two known as the White River pair.
“They are in the southern portion of Wasco County, the northern part of the reservation, and the White River wildlife management area,” said Smith. “ODFW named the pack off of what area they’re covered in. We call them the Warm Springs pack.”
With assistance from USFW Biologist John Stephenson, the tribes set up remote trail cameras, which have been yielding numerous images of the wolves, including the pups.
“I was pretty surprised,” said Smith, noting that the pups are the first verified instance of wolves reproducing on the reservation since the mid-1940s. “It was the first time we had officially seen wolf pups.”
Gray wolves, which had historically been common in Oregon, were eradicated in the late 1940s. In 1974, wolves were listed as endangered by the federal Endangered Species Act. The state enacted its own Endangered Species Act in 1987, requiring the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to conserve wolves.
According to ODFW, the wolves in Oregon are part of the Northern Rocky Mountain wolf population, which was reintroduced in Idaho and Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s. The first wolf made its way to Oregon in the late 1990s.
Over the past decade, the documented population of wolves in Oregon has increased from about three in 2008, to 14 at the end of 2009, to 124 at the end of 2017. Most packs are located in Northeast Oregon.
Wolves have been wandering through Oregon for years, but the new group seems to have established itself on the reservation, said Smith. “Once they’re a breeding pair, they officially become a pack.”
Smith said that the wolves are an important resource on the reservation. “They’re a culturally significant and sensitive species,” he said. “They usually pick an area where they have enough food source. The numbers of deer and elk have increased on the reservation.”
The wolf pups are probably 3 to 4 months old, and weigh 75 to 100 pounds, he estimated.
“Typically, when they’re in the denning period, it runs from spring until early summer,” said Smith. “During that time, the female will stay in the den, while the male and siblings are out hunting. They will bring back food for the female.”
“Typically, they’re out of the den after a couple months, and pretty mobile by then,” he said. “These pups were probably born in June.”
The tribes’ Branch of Natural Resources will continue to monitor the pack and its movements to ensure an accurate population count.
I must repeat what was quoted as being said by Austin Smith Jr. because it so perfectly explains what we see in our dogs. (My emphasis.)
Smith said that the wolves are an important resource on the reservation. “They’re a culturally significant and sensitive species,” he said.
Just a few days ago, on May 1st to be precise, I published the post Dogs and Humans.
Colin Reynolds, he of the blog Wibble, left the following comment:
Good to see you back, glad to hear you had an enjoyable trip.
Those goslings are really cute 🙂
At risk of self-promotion: I was thinking of you when I wrote my latest blog post. Granted, wolves aren’t dogs, but they almost are… 🙂
I went across to Colin’s latest blog post and immediately wanted to share it with you all in this place.
It also seemed appropriate to ask Colin for his introduction. But here’s what he offered: “When Paul asked me if I would be willing to turn this post into a guest post for Learning from Dogs, I was more puzzled than anything else. The only words here that aren’t my own are those where I explain that all I did was transcribe George Monbiot’s words from the video.” I’m bound to say that the transcription was a grand job!
Anyway, here is Colin’s post.
How Wolves Change Rivers
by Colin Reynolds
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir
When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent for nearly 70 years, the most remarkable ‘trophic cascade‘ occurred. In this short film, George Monbiot explains what a trophic cascade is, and how wolves do actually change rivers.
I found this so remarkable that I took the time to transcribe George’s words:
One of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century has been the discovery of widespread ‘trophic cascades’. A trophic cascade is an ecological process which starts at the top of the food chain and tumbles all the way down to the bottom, and the classic example is what happened in the Yellowstone National Park in the United States when wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Now, we all know that wolves kill various species of animals, but perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others.
Before the wolves turned up, they’d been absent for seventy years, but the numbers of deer — because there’d been nothing to hunt them — had built up and built up in the Yellowstone Park and despite the efforts by humans to control them, they’d reduced much of the vegetation there to almost nothing; they’d just grazed it away. But as soon as the wolves arrived, even though they were few in number, they started to have the most remarkable effects.
