The Weekly Wolf
I spent six years living with the wolves of
Each Monday, this page will feature a photograph and story
of these wolves or a fellow species from the gray wolf's ecosystem.
July 25, 2011
Things are thankfully starting to cool off here in the Northeast, so much so that I'd actually consider soaking up a little bit of the sunshine rather than running for cover in the shade. In the picture above, Hina is basking in the sun too. Normally, Hina was incredibly shy and would dash behind a tree at the first sign of strangers. But, when she was enjoying an early morning sun-bath, the rest of the world melted away and we were all treated to a glimps of a relaxed and smiling wolf.
July 18, 2011
Aurora is a feisty husky who has never let anyone push her around. Even on three legs, she has always been able to keep Rogue, her gigantic wolf-dog bully of a boyfriend, on the straight and narrow. While Mission:Wolf rarely rescues dogs, we made an exception for Aurora because, despite her doggy ancestry, looks and barking voice, she has always behaved more like a wolf than a domesticated dog. She is wary of anything new in her environment, skittish around humans, and always watchful for a chance to hunt and catch her own food (she lost her previous home for killing the neighbor's turkeys). It took me years of sitting outside her enclosure every day, schmoozing with friedlier Rogue, for Aurora to accept me into her pack... and even then she only occasionally lets me scratch an ear or a shoulder. I count myself lucky to be one of the few people to know just how soft and thick her beautiful coat is. On the morning I took this picture Aurora was being aloof and wolfy - much more concerned about soaking up the summer sun and watching for rabbits than with anything going on in the human world.
July 11, 2011
The rather ridiculous heat and humidity of summer in Boston is making me nostalgic for the chilly winter mornings I spent with the wolves at Mission:Wolf back in Colorado. While I don't miss the frozen toes or snow shoveling, I do miss waking up to 50 wolves howling their hearts out and watching the Sanger de Cristo Mountains turn bright pink in the rising sun. So for today's weekly wolf I've decided to feature this photo of Mowgli howling away during one of the fiercest snow storms I've ever encountered. When I'd gone to bed the night before, a few delicate snowflakes had just begun to fall. By the time I woke up the next morning there was four feet of the stuff! It took hours of hard work to shovel my way up the steep path to Mowgli's enclosure, but my reward for finally making it was a rousing chorus from the wolves. Mowgli led the howl with his baritone voice, soon joined by the stacatto barking of his wolf-dog mate Spirit and the more harmonious voices of the rest of the wolves.
July 4, 2011
Muskox (Ovibos moschatus) are strangely named, for they are not oxen and do not have musk glands. Their closest living relative is the North American mountain goat, and the adults look like small bison with very long, shaggy coats. That distinctive coat is made up of coarse guard hairs that grow almost to the ground and a fine, soft undercoat that serves as insulation against bitter arctic temperatures. Baby muskox are born with just their fuzzy undercoat and are the cutest things imaginable, resembling long-haired Shetland pony foals. Adult males stand four feet high at the shoulder, weigh 600-900 lbs, and are usually 6.5-8.2 feet long. Females are a little smaller: 3.5 feet tall, 400-600 lbs, and 4.5-6.5 feet long. Both sexes sport curving, scimitar-like horns that rest close to the skull and serve as effective defense against predators.
During the Pleistocene, muskox roamed the grasslands of northern Europe, Asia and North America (as far south as Ohio), alongside saber tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. With the end of the last ice age, most of the world’s extra-large mammals disappeared, but muskox persevered in the cold, secluded arctic tundra of Siberia, Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Today, no other hoofed animal lives as far north as the muskox.
After surviving over 200,000 years and outlasting the woolly mammoth, the sturdy muskox was almost eradicated by modern man. A combination of over hunting and climate fluctuation drove muskox to extinction in Alaska by the late 1800’s. Their characteristic defensive behavior of forming a tight, stationary ring around the calves when the herd is threatened works great for polar bears, wolves and grizzlies, but is a death sentence when faced by men with guns. By 1917 muskox hunting was banned in Canada and Greenland to preserve what was left of the herds. In 1934, the USFWS bought 34 muskox from Greenland and reintroduced them to Alaska’s Nunivak Island. Once the Nunivak population was large enough, the USFWS then transplanted 40 animals to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, forming the basis for today’s wild Alaskan herds. Now protected from hunting in most areas, the muskox has made a remarkable comeback to a world population estimate of 80,000-125,000 animals (with nearly 69,000 of those living on Banks Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories).
Over the last century a few small herds of muskox have been raised in captivity. They were introduced in Sweden, Norway and Siberia’s Taymyr Peninsula to help sustain subsistence living with their meat, milk and wool. In Alaska and Canada, muskox are kept solely for their wool - called qiviut (pronounced KIV-EE-UTE). During the winter a muskox’s soft undercoat can grow to be six inches thick, which is then shed in the summer. Commercial herders collect the shed undercoat and sell it to the native Oomingmak Musk Ox Producers’ Co-operative (www.qiviut.com), who then spin it into yarn and knit garments to sell. Qiviut is highly prized for its softness and insulation value - being eight times warmer than sheep’s wool and finer than cashmere. Since there are so few domesticated muskox and each adult animal only produces 5-7 pounds of wool each year, qiviut yarn sells for $40 - $80 per ounce.
In the wild muskox live in herds of 8-24 animals. Males (bulls) and females (cows) have strict, separate hierarchies with dominance usually based on age. In the summer larger herds break apart as dominant bulls challenge each other to establish harems of 6-7 cows and their offspring. During the breeding season (late July - August), bulls become more aggressive and assert their dominance over subordinates and cows through ritualized behavior, such as mock charges, roaring, swinging their heads, pawing the ground, and kicking with their front legs. When two dominant bulls meet, they fight for leadership of the harem by charging each other at over 35 mph and ramming their heads together, up to a dozen times. To withstand the force of these blows, bull muskox skulls are built like heavy armor. The central area of their skull, called a “boss,” is seven inches thick (4 inches of horn, and 3 inches of bone) to protect the brain from impact.
When the furry of breeding season subsides and the first cool nights of autumn approach, the small harems gather back together and subordinate males are allowed to rejoin the larger herd. For the rest of the fall, winter and spring, the females take over leadership of the group. While muskox do not migrate during the winter, staying within 50 miles of their summer range, they will move to windier, higher elevations during the winter to avoid deep snow. They survive on buried roots, mosses and lichens through the long winter months.
Then, after 8-9 months of gestation, muskox cows give birth in April and May. As the sun returns to the northland and the snows melt, muskox herds move down into the comparably lush river valleys to feast on willow and grasses. The small calves are protected by the mass of the herd, with their older relatives always ready to take on bears and wolves, but must be able to keep up with the adults as they search for food. Even though they have to grow fast to be ready for the harsh arctic winter, muskox calves typically nurse for over a year and remain dependent on their mothers for two. Then, once the two-year-old calf has reached maturity, its mother will be ready to join in the breeding season’s excitement once again.
I took this picture of a wild female muskox in Alaska just before breeding season. While the bulls were pushing each other around in the distance, she was soaking up the midnight sun (quite literally - I took the photo at 2 am) in a deep patch of willow. Even though the mosquitoes were driving me crazy, she didn’t seem fazed in the least. I was spellbound by the serenity of the tundra and spent hours watching her munch on willow. Finally the call of time and of unexplored places won out and I headed out to see what I could find along the arctic coastline.