Scientist uses radio collars to track the arctic wolf in its habitat

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Learning about the behavior of wild animals often requires hours and hours of personal observation. But what if the animal can’t be followed?

That’s the problem David Mech (pronounced “Meech”) has had for much of his 50-year career studying wolves in the United States. “You can’t just go out and see a wolf,” he said, because they are endangered and afraid of humans. So Mech spent years capturing wolves, putting radio collars on them, then tracking their movements by airplane.

But when Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, began studying arctic wolves 24 years ago, it was a different story. These animals, a subspecies of the gray wolf and not endangered, had never been hunted or trapped by humans because they live so far north. Arctic wolves are so unafraid of people they have even untied Mech’s shoelace and pulled off his glove.

Now, Mech goes to Ellesmere Island in remote northern Canada, 600 miles from the North Pole, every July. At that time of year, the sun never sets, so there is 24 hours of daylight and the temperature is usually in the 40s. It may even get into the 60s for a day or two. When he started going in 1986, “I would just sit there and watch these wolves around the den,” Mech said. Over the years, he saw the pack range in size from a dozen members to as many as 20. He could even follow them hunting, using a small all-terrain vehicle. Mech’s observations provided valuable information about wolf behavior to animal scientists around the world.

But three years ago, the wolf pack moved its den to a location that Mech couldn’t reach. Camped at a remote weather station, he could only wait until the wolves came to him. So last summer Mech, 73, decided to use radio collars again, and he put one on the dominant male of the pack, named Brutus, who has worn the collar ever since.

The result is the first-ever information on the habits of wolves living in the Arctic during the winter — when it is dark 24 hours a day and the temperature is routinely 20 or 30 degrees below zero. Brutus’s collar sends data to a satellite every 12 hours noting his location, and every four days, Mech gets an e-mail from the satellite service showing where Brutus has been. Mech is keeping a blog explaining the pack’s movements, which you can follow at http://www.internationalwolfcenter.blogspot.com. (Also check his photos from 2006 of the beautiful, snow-white animals and their pups).

Last month, Mech was surprised to see that Brutus traveled between points as much as 80 miles apart — even crossing a huge frozen waterway to get to another island — probably for better hunting of muskoxen. Over time, Mech hopes the data will help scientists understand how these animals survive in such a harsh environment, possibly helping endangered species of wolves in the United States.

— Margaret Webb Pressler

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