Wolf Mother

What is a mother? A mom, mum, mam (if you’re from the north east of England), or indeed mata if you want to be especially ‘posh’! Well, a formal definition is “a woman/female in relation to her child/offspring”. But, a mammalian mother is generally a little more than that – they are the parent with the highest investment in their offspring – producing a limited number of larger, energy demanding gametes, then (excluding echidna and platypus – the Monotremes!) investing large amounts of time and energy during gestation periods, and THEN producing milk to feed the wee offspring – not to mention all the other energy demanding maternal investment that comes with raising the offspring – grooming, vigilance and defence, play, teaching the list goes on – mothers invest a LOT in their offspring – fathers in comparison invest very little – yes, they can help raise the offspring – BUT, they don’t do the essentials of gestation and milk production! And thus, mothers, females are highly important for the longevity of a species – in theory (ignoring potential inbreeding) only one male is needed to produce many offspring with many females – consider a ‘harem‘ of females and a single dominant male – such as with Elk, Bison or indeed Grey seals! That one male can mate with all the females, and thus, produce many offspring in a single breeding period. But, if you have a plethora of males and only one female (who may only produce one offspring per year) then one, you will only get one offspring born per year, and two, the population growth will be extremely slow, and will likely decline – thus, may become defunct!! (Not groovey maaannnn, not groovey)……Right, now that we have covered some basics about parental investment – I want to discuss some incidents that occurred with Yellowstone’s wolves upon my return to Durham (UK), namely with 3 alpha female wolves, of the 8 Mile pack, the Prospect Peak pack, and the Canyon pack. Two of these females I had joyfully observed during my time in Yellowstone, and the other I spent many hours trying to find, but unfortunately, I missed her.

Five members of the 8 Mile pack (Photo credit: ER Hobkirk).

Five Prospect Peak pack wolves wandering across the frozen wilderness of the Lamar valley in Yellowstone – yep, they’re there, just well camouflaged! (Photo credit: ER Hobkirk)

Upon my return, I was informed about the tragic deaths of these 3 alpha females – now, although wolves live in packs comprising of males and females – it is typically only the alpha (dominant) females that will breed and produce offspring – they are usually the mother of the pack – the other pack members (typically younger, inexperienced subordinates, usually previous offspring) then help raise the new pups, allowing the mother to join in hunts, as it is typical for the alpha females to be older and more experienced, thus more able hunters, which increases the success (making a kill) of individual hunts and hopefully securing food for the pack (“for the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack”). Obviously, if the alpha female is the mother, then the alpha male is generally the father – and just like any family, mum and dad (the alpha pair) are in charge! The alpha pair have a division of labour’ between them and thus, both are essential for maintaining the stability of the pack – if one is lost, the pack falls apart – thus, the loss of these alpha females has a two pronged effect – the loss of leadership and the loss of the next generation of offspring…..

Canyon alpha female howling (Photo credit: L Leckie).

Sad to lose one alpha female, tragic to lose 3……the 8 Mile alpha female was killed by an elk, a natural form of mortality for any wild wolf as their prey is formidable – but, she was pregnant with five pups that were only days away from being born – thus, six Yellowstone wolves were lost when she died. The Prospect Peak alpha female was killed by others wolves (a different pack) again, a very natural form of mortality for any wild wolf, as wolves are highly territorial – yet, the Canyon alpha female did not succumb to a natural form mortality – she was, shockingly, found fatally injured in Mammoth Hot Springs (inside Yellowstone National Park), and Rangers had no choice but to dispatch her. Preliminary results show that she was shot by humans – illegally, as wolves are protected within the National Park, and so there is in fact a reward for information on how/who shot her (last reward update was $24000 US)…….the Canyon alpha female, although I didn’t get to see her while in Yellowstone, I learnt a lot about her and desperately wanted to see her as I had developed a huge amount of respect and admiration for this girl. She was a pure white wolf, dubbed the “White Lady”, and one who had way surpassed the average lifespan for a Yellowstone wolf – she was 12-years-old – Yellowstone wolves are lucky to make it past five years due to natural mortalities. But, this girl was 12 and had produced many offspring in her time, she was in every sense of the word, precious, and she deserved a more dignified death, not a death at the hands of ‘man’.

“‘Man’ has responsibility, not power – Tuscarora proverb

The beautiful ‘White Lady’, may her spirit be forever felt within the howls of her offspring………(Photo credit: L Leckie).

It is difficult to understand why someone would gun-down such an amazing, beautiful animal – and why they left her to suffer in pain before being euthanised – why they would kill a mother…..As a behavioural ecologist I struggle to understand the behaviour of humans at times, but, as a scientist I strive to find the answers to the things we do not understand – and with wolves there is an inherent lack of education detailing the truth about wolves, and a wealth of opposing ‘old wives tales’ and stories that humans still read and tell to their children today about ‘granny killing’, blood thirsty, evil wolves – which is far from the truth……I have spent quite a bit of time now around wolves – captive and wild – observing their behaviour in great detail – and I can say with my hand on heart that wolves are enigmatic, intelligent, powerful, enduring (they never quit), caring (they help each other), loyal, extremely funny, charismatic, inspirational, and shy – they fear humans and avoid them at all costs – they never seek out humans to attack, they do not lay in wait for humans attack – if they smell, hear or see humans approaching them, they will run to get as far away as possible from them – and that includes captive wolves that are habituated to human presence. I truly wish people could see wolves the way I do, the way I have always seen them – hopefully my research will allow many people to see what I see – and to see through the eyes of a wolf…..

“A starving man will eat with the wolf” – Oklahoma proverb

Elana in Yellowstone, being captivated by wild wolves (Photo credit: S Jones).

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