Wolf, caribou scat offers vital clues to migration, possible renewal

Scientists are combing the backcountry of Ontario this winter scooping up samples of wolf and caribou scat, hoping the DNA-rich pellets will provide precious clues into the lives of these endangered species.

The collection is part of ongoing efforts to capture the important data far less invasively than by trapping or collaring the animals. Every winter for the past few years, scientists have flown by helicopter over parts of the province and landed where they have spotted certain tracks. They then follow the tracks on foot and bag the scat along the way. That way they can capture the samples they need without ever having to frighten or interact with the animals in any way.

Genetic fingerprints

“This genetic information gives us one more layer of information to help us understand and manage [these species at risk] across the province,” says ecologist Steve Kingston, who is studying forest-dwelling woodland caribou in Slate Islands Provincial Park, south of Terrace Bay.

“By capturing these scat samples we can actually get what I call the fingerprints of animals.  We then use this information to estimate the number of animals on the Slate Islands.  We can also see if they are coming back to the same places to have their calves (what we call site fidelity) or if perhaps they are going to the same location in the winter time.”

Reasons for decline

Both the eastern wolf and forest-dwelling woodland caribou are being studied due to their significant decline in Ontario over the last century. Past over-hunting and an increased human footprint have partially caused the decline, which in turn has affected the biodiversity and ecosystems these animals help to create.

By collecting DNA samples found in wolf and caribou scat, scientists can further study the decline of the animals, map existing migration, breeding and feeding patterns to examine where and why they are moving and collect enough data to perhaps one day reverse the decline.

“One recent benefit of having the caribou genetic information from the Slate Islands is that we now have the opportunity to track how well a small group of animals survive on the mainland having crossed the ice during last year’s cold winter.  This small group of caribou is of particular interest because they were not exposed to predators like wolves or bears on the Slate Islands, but will be on the mainland,” says Kingston.

The work is part of an overall Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry strategy to study the decline and assess the way ahead.

The wolf study in Central Ontario by Dr. Patterson is also revealing some fascinating facts about eastern wolf distribution with respect to protected areas and possible ways to conserve the species.

The objectives of the study is to ensure ecologically sustainable wolf populations, provide for social, cultural and economic benefits based on ecologically sustainable wolf populations and increase public awareness and understanding about the role of wolves in natural functioning ecosystems and their conservation in Ontario.

Dr. Patterson describes that the ‘Non-invasive scat sampling and subsequent genetic fingerprinting of the animals that deposited these scats is an important tool that helps us monitor the distribution of wolves, coyotes and hybrids across Ontario.  Linking an animal’s genotype to the type of habitat the scat was found in also provides important insight into the habitat requirements of these animals.  Results to date clearly show that eastern wolves require relatively large protected areas for population persistence.’

Both the eastern wolf and forest-dwelling caribou studies are being conducted in partnership with the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre at Trent University in Peterborough.

For more information on the eastern wolf, click here.

For more information on the forest-dwelling caribou, click here.