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Everyday people ask our biologist Jeremy questions about wolves and their environment along with many other varied questions. We will be adding his answers to your questions here in our Ask the Biologist section. Stay tuned and check back often as we post more answered questions here.

How Do Wolf Packs Avoid Inbreeding?

 

Gray wolf packs primarily live in family groups, where most individual are related. this situation could complicate the mating process in wolf society, as it is understood that incestuous relations are deleterious to offspring. Wolves overcome this predicament through several physiological and behavioral adaptations. First, only the alpha pair typically moves through courtship behavior, which minimizes the chances of siblings producing offspring. The alpha-male intensely patrols the breeding rituals within the pack, and aggressively prohibits others from mating. Secondly, if a sub-adult wolf is determined to find a mate, but prohibited by the alpha-male, the eager wolf has the option of leaving the pack to seek out a disperser from another pack and begin their own, new pack together. We find this usually occurs with younger (about two years old) wolves, both male and female, who then are lone wolves until they find a suitable mate. However, once a mate is found and they produce puppies the offspring now carry genetics fro two lineages, thus improving the genetic stability of the population.

Unfortunately, a circumstance may arise where either an alpha-male or alpha-female unexpectedly dies, leaving a related wolf next in line to breed with the established alpha that survives (typically a mother or father). To the best of our knowledge, mating between relative wolves may occur under these circumstances. Although not optimum, survival of the pack is paramount compared to the best selection of mates. The genetic codes of wolves is very resilient, and can endure inbreeding for long durations. Examples of isolated populations, such as Isle Royale, have shown this. The wolf population on the island of Isle Royale has been intensively studied since 1958, and only recently have researchers begun to observe potential negative impacts of the inbreeding that has been occurring for generations.

Where Do Wolves Get Their Water In Winter?
Do We Trim The Claws Of Our Captive Wolves?
How Strong Is A Wolf Bite?
What is the difference between predator species eyes and prey species eyes?

Again, this question was discussed during Jenifer Jr. High’s visit (thanks Ms. Stamper for the ideas!), and I thought it was a very clever question, so it is worth sharing. Perhaps some readers may not even have noticed there is a pronounced difference in the placement of predator eyes versus prey eyes? Ungulates and most herbivore small mammals have their eyes located more so on the sides of their skull, where wolves and other carnivores have their eyes positioned more toward the front of the skull. Why? The side placement on the prey’s head allows a widened vision of the surroundings, therefore making it easier to detect predators approaching from all sides. However, this adaptation has its downfalls, particularly that the animal has poor vision immediately in front of them. Ever notice that when near a deer directly in front of their nose, they turn their heads to look at you? This poor vision in front of them is the reason. On the contrary, the frontal placement on predators allows for very good stereoscopic vision directly in front of the animal, while inhibiting peripheral vision. Wolves and other predators use the close proximity of the eyes to create good depth perception, thus enabling accurate lunging toward the prey and adequate paw to eye coordination Both eye position adaptations among prey and predators increase the survivability of individuals, therefore benefiting both species as they continue to evolve together.

How do wolves avoid becoming wet while traveling through rain, snow, or water?

A life within the wilderness involves becoming wet at times. Precipitation is a regular event, plus endless streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes create wet obstacles for wolves and other wildlife. All animals-particularly mammals, who must maintain their internal temperature-are challenged with avoiding hypothermia caused by the cooling effects of cold, wet conditions.

Wolves have several physical traits and behavior to help them maintain dry skin and limit the effects of cooling due to wet conditions. First of all, they are wearing a raincoat at all times. Wolves maintain a double-layer fur coat, comprised of the outer guard hairs and the dense undercoat underneath. The guard hairs are hollow to aid in insulation and provide the visual coloration of the individual. More importantly, the follicles of the guard hairs secrete oil that makes this outer layer of fur virtually impervious to water. It is common to see snow or water lying on the backs of wolves during heavy precipitation, as the oil prevents the water from seeping down to the skin. Wolves, just like dogs, shake off the wetness periodically, keeping their skin dry. The dense, compact undercoat’s main function is insulation; however it is tightly woven against the skin, so it catches any water that may penetrate the guard hair layer before it reaches the skin. As long as the skin remains dry, the insulation of the wolf is not compromised.