First, of course, they killed some of the deer. But that wasn’t the major thing: much more significantly, they radically changed the behaviour of the deer. The deer started avoiding certain parts of the park: the places where they could be trapped most easily, particularly the valleys and the gorges — and immediately, those places started to regenerate. In some areas, the height of the trees quintupled in just six years; bare valley sides quickly became forests of aspen, and willow, and cottonwood.
And as soon as that happened, the birds started moving in. The number of songbirds and migratory birds started to increase greatly. The number of beavers started to increase because beavers liked to eat the trees; and beavers, like wolves, are ecosystem engineers, they create niches for other species. And the dams they built in the rivers provided habitats for otters and musk-rats and ducks and fish and reptiles and amphibians.
The wolves killed coyotes, and as a result of that, the number of rabbits and mice began to rise, which meant more hawks, more weasels, more foxes, more badgers. Ravens and bald eagles came down to feed on the carrion that the wolves had left. Bears fed on it too, and their population began to rise as well, partly also because there were more berries growing on the regenerating shrubs. And the bears reinforced the impact of the wolves by killing some of the calves of the deer.
But here’s where it gets really interesting: the wolves changed the behaviour of the rivers. They began to meander less, there was less erosion, the channels narrowed, more pools formed, more riffle sections, all of which was great for wildlife habitats. The rivers changed in response to the wolves. And the reason was that the regenerating forests stabilised the banks so that they collapsed less often, so that the rivers became more fixed in their course. Similarly, by driving the deer out of some places and the vegetation recovering on the valley sides there was less soil erosion, because the vegetation stabilised that as well.
So the wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of the Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.
Note from the video’s publisher (Sustainable Human): “There are ‘elk’ pictured in this video when the narrator is referring to ‘deer.’ This is because the narrator is British and the British word for ‘elk’ is ‘red deer’, or ‘deer’ for short. The scientific report this is based on refers to elk so we wanted to be accurate with the truth of the story.”
As that quote from John Muir infers, we are all connected. No better illustrated by a very sad piece of research news that will be the topic for tomorrow’s post.
Yes, we know that they are but the science as to why this is nonetheless is fascinating!
Inevitably when you think about my cultural roots you would not be surprised to hear that I use the BBC News website as a key source of staying in touch with the world. But very rarely would I think of sharing a news item with you via these pages.
One of those rare exceptions greeted my eyes back on July 20th. It was an article published by Helen Briggs of the BBC under the Science & Environment news classification. I can’t imagine any reason why I can’t republish it here.
Why dogs are friendly – it’s written in their genes
By Helen Briggs – BBC News, 20 July 2017
Being friendly is in dogs’ nature and could be key to how they came to share our lives, say US scientists.
Dogs evolved from wolves tens of thousands of years ago.
During this time, certain genes that make dogs particularly gregarious have been selected for, according to research.
This may give dogs their distinctive personalities, including a craving for human company.
“Our finding of genetic variation in both dogs and wolves provides a possible insight into animal personality, and may even suggest similar genes may have roles in other domestic species (maybe cats even),” said Dr Bridgett vonHoldt of Princeton University.
The researchers studied the behaviour of domestic dogs, and grey wolves living in captivity. They carried out a number of tests of the animals’ skills at problem-solving and sociability.
These showed that wolves were as good as dogs at solving problems, such as retrieving pieces of sausage from a plastic lunchbox.
Dogs, however, were much more friendly. They spent more time greeting human strangers and gazing at them, while wolves were somewhat aloof.
DNA tests found a link between certain genetic changes and behaviours such as attentiveness to strangers or picking up on social cues.
Similar changes in humans are associated with a rare genetic syndrome, where people are highly sociable.
Dr Elaine Ostrander of the National Institutes of Health, who was a co-researcher on the study, said the information would be useful in studying human disease.
