28 Aug “New” Wolves Discovered in British Columbia
The world is a highly studied and reported-on place, and it’s not often anymore that new megafauna are discovered. However, if you travel to British Columbia, you just may spot a recent scientifically recognized animal: the coastal wolf.
According to the results of a study published just two months ago, British Columbia’s mainland wolves and coastal wolves are more distinct than scientists previously thought. What makes this finding even more attention-getting is that not only were empirical scientific methods employed in the research but ecological perspectives gained from indigenous peoples. In fact, the impetus for the research came from common knowledge among First Nation tribes.
The research, which was published on June 10, 2014, in the scientific journal BMC Ecology, confirms what Chester Starr, a Heiltsuk First Nation elder on British Columbia’s remote west coast, and his people have always known: timber wolves occupy the mainland, but a separate type of wolf—known as “coastal”—lives on the nearby islands.
Previous to this study, which was conducted by Canadian and Polish researchers, conventional scientists made no distinction between the British Columbia wolves living in the two, distinct habitats. Ordinarily, genetic differentiation does not occur on such a small scale when wolves are living side by side. Wolves are highly mobile, capable of crossing many types of natural barriers, including small bodies of water. So, when a genetic gradient was discovered in an area that is only 772 square miles in size and relatively permeable to wolf movement, scientists were shocked.
It seems that despite their ability to travel great distances, coastal wolves didn’t. They stuck close to home, becoming more and more specialized to shoreside living. Ninety percent of the coastal wolves’ diet is made up of barnacles, clams, mussels, salmon and seals; while mainland wolves usually dine on deer, moose and beaver. Coastal wolves breed more frequently with one another and less often with their relatives on the mainland—so much so that it has created a genetic cline (or continuum) between island and mainland wolves. In fact, some are now even calling coastal wolves a separate subspecies.
Grizzly and polar bears may have gone through the same separation of paths that the coastal and mainland wolves are undertaking. It is thought that the two bear species diverged because polar bears evolved in regions where they relied on the sea to provide their food, while grizzly bears remained skilled at hunting on dry land. Similar to polar bears, coastal wolves have simply become adept at fishing, causing them to remain in marine landscapes. Chris Darimont, a professor at the University of Victoria and a researcher for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the results of this study demonstrate how ecological development might drive genetic differences. If the coastal wolves are recognized as marine mammals—similar to polar bears—there will be significant conservation implications, including introducing more protections for their habitat.
What may be even more important than the discovery of this new type of wolf is what the methodology of the study portends for the future of science. It could provide a new model for addressing today’s conservation challenges and opportunities. Although natural observations and “truths” learned from indigenous tribespeople and conventional scientific approaches follow vastly different paths, they can provide complementary information.
There are other recent examples in conservation efforts where indigenous methods are being employed alongside conventional scientific efforts. In 2010, after a decade-long drought in southeast Australia when the country’s greatest river basin, the Murray-Darling, dried up, aboriginal elders danced the spirit back into the land and healed the waters. The result was the largest flood surge in a hundred years. And in 2012, Robe Walker, a member of the White Clay tribe in Montana, helped reintroduce bison to the American Prairie Reserve by singing them out of a corral when they were reluctant to go.
Native Americans have also had a profound influence on modern forestry practices. In my home state of Wisconsin, the Menominee tribe has developed one of the highest-quality sustainable forests on the planet. Their forest management methods have garnered numerous awards from around the world. Today, foresters study their model and incorporate their strategies into state and national forests across the country.
It’s an exciting trend in conservation science. If you know of other instances where indigenous ecological perspectives and knowledge have informed scientific studies, let us know in the comments section below.
Here’s to your adventures, in whatever corner of the world you find them,
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