Wildlife

The mysterious 500-kilometre, 20-year odyssey of Wolf 57

Plus: a caribou’s dinner, avian “flyways,” what astronauts can learn from squirrels — and blue whale tongue-eating orcas

A wolf walks in front of a forest
Wolf 57's radio-tracking collar was found west of Kalispell, Montana — after almost two decades and nearly 500 kilometres away from where she was fitted. (Photo: Sherwood411, CC BY-NC 2.0)
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In December 2021, a wolf’s VHF radio-tracking collar was found west of Kalispell, Montana — after almost two decades and nearly 500 kilometres away from where she was fitted. The collar, used to track wolves in Banff National Park, Alta., belonged to Wolf 57 — a young female wolf belonging to the Fairholme wolfpack. Initially fitted with the collar back in 2001, Parks Canada wildlife ecologists lost track of her in 2003 when she split from the pack. She was last detected near Lake Minnewanka, Alta.

According to park officials and wildlife conservationists, the discovery of her collar so far from the location she was fitted is emblematic of the importance of conserving large landscapes and wildlife corridors. Without the ability to move from one protected area to another, wolves are subjected to a myriad of dangers — vehicle traffic, trains and hunting to name a few.

What ever happened to Wolf 57? With an average lifespan ranging from six to 14 years, Wolf 57 has surely passed by now. The legacy of her long journey, however, lives on and may help to inspire further conservation of her species and habitat.

Hold your tongue!

Orcas have been observed hunting and killing the world’s largest animal, the blue whale. (Photo: NOAA)
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Orcas are justly famed for their ability to work together as a group to kill dinner. Now, pods of orcas have been observed hunting and killing the world’s largest animal, the blue whale.

A recently published paper in Marine Mammal Science shone a light on three attacks since 2019 recorded off the coast of Australia. The hunts, which were observed from commercial whale-watching vessels, taught researchers much about how the orca work together — and also revealed a surprising display of orca “girl power” in all its gruesome detail.

Observers were surprised to note that all three attacks were led by female orcas, rather than the larger male orcas. In two of the cases, they were also intrigued to see a female take the lead in grabbing a protein-rich piece of the doomed blue whale as it began to sink. “While it was still alive,” the paper explained, “an adult female killer whale put its head inside the blue whale’s mouth and began feeding on its tongue.”

Previously, it had been assumed that for killer whale attacks on large whales to be successful, adult males need to be involved. Females are about 20 per cent smaller. 

What’s for dinner?

Animal-borne video cameras provide an exciting opportunity to study what large herbivores are eating (as well as their behaviour and weather conditions) — especially in remote regions. (Photo: frostnip, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
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It’s a whole lot more pleasant than sorting through caribou poop. A newly published study in Ecology and Evolution saw scientists researching caribou diets by equipping 30 female caribou from the Fortymile Herd with their own GPS-activated cameras — essentially a GoPro for caribou.

The cameras were attached in 2018 and 2019 to females in the Fortymile Herd, which ranges across eastern Alaska and into Yukon. They were designed to fall off in the summer of 2021, sending location signals that allowed researchers to retrieve them.

Turns out, caribou do a whole lot of eating (43.5 per cent of their time, to be exact). This was no surprise. What intrigued scientists was exactly what they ate — and when. In winter, they ate mainly lichen, but in summer they switched over to shrubs, a more nutritious and protein-filled repast. This was good news in that shrubs are spreading northward with climate change.

But the cameras also shone a spotlight on how a warming climate is making life easier for one of the caribou’s most annoying harassers — insects. The cameras showed clouds of insects affecting the caribou by July, forcing the animals to spend less time feeding and more time moving as they tried to outrun the insects. 

Animal-borne video cameras provide an exciting opportunity to study what large herbivores are eating (as well as their behaviour and weather conditions) — especially in remote regions. 

Flyway patrol

The Listening Together project will record and analyze bird calls — particularly those of the Canada warbler and the Leach's storm petrel, two at-risk species. (Photo: Ric McArthur, CC BY-NC 2.0)
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A new citizen-science project is charting ‘avian highways’ and other important habitats in Nova Scotia. Armed with audio recorders and artificial intelligence technology, the Listening Together project will record and analyze bird calls — particularly those of the Canada warbler and the Leach’s storm petrel, two at-risk species. While habit protection efforts often focus on breeding grounds, this project will look at identifying and protecting the habitats along migratory routes where birds like the warbler spend half their year. In the case of the Leach’s storm petrel, the focus will be on identifying nesting sites on remote islands.

The recorders are the size of a bar of soap and can be placed in a water-proof plastic bag. They are hung on a tree or post, where they record the sound of passing birds. AI software takes care of the rest, using machine learning to pick out the relevant bird calls. The audio recorders being used are simple, sturdy and inexpensive — with the dual benefit of providing more data and allowing citizens to participate directly in data collection. Two birds, one stone!

Astro-nuts

Ground squirrel metabolsism mechanisms could have implications for space travel. (Photo: Dustin Ginetz/Can Geo Photo Club)
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Astronauts may have something to learn from a surprising — and furry — new source. When ground squirrels hibernate in the winter, they stop eating until springtime. This involves living solely off fat reserves in a state of prolonged fasting and inactivity. For years, researchers have theorised on the mechanism that allows the animal to do this without significant loss of muscle mass.

New research conducted at the Université de Montréal suggests the unique way that ground squirrels do this could have implications for space travel. The researchers studied the thirteen-lined ground squirrel, common in North America, and confirmed the theory known as urea nitrogen salvage. The theory posits that animals that hibernate metabolically use their gut microbes to recycle the nitrogen present in urea — a waste compound usually excreted as urine — and use it to build muscle tissue proteins.

The findings could help astronauts minimise the loss of muscle mass caused by microgravity-induced suppression of protein synthesis — a process that astronauts now try to combat through vigorous exercise aboard their spacecraft.

Augmenting astronauts’ muscle protein synthesis processes using urea nitrogen salvage could have benefits for muscle health during long space flights and in spaces without room for exercise equipment.

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