“This exciting observation highlights the utility of the dog as a genetic system informative for studies of human disease, as it shows how minor variants in critical genes in dogs result in major syndromic effects in humans,” she said.
Dogs were domesticated from wolves between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago.
When I first started writing this blog, more than six years ago now, I had no idea whatsoever that the community of friends who read and follow Learning from Dogs would develop to the point where the volume of ideas and suggestions sent in are, are by far, the biggest source of creative posts.
Take today’s for example. The link to the article was sent to me by Chris Gomez a little over a week ago and yesterday was the first time that I read the article in full.
It’s a fascinating and incredibly interesting piece.
Unlike a certain companion animal that will go unnamed, dogs lose their minds when reunited with their owners. But it’s not immediately obvious why our canine companions should grant us such an over-the-top greeting—especially considering the power imbalance that exists between the two species. We spoke to the experts to find out why.
Call of the Wild
In order to gain an appreciation for dog behavior, it’s important to understand that dogs are descended from wolves (or at least a common wolf-like ancestor). Clearly, the two species, separated by about 10,000 to 15,000 years, share a lot in common.
But there’s only so much we can extrapolate from wolves; dogs are categorically different by virtue of the fact that their ancestors actively sought out the company of humans. Making matters even more complicated is the realization that Paleolithic era wolves are not the same as the ones around today. Consequently, any inferences we make about dog behavior and how it relates to wolves is pure speculation.
Neuroscientist Gregory Berns, author of How Dogs Love Us, says there’s a fundamental difference between modern wolves and those that lived long ago.
“The most social of those ancestral dogs who were hanging around humans had to have been the most social of those wolves,” he told io9. “They joined humans and eventually evolved to become dogs. The remainder of the wolf population were among the most antisocial of those animals, and did not want to have anything to do with humans.”
That said, however, Berns says we can clearly see behaviors in wolves that are similar to those expressed by dogs. For instance, wolves greet each other by licking each others’ faces. For these pack animals, this licking behavior serves as an important social greeting, but also as a way to check out and determine what the other wolves have brought home in terms of food.
Wolves, says University of Trento neuroscientist Giorgio Vallortigara, greet each other in different ways depending on the type of individual relationships they’ve forged. Feral dogs, he says, behave in similar ways. But the big change in terms of adaptive sociality has been the ability of domesticated dogs to interact with humans using our own communicative signals, such as gazes and gestures.
“When I’m at Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana, I am always struck by how much some of the specific wolf behaviors resemble behaviors I see in dogs—but so much more ritualized, and sort of writ large,” she told io9. “I witnessed one behavioral study there in which wolves who knew each other well had been separated for a few days and were put back together. The greeting rituals were fascinating, with lots of crouching and chin-licking from the subordinate wolves. You do see these behaviors in dogs, but more sporadically, without such intensity.”
At the same time, dogs exhibit behaviors that are markedly different from wolves. As Hekman explained to me, one of the most dramatic differences between dogs and wolves is the ability of dogs to accept novelty. Simply put, dogs are less fearful than wolves.
“It may sound a little odd to say that a wolf, who can easily kill you, is afraid of you, but that is precisely why they can be dangerous: because they may choose to take proactive measures to protect themselves, using their teeth,” says Hekman. “Dogs are a lot less likely to do this.”
Indeed, given their wolf ancestry, it’s remarkable that dogs get along with humans so well. But as Berns pointed out to me, sociability has turned out to be a rather powerful adaptation, one that has worked a lot better for dogs than it has wolves.
“I mean, look around the world and see how many dogs there are,” he says. “With dogs, it’s proven to be a highly effective evolutionary strategy. There are in the order of tens of millions of dogs in the world, so in many ways, dogs have out-evolved wolves.”
Berns says that whatever the sociality that dogs have evolved, one of the defining traits of a dog is the degree to which they will interact with humans as well as other animals.
How Dogs See Humans
A key aspect of Berns’ brain imaging research is to study how dogs perceive us. We humans know that dogs are a separate species, but are dogs cognizant of this as well? Or do they see us as members of their pack, or as some kind of weird dog?
