wolves in wolves clothing
June 11, 2014

Wolves From British Columbia’s Mainland And Coast Are Genetically Distinct

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In a rare mix of Heiltsuk First Nation wisdom and scientific curiosity, a new study from the University of Calgary has revealed that British Columbia's mainland and coastal wolves are two distinct populations.

UC alumna Erin Navid led the study published in a recent issue of BMC Ecology, which was motivated by the insight of Chester Starr, an elder of the Heiltsuk First Nation on BC's remote west coast. Starr and his people have always known that the mainland of the coast is the home of the "Timber Wolves" and the nearby islands are the home of the "Coastal Wolves."

"What makes this study special is the fact that differentiation is not supposed to occur on such a small-scale," says Navid, who graduated from the Faculty of Environmental Design, Environmental Science Program in 2009. "Wolves are highly mobile animals, capable of crossing many types of natural barriers, including small bodies of water. We did not expect to uncover a genetic gradient in an area that is only 2,000 square kilometers [775 square miles] and relatively permeable to wolf movement."

Significantly different ecological environments are the main cause for the genetic differentiation, according to the study. Preferences for food are passed from generation to generation. On the islands, the main food source is marine-based, such as salmon and marine mammals. Over time, wolves with a preference for these foods bred more frequently with one another than with their deer-loving relatives on the mainland.

Navid collected wolf scats as part of her masters' thesis in the Faculty of Environmental Design, and then analyzed them for the study.

Navid and her colleagues assert that their discovery should underline the importance of incorporating traditional ecological perspectives, like that of Starr and his people, with empirical scientific methods. "An emerging mutual recognition is that although indigenous and scientific approaches constitute different paths to knowledge, they are rooted in the same reality and provide complementary information," says Paul Paquet, an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary.

Combined approaches such as this would enhance researchers' ability to address conservation challenges and opportunities. For example, detailed information about the habits of animals in a given space could inform the efforts of landscape conservationists.

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