Wolf Collaring Aids in Disease Research
The best way to track and monitor Yellowstone’s wolves year-round is with collars. They are invaluable in monitoring wolves that travel great distances, often in rugged and inaccessible terrain. VHF and GPS collars enable Park biologists to collect important information about individual wolves, wolf packs, and their impact on many components of the ecosystem. In addition to the data collection that collars make possible, there is an added benefit: researchers gather vital information during the capture and collaring process itself.
When individual wolves are helicopter darted and briefly handled for collar placement, researchers can determine size, age, sex, breeding status, and condition of each wolf. They also take blood and other samples for disease research and genetic analysis.
The Yellowstone Wolf Project’s disease research is ongoing, and much of it hinges on data gathered during collaring. The blood and other samples biologists extract are analyzed for evidence of parvovirus, distemper, and infectious canine hepatitis. They also perform systematic checks for mange during this opportunity for handling and close visual observation.
Published studies in 2009 indicate that mange is showing increased prevalence in the Yellowstone wolf population. Mange is an infectious skin disease caused by a mite (Sarcoptes scabei) that causes severe itching and an allergic response. The infected animal scratches and chews its skin for relief, causing hair loss, crusted skin, and open sores, which can lead to systemic infection and risk of hypothermia due to exposure.
Mange has been identified in at least 95 individual Yellowstone wolves over the past nine years. While the disease is suspected as the cause of death in several animals, the good news is that many of the wolves seem to fully recover.
The Wolf Project is closely monitoring this disease, in large part during collaring operations. They hope to begin a study soon that will use infrared cameras during wolf capture to assess heat loss patterns, thereby evaluating the impact and severity of mange in the individual animal more effectively than with the naked eye alone.
Genetic Studies Help Predict Future of Wolves
Annual blood samples taken during collaring operations are also used to study genetic data such as genetic diversity, population structure, parentage and kinship, gene flow, and selection of fitness-related traits. This genetic data combines with ecological and behavioral data to support research on both evolutionary and ecological dynamics in the Yellowstone population.
This genetic data is not only important for gaining a better understanding of the species as a whole, but also the degrees to which subpopulations are genetically structured and connected. Adequate preservation of genetic variation is an important conservation concern. While much of the evaluation of the effectiveness of Yellowstone wolf reintroduction in study areas in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho has been based upon population and breeding-pair counts in those areas, there are equally important genetic factors. Biologists look at the diversity of the wolf gene pool necessary to help predict the long-term health of the wild wolf population in the larger ecosystem.
Read the Yellowstone Wolf Project annual report to learn more about the various studies made possible by wolf collars, as well as additional research relying on direct observation.
One of the most significant ways the Yellowstone Park Foundation has contributed to the ongoing monitoring and research of Yellowstone wolves is through the Wolf Collar Sponsorship program. The program offers a unique way for donors to participate directly in wolf research and conservation.
Top photo: Matt Metz