Wolves are good swimmers and often do not hesitate to travel through bodies of water. Doing so would obviously saturate their fur with water beyond the repellency of their guard hairs. However, it is important to realize that if the stream, river, or lake is not frozen, then the ambient temperature is likely not cold enough to cause hypothermia. During winter, all bodies of water in Northern territories are frozen solid, making travel across the landscape much easier for wolves.

Why doesn't the Owyhee Pack have puppies?

We accepted the Owyhee Pack from the USDA in April 2008, after they were confiscated from a backyard where the previous owner was not caring for them properly. A total of 19 wolves were contained in very small enclosures with inadequate diets. Prior to the USDA becoming involved in removing the wolves, both Owyhee County Sheriff’s Office and Idaho Fish and Game attempted to stop the captive wolf operation, however the laws associated with each agency prevented forcing the owners to cease. Thankfully, Idaho Fish and Game convinced the owners to allow the neutering of the wolves so no new puppies would enter the living conditions. Since the procedure to castrate a male is much simpler, less invasive, and cheaper; a decision was made to neuter all males at the “facility”. We do not know exactly when this occurred, however the procedure was completed at least a year prior to WERC accepting the homeless pack. So when Himtuuqin and Miyooxat of the pack were moved to Winchester, both were already sterilized. The Sawtooth Pack was also unable to breed, however the procedure was different. The females underwent tubal ligation, which is when the fallopian tubes are sutured closed, or “tied”. In a way, WERC is fortunate the Owyhee Pack was already neutered; hence we did not spend the resources or create the stress on them to perform the sterilization ourselves. Every responsible captive wolf facility provides some sort of birth control on their animals because the biotic potential of wolves is food-dependent.

Are domestic dogs related to wolves?

Yes, if fact, all domestic dogs originated from gray wolves. No matter how diverse dog breeds have become, they all were born from gray wolf lineage approximately 12,000-15,000 years ago. Humans essentially created dogs by selectively breeding wolves for desirable traits that would fit with human society. Although the physical size of dogs has varied greatly through the husbandry-from a Tea Cup Chihuahua to a Great Dane-the physiology of the canine has remained nearly identical. Early breeders likely selected for size variation, desired appearance, and, most importantly, acceptable behaviors. They chose breeding pairs that possessed human-friendly behaviors, such as being tame and welcoming of human companionship. Thus, the modern domestic dog was slowly created while the “wild” was lost through millions of generations of selective breeding. Predatory and territory instincts were suppressed, while social compatibility was increased. However, most dogs still hold over rudimentary behaviors from wolves that have little benefit to domestic dogs, such as burying a bone in the backyard. This behavior comes from an important wolf behavior known as caching, where food is stored in shallow underground pits in order to prevent avian scavengers from stealing it. Behavior is the main difference separating dogs from wolves; hence biologist have reclassified the dog’s scientific name to Canis lupis familiaris, meaning the familiar or domestic wolf”.

What is "biotic potential"?

Biotic potential is defined as the number of offspring a mother may produce, given the environmental conditions in which she resides. For wolves, which only reproduce once a year, this means how many wolves can be born into a pack each year. When an individual reaches their full biotic potential, they are able to have the maximum number of offspring. Environmental conditions always inhibit the biotic potential of individuals and populations of a species. Which primary environmental stress affects the biotic potential varies for each species. For wolves, which are an apex predator, the limiting factor in reproduction, or biotic potential, is food availability. This restriction is common among top predators, and is how population do not exhaust the local prey supply for the next generation of predators. If this adaptation did not exist, then predators could over-harvest all their prey and crash the herbivore population. By doing so the future generations of predators would have no prey to eat, causing mass starvation, and would crash themselves. This process is the foundation for the law of nature that predators never completely deplete their prey, even in Idaho! Anyway, when in captivity, wolves receive an abundance of food; therefore the pack’s biotic potential would be at maximum, and four to eight puppies could be born to every captive pack every year. Since there remains an overpopulation of captive wolves across the country (remember, the only facility available for housing the Owyhee Pack’s cousins was located in Florida!), allowing an increase of captive-condemned wolves every year would not only by illogical, but arguably unethical as well.

How can I help my dog or wolf/hybrid gain weight?