According to Berns’ research, dogs that are presented with certain smells in scanners can clearly tell the difference between dogs and humans, and also discern and recognize familiar and strange odors. In particular, the scent of a familiar human evokes a reward response in the brain.
“No other scent did that, not even that of a familiar dog,” Berns told io9. “It’s not the case that they see us as ‘part of their pack as dogs,’ they know that we’re something different— there’s a special place in the brain just for us.”
Berns stresses that dogs are social with us not just because of their scavenging tendencies.
“What we’re finding with the imaging work is that dogs love their humans—and not just for food,” he says. “They love the company of humans simply for its own sake.”
Hekman says it’s hard to know what dogs are thinking, but she suspects they understand that we’re not quite like them. As evidence, she points to aggressiveness in dogs as it’s directed to other dogs and humans—differences that aren’t correlated. She says it’s quite common for a dog to have a problem with one and not the other. In other words, dogs appear to perceive other dogs as one group, and humans as a separate group. What’s more, dogs will seek the help of humans and not other dogs—a possible sign that dogs understand that humans have resources that dogs do not, and are thus a different kind of social entity.
But do dogs see us as part of the pack?
“It’s important to note that a pack of wolves is a family—literally, usually mom, dad, puppies, and some young offspring from previous years who haven’t gone off on their own yet,” says Hekman. “Do dogs see us as part of their family? I think they do.”
So Happy to See Us
Virtually all experts agree that the happiness dogs feel is comparable to what humans experience, and that it’s similar to how humans feel towards each other.
“All the things that we’ve done with the brain imaging—where we present certain things to the dogs and map their reward responses—we see analogous brain responses in humans,” says Berns. “Seeing a person that’s a friend or someone you like, these feelings are exactly analogous to what a dog experiences.”
Berns says that dogs don’t have the same language capacities as humans, and that they’re not capable of representing things in their memory like we can. Because dogs don’t have labels or names for people, he suspects that they have an even purer emotional response; their minds aren’t filled with all sorts of abstract concepts.
A dog’s particular greeting, however, is dependent on several factors, such as the dog’s temperament, the personality of the owner, the nature of their relationship, the level of stress and anxiety, and the dog’s tendency/capacity for self-control.
It’s important to note, however, that stress manifests differently in dogs than it does in humans.
“The separation from the owner for the dog is not voluntary,” says Vallortigara. “It is always unnatural for a dog to detach and abandon the pack.”
Dogs will sometimes go solo on a temporary basis if they’re sufficiently motivated to do so, but they do it knowing that social contact can be resumed at virtually any time.
“The exaggerated level of greeting that can be observed in some dogs is likely due to the fact that they have not yet learned to accept the possibility of non-voluntary detachment,” says Vallortigara.
When trying to appreciate a dog’s over-the-top greeting, Hekman says we need to imagine what it was like for a dog to be alone all day while we were gone.
“This dog probably had a pretty boring day without much enrichment, and moreover may have been alone all day, which is unpleasant for a social animal,” she told io9. “So in addition to being glad to see us, they are probably feeling some relief that they will get to do something interesting, like go for a walk, and have someone else around. Some people are able to have a dog walker come in or send their dogs to daycare—this is a great solution to what can otherwise be a difficult lifestyle for a dog.”
And as Berns points out, the greeting ritual is a social bonding mechanism—but it’s also a function of curiosity.
“When they jump up, they’re trying to lick you in the face,” says Berns. “Part of that is a social greeting, but they’re also trying to taste and smell you to figure out where you’ve been and what you’ve done during the day. So some of it is curiosity. If I’ve been with other dogs, for instance, my dogs know it, and they resort to sniffing intensely.”
How to Greet Your Dog Back
It’s obviously important to respond to your dog when you get home, but according to Marcello Siniscalchi, a veterinary physician from the University of Bari, how you should react will depend on the context of the situation and the needs of the dog itself.
