Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Wolf man's departure?

By: Matthew Norman - Michigan Tech Lode

Rolf Peterson put the wolves of Isle Royale on the map – and did quite a bit to put Michigan Tech on the map in the process. Now, after 32 years of helming what has become one of the world’s best known and most highly regarded ongoing research projects, Peterson is retiring from his professorship. This doesn’t mean he’ll be spending any less time on Isle Royale, watching and studying the wolves he has come to be so closely associated with; in fact, Peterson will be concentrating solely on his research from now on, giving up only the teaching aspect of his professorship.

Incomplete though it may be, Peterson’s retirement has sparked a storm of national coverage, with an Associated Press article providing a retrospective of his career appearing in more than 100 papers and on countless websites nationwide – including the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, CNN.com, MSNBC, and Forbes.com.

It is just the latest bout of national attention for Peterson, who, according to many observers, has come to be to wolves what the legendary Jane Goodall was to Chimpanzees – a source of greater understanding, leading to greater public tolerance, appreciation and even admiration for the animals. He has also garnered comparison to Dian Fossey, whose work with Gorillas was immortalized in the film “Gorillas in the Mist.”

While there are no plans as of yet to shoot “Wolves in the Mist,” much of what Peterson has seen in his decades observing Isle Royale’s wolf population would translate well to the big screen. As Peterson explains, life in a small, isolated ecosystem like Isle Royale is harsh, with predators engaged in life or death competition for scarce prey. With wolves, this can have especially dramatic results – violent battles for territory between packs and for position within packs.

However, not all of the knowledge Peterson and his research teams have gleaned from Isle Royale fits with the image of wolves as fearsome killers. In fact, much of it has demonstrated the existence of remarkably strong family bonds within wolf packs. Wolf packs are, for the most part, a single family, headed by the mother and father. The parents, known as the alpha wolves, run a highly disciplined and coordinated group, and the result is a finely tuned hunting team.

Though the ancient mystique surrounding wolves has done a great deal to push Peterson’s work into the national spotlight, they are in fact only one half of Peterson’s focus. What has led to the Isle Royale study’s seminal importance in the scientific community is the fact that it tracks both wolves and their prey – which, on Isle Royale, happen to be moose. The relationship between wolves and moose on Isle Royale has become the best documented, longest running and most analyzed predator-prey relationship in the world. Its complex dynamics have produced as many new questions as new answers, but what answers it has provided have represented huge leaps in understanding. These understandings have found application in the study of a broad range of predator-prey systems, from lions and zebras to krill and copepods.

One lesson from the study has been the vital role wolves play in increasing the overall health of prey populations. “Probably the single most important thing we’ve learned is the very high degree of selectivity in wolf predation,” says Peterson. Wolves end up killing the sick and/or old among their prey, eliminating both congenital and contagious diseases in the process and leaving more food for the younger and healthier elements of the prey population.

This is not to say, however, that wolves are highly selective in the individual moose they pursue as prey. “They’ll look at every moose seriously,” says Peterson, giving chase in many cases. In the majority of instances they will fail to bring the prey down. Still, as Peterson explains, giving chase is the most efficient way for them to distinguish between the healthy and not-so-healthy prey. “Chasing is their test. It’s efficient for them because anatomically they are built to run. Of course, the prey are built to run too.” Still, the healthiest moose tend not to run at all notes Peterson. Though they can, in most cases, outrun the wolves, it is more efficient for them simply to stand their ground, using their sharp hooves to kick at any wolves coming to close for comfort.

Despite their seeming advantages, the moose of Isle Royale have been having a tough time of it recently. Moose populations have fallen to an all-time low on the island. Part of this has been due to growth in the wolf population, but the decline may be largely due to another feared culprit – global warming. The current trend of decline in moose populations coincides with a string of the mildest winters and warmest summers on record for Isle Royale. This effects moose in a number of ways, but perhaps the most significant is the effect on the winter tick population. Winter ticks, which are barely visible before gorging themselves on moose blood, are born en masse each Fall. The later the snowfall, the more time Winter Ticks have to hatch and find a moose to grab hold of. Winter ticks evolved alongside white-tail deer, which have evolved grooming methods to rid themselves of the pests. Moose, relative newcomers to the American continent, have no such methods, and can be seriously affected by ticks. One dead moose was found with an estimated 100,000 ticks.

The study has come to take on a life outside of science thanks to the political controversy surrounding wolves in many places. Peterson and others have provided important evidence for those arguing that wolves play a beneficiul role in the ecosystem. Chronic wasting disease among deer, for instance, has always ended right where wolf populations begin.
Peterson’s study has become a major enterprise, with several other MTU researchers focusing on it, and new avenues of exploration continually turning up. Currently, Peterson and others are starting to look into the DNA of the wolves.

Whatever directions the research takes, Peterson is sure to be an important part of it for years to come. This summer, he will stay in a small cabin on Isle Royale as he has for the last 35 summers. His company? His wife, and the wolves. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

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