Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: how bees could help solve elephant-human conflict in Africa

Plus: cross-border salmon tension, a clue in the eastern wolf debate, the role of weather in bison migration and evidence a near-mythical wolf once roamed Canada

As elephant-human conflict increases, scientists are taking inspiration from a much smaller species to protect these gentle giants. (Photo: Hans Hamann via Unsplash)
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Standing at a shoulder height of 11 feet and weighing six tons, it is hard to imagine that anything could scare the African elephant. However, as humans continue to encroach on elephant habitat, scientists have been on the lookout for a way to deter elephants from entering human areas without directly harming them.

Enter: African bees. They may be small, but when they sting, African bees release pheromones that cause other bees to swarm to the same site. If an elephant is stung just once it remembers the pheromones and avoids any sign of bees from then on. 

Now, scientists are designing bee-inspired solutions to human-elephant conflict. Beehive fences — consisting of a wire connecting hanging bee hives — have an 80 per cent success rate in preventing elephants from entering residential areas and farmland. Another innovation, the bee BuzzBox, was developed to deter elephants without the risk of being stung. The BuzzBox mimics the sounds of real bees — enough to send an elephant fleeing in the other direction. 

Without these measures, elephants wander freely into human areas and destroy crops. The resulting conflicts often end with humans killing elephants. Could this natural deterrent prevent the unnecessary killing of a critically endangered species? 

 S.O.S. — save our salmon

Unlike Canadian fishers, Alaskan fishers aren’t required to report catches of endangered species like chinook and steelhead salmon. (SFWS Fish and Aquatic Conservation/Flickr)
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As Canadian salmon make their way along the West Coast, up towards Alaska and back down to B.C. again, millions are getting caught in Alaskan fishing traps, potentially impacting endangered Pacific salmon runs. 

Studies have found that Alaskan fisheries are making a lot of their catches as salmon begin migrating back down to B.C. and Washington, estimating that in 2022, 2.1 million of those fish had a Canadian origin. In 2021, Alaska caught 800,000 sockeye alone, most of which came from B.C., according to genetic sampling. This over-catching is also assumed to harm the endangered killer whale population by removing a significant food source. 

While both countries partake in the Pacific Salmon Treaty, ensuring both receive benefits equal to their salmon production, conservationists are pushing for a reevaluation of the treaty to further limit the amount of fish caught. However, this renegotiation won’t take place until 2028 at the earliest, which may be too late for the salmon. 

In addition to overfishing, B.C.’s degrading watershed habitat and unstable ocean conditions are further depleting the salmon population and encouraging them to move towards the Alaskan traps.

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Confusing canids

Often confused with coyotes and grey wolves, eastern wolves (pictured) can be hard to identify. (Photo: Quinten Wiegersma/Wikimedia Commons)
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Genomic evidence suggests that eastern wolves evolved separately from grey wolves, according to a recent study in Molecular Biology and Evolution. Eastern wolves have been the subject of a debate among scientists due to their unclear origins. Some believe eastern wolves are a unique species, while others think they are a result of breeding between grey wolves and coyotes. 

A team of scientists from Canada and Italy sequenced the genomes of 25 wolves in the Great Lakes region of Ontario. They found that eastern wolves and grey wolves evolved separately approximately 67,000 years ago. However, their findings also indicate that since the two wolves became separate species, there has been interbreeding between eastern wolves, grey wolves and coyotes.

Despite recent interbreeding between the three species, modern eastern wolves have maintained the genetic markers of their ancestors that separated from grey wolves long ago. Currently, the eastern wolf is listed as “Threatened” by the Ontario government, but is considered as one species with Grey wolves and coyotes for conservation purposes. These findings may provide incentive to reevaluate how wolves are protected by accounting for the genetic diversity that exists between species. 

In search of greener grass

Plains bison are moving to find plants that grow better in warmer temperatures. (Photo: Nick Dunlap/Unsplash)
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The mighty plains bison once roamed the Great Plains of the U.S. and Canada in large numbers. Bison were critical to their grasslands habitat and highly valued by the Indigenous Peoples who hunted them. However, colonization and over-hunting left only 512 bison remaining in the late 1800’s.

Conservation and reintroduction efforts have since helped populations recover. However, human threats, such as climate change and habitat fragmentation continue to threaten bison. 

A recent study published in Ecology and Evolution found that plains bison movements change with the weather; a significant finding that will help determine which areas are suitable for bison reintroduction.

Researchers used GPS trackers to compare bison movement to variations in weather, particularly air temperature. They believe that high temperatures are causing bison to move more frequently in search of heat-resistant plants. However, when the temperature becomes too high to tolerate, bison rest more frequently. Bison movement was also affected by severe drought, challenging the long-held assumption that bison are “drought-proof.”

These findings are consistent with those of a similar study on Canadian wood bison. The two studies will help to inform the conservation of bison as climate change and human activity continue to alter and shrink their habitat.

A dire wolf in Canada

An artist's impression of a dire wolf (Canis dirus). A team from the Royal Ontario Museum has used new technology to positively identify a fossil of a dire wolf found in Canada. (Photo: Danielle Dufault/Royal Ontario Museum/The Canadian Press)
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Creatures from Game of Thrones once roamed Canada.

The fossil of a dire wolf, an animal often seen throughout the hit TV show, has recently been confirmed in Medicine Hat, Alta. — the first of its kind in the country. While this fossil — consisting of a crushed jaw bone — was discovered decades ago, it was difficult to determine whether it belonged to a grey wolf or a dire wolf. 

But with this confirmation, it tells us more about what inhabited our country 25,000 to 50,000 years ago, as well as what the climate was like during that time. Though southern Alberta was largely covered in an ice sheet during this period, it often rescinded to create a livable environment for mammals. This also created a unique environment where southern and Arctic species coexisted. 

There’s still much to learn about the dire wolf, especially since the period in which they inhabited Canada is largely understudied. But one thing is for certain: with old bones, a missing tooth and a small frame, this wolf was a fighter. 

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