“The greeting ritual will vary from dog to dog because any individual dog perceives and reacts to detachment from the owner in a very personal way,” he told io9. “Some dogs need to be greeted, in others it is better to avoid any escalation in the level of excitation, others need to learn strategies for coping with the stress associated with detachment.”
Hekman says there’s definitely a tension between our buttoned-down greeting rituals (“Hi, honey, I’m home!”) and theirs (“I want to lick you on the face repeatedly!”).
“My dog Jenny is a very enthusiastic greeter, and I hate having her jump all over me in her efforts to get at my face,” she says. “So I have taught her to get on a couch when I come home. I generally have to remind her to ‘get on your couch,’ but now she does with great enthusiasm, and waits for me to come over. The couch puts her more on my level, so she doesn’t have to jump, and I can bend forward and let her lick my cheek, which is a very important part of the ritual for her.”
Hekman stresses that, for any dog, it’s important for us not to tell them what not to do (e.g. “don’t jump on me!”), but to tell them what to do.
I have been saving this report for a few weeks. Following yesterday’s great news about the latest concerning wolves in Oregon, today seemed a perfect follow-on with a report first published in online journal PLOS ONE. However, what follows is a full republication of the report as I read it on the Science Daily website.
Teaching young wolves new tricks: Wolves are considerably better imitators than dogs
Date: January 31, 2014
Source: Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien
Summary: Although wolves and dogs are closely related, they show some striking differences. Scientists have undertaken experiments that suggest that wolves observe one another more closely than dogs and so are better at learning from one another. The scientists believe that cooperation among wolves is the basis of the understanding between dogs and humans.
Although wolves and dogs are closely related, they show some striking differences. Scientists from the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna have undertaken experiments that suggest that wolves observe one another more closely than dogs and so are better at learning from one another. The scientists believe that cooperation among wolves is the basis of the understanding between dogs and humans.
Their findings have been published in the online journal PLOS ONE.
Wolves were domesticated more than 15,000 years ago and it is widely assumed that the ability of domestic dogs to form close relationships with humans stems from changes during the domestication process. But the effects of domestication on the interactions between the animals have not received much attention. The point has been addressed by Friederike Range and Zsófia Virányi, two members of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna) who work at the Wolf Science Center (WSC) in Ernstbrunn, Niederösterreich.
Wolves copy other wolves solving problems
The scientists found that wolves are considerably better than dogs at opening a container, providing they have previously watched another animal do so. Their study involved 14 wolves and 15 mongrel dogs, all about six months old, hand-reared and kept in packs. Each animal was allowed to observe one of two situations in which a trained dog opened a wooden box, either with its mouth or with its paw, to gain access to a food reward. Surprisingly, all of the wolves managed to open the box after watching a dog solve the puzzle, while only four of the dogs managed to do so. Wolves more frequently opened the box using the method they had observed, whereas the dogs appeared to choose randomly whether to use their mouth or their paw.
Watch closely …
To exclude the possibility that six-month old dogs fail the experiment because of a delayed physical or cognitive development, the researchers repeated the test after nine months. The dogs proved no more adept at opening the box than they were at a younger age. Another possible explanation for the wolves’ apparent superiority at learning is that wolves might simply be better than dogs at solving such problems. To test this idea, the researchers examined the animals’ ability to open a box without prior demonstration by a dog. They found that the wolves were rarely successful. “Their problem-solving capability really seems to be based on the observation of a dog performing the task,” says Range. “The wolves watched the dog very closely and were able to apply their new knowledge to solve the problem. Their skill at copying probably relates to the fact that wolves are more dependent on cooperation with conspecifics than dogs are and therefore pay more attention to the actions of their partners.”
The researchers think that it is likely that the dog-human cooperation originated from cooperation between wolves. During the process of domestication, dogs have become able to accept humans as social partners and thus have adapted their social skills to include interactions with them, concomitantly losing the ability to learn by watching other dogs.