Recently, a supporter contacted me requesting advice on how to increase the weight of her newly-adopted wolf-dog hybrid. Although WERC does not condone the breeding of wolf and dog mixes, we do support the rescue of such animals which are already living and who are in unfit environments. Many folks who ask for assistance through our Ask the Biologist program are hybrid owners-which highlights the complexities and dangers of maintaining these “genetically confused” animals in domestic settings. For the current question, the answer would be about the same regardless of the canine’s heredity. Adding weight to a large canine should be relatively easy, unless an underlying medical condition prevents it. So, the first step is to consult a veterinarian to ensure the canine is healthy. The veterinarian will probably run a fecal parasite analysis and blood panels. Most commonly, a canine can’t add fat to its body if it has large load of intestinal worms or a metabolic imbalance. If worms are present, they can be easily treated and removed through medication. If metabolic imbalance is found, such a hyperthyroidism, an adjustment in diet or the addition of medications could solve the issue. If the underweight canine shows no signs of health detriment through these investigations, then an increase and upgrade of food may be warranted.

First, provide a dry dog food that is high in fat and protein, and make it available up to three times a day. Wet food can be added to the dry food to increase the palatability and consumption at each feeding. Since canines can eat a large amount of food in one setting, they can basically be fed as much as they will eat without vomiting. Chicken or beef broth can be added to dry food to increase calories and taste. Raw or cooked red meat can also be supplemented to the diet about once a week but watch for vomiting or diarrhea. If either occurs, then cut back on quantities or stop the red meat altogether. Hard-boiled eggs are a great source of fat and protein for canines, and have been used to recover protein-deficient wolves among the Sawtooth Pack in the past. In my experience, wolves love the taste of eggs and are eager to gobble them up quickly, shell and all. You may peel off the shell if you prefer, but the calcium of the shell is also beneficial to the nutrient requirements of canines. Another important aspect of large canine health is exercise. By walking or running frequently, their metabolism increases, which make them hungry, Finally, if necessary, dry puppy food can replace the adult dry food to increase the fat content of the diet. However, once your canine reaches optimum weight, the canine should return to adult food to maintain proper weight. If no underlying medical conditions exist, a large canine should quickly add weight to their bodies by increasing and adjusting their diet and exercise.

Does other wildlife interact with our captive wolves?

Yes, absolutely. One of the best attributes of the Winchester facility is that the enclosures are essentially part of a mature, healthy forest, with just a fence separating the large mammals. The interior of the enclosures is no different than the forest outside the fence line. The trees, shrubs, water sources, insects, birds, and small mammals are a continuous environment on both sides of the fence. Only ungulates, felines, Ursidae, and other canines are prohibited from crossing into the territory of the packs. Even though these large wildlife species do not directly interact with the captive wolves, they are present nearby the enclosures and often influence the pack’s behavior.

Both the Sawtooth and Owyhee Packs have been in constant contact with birds such as Ravens, Magpies, Gray and Stellar Jays, Turkey, Grouse, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, Red-tailed Hawks, and Great Gray Owls, among others, since their arrival at Wolf Camp. Although most of these species steal food from the wolves, they are rarely chased by the pack. However, Ravens sometimes lose in a close encounter with a wolf and the Sawtooth Pack was notorious for hunting grouse that flew into their enclosure. The Owyhee Pack caught their first turkey last winter.

During the summer, insects and arachnids abound within and around the enclosure. Most of the time, the insects are a nuisance to the wolves, but sometimes the tables turn. I have witnessed wolves chasing and leaping after grasshoppers across an entire meadow…and eventually winning a tiny snack after the chase.

Coyotes inhabit this forest, and outnumber wolves and humans combined. Evidence that wild coyotes are regularly moving very close to the enclosures is prolific. We know coyotes “mark” (urinate on) the outside fence, while both packs have always marked the inside fence. Most often, when a coyote pack approaches, the wolves simply engage them with a vocalization battle. However, if coyotes approach very closely (within 300 feet), the pack becomes very quite and seemingly stalks the coyotes.

Likewise, White-tailed Deer are daily visitors to both enclosures, often approaching to very close proximity. Most of the time, the wolves ignore the deer. However, if deer are grazing nearby, then suddenly become startled and run, the pack will occasionally give predatory chase from within their enclosure…until they run out of space and the deer continue running away. For squirrels, chipmunks, voles and other small mammals who actually share the enclosure with the pack, the fence does not provide any safety. Occasionally these animals becomes snacks for the ever-opportunistic wolves. The capture of small prey is about as wild as captive wolves can be, so it is clear that our captive wolves certainly do interact with the surrounding forest and all the accompanying wildlife.

