A few wolves in Minnesota will now record their summer exploits, thanks to an exciting project from researchers from the Voyageurs Wolf Project. This week, the group released the first-ever footage captured by a collar on a wild wolf. The candid movies, which will continue this year, will hopefully provide some insight into the daily lives of these adaptable creatures, such as their recently discovered habit of freshwater fishing.
The Voyageurs Wolf Project, led by scientists at the University of Minnesota, is intended to fill in one of the largest mysteries about wolves living in North America, particularly those living inside the Voyageurs National Park: how they spend their summer months.
In the winter, wolves tend to form packs that allow them to hunt down large prey like deer and moose. But come summertime, and after the next generation of wolf pups are born in the spring, they become more solitary. The UMN researchers are interested in better understanding the changes in wolf hunting behaviour that occur during the summer, as well as how these behaviours might affect the survival of wolf pups. Their past work has involved fitting wolves from different packs with GPS collars, which has already allowed them to map out their territories.
In trying to get more up close and personal with wild wolves, without disturbing their natural behaviour, some research teams have had success in tracking wolves aerially through drone cameras. But according to researcher Thomas Gable, that just wasn’t a viable option for them. Not only are these sorts of cameras expensive, they’re also impractical in the dense vegetation that emerges every summer at the park. Instead, his team decided to test out whether cameras attached to an unobtrusive collar, developed by the company Vectronic-Aerospace, could do the job.
It’s not exactly a piece of cake to get the wolves to cooperate at first, though.
“Yeah, the wolves are very challenging to study and to collar, especially in our area,” Gable told Gizmodo by phone. “So the most common way, and the way that we do it, is to use rubber padded foothold traps that have been modified to ensure safe capture and release. Basically they’ll step on a trap and it just holds their foot until you can get there. And then you can sedate them and put on the collar. But that’s a lot easier said than done, because wolves are very smart, very wary, and they are not easy to catch.”
They did eventually succeed in attaching a camera to a lone wolf dubbed V089 in early May. V089 then wore the camera for six weeks into late June, when the collar fell off as planned. This week, they released select bits of footage from V089’s video streaming on YouTube, which the team believes is the first footage of its kind to be captured from wild wolves.
The camera records for 30 seconds at a time, once a hour in the daylight. The wolf’s shaggy fur, left over from the winter, does obscure the footage a bit. But even with these limitations, the team was able to learn a lot. Namely, they reaffirmed previous research of theirs showing that wolves in the area are hunting for fish in freshwater. While it’s known that wolves in Alaska and parts of Canada fish, that’s during salmon spawning season, when salmon migrate from the ocean to rivers in large numbers to lay their eggs.
The team’s earlier research and new footage, however, suggest that wolves elsewhere can fish just fine under more ordinary circumstances. V089 is especially crafty in how he fishes, since he appears to have set up near a beaver dam, waiting to catch fish that can’t make their way over it.
“Up until recently, wolves hunting and killing freshwater fish is something that people didn’t even really know happened. And our project documented it happening from one particular pack a couple years ago. But we thought the behaviour was totally restricted to that one pack; that it was one of these weird, interesting things that this one particular group of animals figured out,” Gable said. “But the fact that this wolf started doing this is evidence that it’s not a one-off thing.”
Outside of their camera footage, the team found evidence that a wolf from another pack had gone fishing last summer as well. While they’re still working on collecting evidence, their current theory is that fishing is both a learnable and teachable behaviour among these wolves.
“It seems that individuals seem to figure it out themselves, and then they can sort of pass that along to their offspring, at least based on what we can tell anecdotally at this point,” Gable said.
With their pilot experiment a clear success, the team will now outfit three wolves with cameras this summer. And they’re already planning to improve the footage.
“We’ll probably trim the hair back just a little bit so that it’s not in the field of view. There’s a certain amount of interference that you’re never going to get away from, just because of how wolves walk and hold their head — you’re always going to see their chin. But hopefully, there won’t be hair taking up the whole frame,” Gable said. “We shared a lot of the good stuff; there’s a lot of footage where it’s just wet muddy hair.”
For now, the team hopes their current work can offer people a new perspective on wolves.
“The fishing behaviour just shows how adaptable wolves are, and how they’re really good at finding unique food sources,” Gable said. “There’s this idea that wolves will only go after large prey, just moose and deer and things like that. But they also are really good opportunists, and they’ll take advantage of all sorts of different food sources that are available to them.”