Wildlife Wednesday: B.C. big tree hunter finds “Canada’s most impressive tree”

Plus: wild pigs crossing into N.W.T, AI listening to bee buzz, bowhead whales breaking pregnancy records, and horseshoe crabs paying price for medicinal blood

Meet Canada’s most impressive tree. Nicknamed both The Wall and ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis, meaning big redcedar in the Nuu-chah-nulth language, the 46-metre-tall western redcedar was identified in a remote location in Ahousaht First Nation territory, Vancouver Island, by Trebek Initiative grantee, photographer and big-tree hunter TJ Watt. It was the tree’s girth that most impressed Watt — it measures five metres wide near its base and actually gets wider as it gets taller. “After nearly two decades of photographing and searching for big trees in old-growth forests across B.C., no tree has blown me away more than this one,” says Watt. “It’s a literal wall of wood.”

The tree is almost certainly well over a thousand years old given its size. “Old-growth forests with their monumental redcedar trees have been of great cultural importance for the Ahousaht Nation since time immemorial,” says Ahousaht Hereditary Representative and Natural Climate Solutions Program Director of Nature United, Tyson Atleo. 

Squeal on pigs

Wild pigs may be making their way into the Northwest Territories. It has long been feared that feral pigs were progressing farther north in Alberta and now a possible sighting of a wild pig near 60th Parallel Territorial Park, N.W.T., has led the territory’s Department of Environment and Climate Change to declare the animal a pest and remind residents to “squeal on pigs” if they spot any.

The wild pig problem began in the 1980s when European wild boars were imported by a few Canadian farmers to raise for meat and then set free or escaped. In Canada, they have since been found from Quebec to Alberta. Wild pigs destroy crops, spread disease, devastate woodlands and prey on ground-nesting birds and newborn deer. “They’re the most dangerous invasive animal on the planet,” says Ryan Brook, head of the Canadian Wild Pig Research Project. 

Studio Bee 

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh, U.K., are using artificial intelligence to analyze the buzzing sounds produced by a bee’s body when they’re flying to forage.  The research can be used to help identify different species of bees, and to conserve those that are endangered due to climate change, habitat loss, pesticide use and pollution. 

The AI system can recognize and distinguish different recorded bee sounds using microphones placed in their habitats. It then combines the sounds with other data such as pollen content, sizes of bees and environment attributes to form an informative database that provides understanding into what impacts the sounds that bees make at different times of the year. 

AI saves effort and time — remote acoustic monitoring stations can be set up to track the bees and collect and identify their sounds, and then compile comprehensive information that can contribute to conservation strategies. 

A whale of a pregnancy

The bowhead whale may have taken the record for longest mammalian pregnancy — clocking in at up to 23 months. A team of researchers from Suffolk University, Mass., Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Arctic Aquatic Research Division, and the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources collected baleen samples from bowhead whales killed by Inuit hunters in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic between 1998 and 2011.

The baleens offer a snapshot of the life of the whale, including hormone levels during pregnancy. Elevated levels of progesterone were discovered, indicating that the whales’ pregnancies were sustained longer than previous estimates of 14 months. Interestingly, the team has theorized that the whales may be able to put their pregnancy on pause for up to nine months, allowing the expectant mother the freedom to choose the best time for the birth of her offspring.

The cost of blood

Predating the dinosaurs, the horseshoe crab has been around for more than 400 million years and is an important part of the East Coast ecosystem. They also play an important role in medical research. The biopharmaceutical industry uses their blue-coloured blood to detect toxic bacteria and avoid contamination in vaccines, intravenous drugs and prosthetics — protecting humans from harmful diseases. 

The cost of this is that about 15 per cent of horseshoe crabs die after their blood is extracted. This, in addition to their use as fishing bait and predation by the rufa red knot bird, means there are species of horseshoe crabs now declining in population. In 2016, Atlantic horseshoe crabs along the Gulf of Maine to Florida were labelled as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

This decline has also led to the decline of the rufa red knot bird, which eats the crabs’ eggs during their migration from South America to Canada. Since the 1980s, the number of these birds has declined by 75 per cent. 

In response, the pharmaceutical industry is working to develop synthetic alternatives to replace the usage of horseshoe crabs in medical testing. 

The Wall, a.k.a. ʔiiḥaq ḥumiis. (Photo: TJ Watt/Ancient Forest Alliance)
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Residents of N.W.T. encouraged to "squeal on pigs." (Photo: Kevin Jackson/Unsplash)
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AI can be used to recognize, distinguish and ultimately help conserve different species of bees. (Photo: Pexels/Pixabay)
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A whale of a pregnacy. (Photo: Kate Stafford/Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0])
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Horseshoe crab blood is extracted for medicinal use. (Photo: dp1616/Pixabay)
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