How exactly do lone wolves spend warm spring days, when food is plentiful and there are no pups to look after?
For generations, researchers have struggled to follow the elusive predators after the snow melts, when the animals split away from their packs to wander or to hunker down in the thick undergrowth of the northern Minnesota woods.
Now with stronger and better equipment and tracking devices, biologists have been getting a closer look at the lives of wolves in summer. And for one wolf, anyway, it seems that warm and sunny days are meant for fishing.
"And sleeping," said Tom Gable, project lead of the University of Minnesota's Voyageurs Wolf Project. "Wolves spend a lot of time sleeping."
Researchers attached a video camera to the collar of a wild wolf for the first time in Minnesota last spring before letting him loose in Voyageurs National Park. The camera's battery lasted one month, taking 30-second video clips every hour during daylight, providing something of a wolf-guided tour of the park. The Voyageurs Wolf Project is releasing a three-minute highlight reel of the footage on Wednesday.
The wolf most likely didn't belong to any of the park's established packs, and researchers couldn't tell where he came from or where he went once the camera's battery died. (Then the GPS-equipped collar popped off and researchers recovered it.)
What was surprising was how fond the wolf was of the Ash River, hunting and waiting at its shallow pools for spawning white suckers to rise. The camera showed him eating at least three of the fish in between long hours of naps.
The river at that point is little more than a small creek and not an obvious source of food, Gable said.
Several years ago, U researchers found a wolf pack hunting fish in the park and thought it might be an anomaly — that the parents of one pack discovered how to fish the small rivers and creeks of the park and taught their offspring. But that a lone wolf was able to wander into Voyageurs and immediately catch fish shows how adaptable the predators are, Gable said.
"It speaks to the flexibility of their diets and how quickly they can respond to different food sources," Gable said.
"That's likely why they're able to occupy such a wide variety of ecosystems."
Most large predators hunt in one of two ways. They either stalk and ambush their prey, like a wildcat or cougar, or they chase down their food, outlasting it during long sprints, like a cheetah. Part of what makes wolves special is that they're just as comfortable doing both, Gable said.
During the scarcity of winter, wolves tend to hunt in packs, chasing moose and other large prey. But during the spring and summer they seem to hunt and eat entirely alone, ambushing fawns and moose calves, picking off beavers, pulling up spawning fish or even eating berries.
The camera project was funded by the state's Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The U is seeking more money to add cameras in the coming years.
While researchers hope the footage will bring new insights into how wolves hunt and fish, the largest benefit of the project may be letting the public see the wild through a wolf's eyes, said Joseph Bump, wolf researcher with the U.
"We might gain some insights into their activities, but we're really trying to see the world as they see it, and experience the North Woods as they do," Bump said. "This is a chance for us all to see snippets of the daily life of a wolf."
Greg Stanley • 612-673-4882