How do wolves react to large wild land fires?

Fire across the West is an annual phenomenon and an important aspect of forest and rangeland ecology. Many species of trees have evolved to rely upon fire for germination and dispersal. Routine fires in most western landscapes are a healthy event, maintaining productive ecosystems, and increasing biodiversity. Although fire assists both plants and animals over the long run, when a large fire strikes an area, the immediate effects are often devastating to grasses, shrubs, and the wildlife of the region. Mammals and birds often evacuate the area around a significant fire, which sends a parade of wildlife into the neighboring, unaffected forest. When large fires have been in the region, we have noticed this migration away from fire in Wolf Camp. Large animals, such as elk, deer, black bear, and cougar have all been traced passing through the forest near us as they move away from the fire. In addition, several bird species that are not common in our local area have been observed around Camp during an adjacent burn. Preceding the wildlife parade, dense smoke often passes through the forest, even turning the sky red on occasion. This summer, we spent almost three weeks in Hazardous Air Warnings due to the constant, prolific smoke in the region. The captive wolves blatantly react to this natural warning of danger nearby. The Sawtooth Pack’s energy greatly increases, and they were often observed pacing at the fence line, which is very unusual behavior. Howling also increases and the pack appears disturbed overall. The Owyhee Pack reacts less severely, however they do tend to be more alert and watchful. Most likely, the wolves want to follow the evacuation parade and run away from the smoke. Unfortunately, the enclosure prevents their exodus, so they continue to be anxious until the smoke dissipates days, or weeks, later. The movement of large predators near their enclosure probably creates some additional strife, too. Since we cannot stop the smoke, nor divert predators away from the enclosures, we assist the Sawtooth Pack by calming them with additional food and human socialization. Since the Owyhee Pack is less sensitive, we monitor them for any stress behaviors and will increase their food if warranted. Just as fire is a natural component of the ecosystem, so is the movement of wildlife away from fires. All wolves, including captive, react to the smoke and disturbance in the forest by attempting to flee for their lives, joining the wildlife evacuation parade.

Why does my dog seem to be hungrier in the fall season?

Have you ever noticed the converse relationship between your dog’s hunger and the temperature outside? For most canines, as the temperature decreases in fall their appetite increases. Even for those unfortunate dogs who never roam outside their home, all dogs will adjust their metabolism in the fall to help prepare for the oncoming cold weather. Additional protein and fat is required in their diet to build their winter pelage and create their subcutaneous fat layer. Wolves essentially double the amount of fur on their bodies in the months leading to winter, and store fat just under the skin to help insulate against the often harsh sub-zero temperatures of winter. Wolves and dogs adjust to this metabolic need for additional protein and fat by simply increasing their hunger. The more they eat, the more prepared they are for cold. We assist the Owyhee Pack by increasing the weight of their feeds and providing more high-fat foods. A staple food for this time of year is scraps from a local butcher shop, which are comprised of heavy amounts of deer and elk fat. You can help your beloved canine prepare for winter too! Simply increase their food allowance and maybe mix in some high-protein or high-fat content treats, such as eggs (raw or hard boiled) or ground beef. (Cooked is safer. And keep portions limited-or be ready to clean up diarrhea!)

In his book Never Cry Wolf, author Farley Mowat claims wolf diets are comprised mostly of rodents. Is this true?

Wolves eat a variety of mammals. Although predation is a primary foraging technique of gray wolves, scavenging is a close secondary technique. They are built to digest both fresh and decomposing meat, with a very strong intestinal fortitude that maximizes the nutrients from all consumed flesh. Wolves are also opportunistic carnivores and will hunt small mammals when a chance encounter arises. However, many peer-reviewed studies conducted around the world have concluded that gray wolves most often prey upon large ungulates, such as elk, deer, caribou, or moose. They may compliment their menu with small rodents like mice and voles, but it is unlikely a pack subsists on the small bites as the main food source. Mr. Mowat brought gray wolf life to the center of wildlife conservation when his book was released in 1963; however we have learned a great deal since then. Both past and current studies of wolf predation confirm live, large ungulates are the main food source. Some biologists have gone so far as to say Mowat’s depiction of wolves was fictionalized. So, even though “Never Cry Wolf” raised awareness for wolf preservation, it is not necessarily true that wolves survive exclusively on a rodent diet.