Where, Oh Where, Do the Wild Wolves Wander?
AbstractIf you were leaving home for a long walk, how far would you go? One mile, 5 miles, 10 miles? How about 550 miles?! That's a long way, but some wolves have been known to travel that far when they are leaving their packs in search of a mate so they can form their own pack. But is that how far wolves normally travel? Try this wild wolf tracking science fair project to find out!
Determine the total size of a gray wolf pack's territory and whether the pack's movements change depending on the season.
Dr. Wikelski, PhD
Sandra Slutz, PhD, Science Buddies
This science fair project is based on this publication:
Strauss, Andrea Lorek, ed. Track Wild Wolves Activity Kit. Minnesota: International Wolf Center, 2005.
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Have you ever put a collar on a dog? Depending on the dog, it can be tricky to get the animal to stay still while you buckle the collar in place. Now imagine putting a collar on a wild wolf! As challenging and difficult as that task sounds, for some people, it's a routine part of their jobs.
Every summer, the wildlife biologists who work for the Biological Resources Division of the U.S. Geological Survey use safe, humane traps to catch wild wolves. Once caught, the wolves are anesthetized. Anesthetic drugs have varying effects, such as loss of sensation or loss of consciousness (sleep). When catching wolves, the biologists give them a type of anesthetic that causes them to fall asleep for a certain period of time. While the wolves sleep, they are fitted with radio collars. Each collar has a transmitter, which sends out a unique frequency. This is similar to how different radio stations each broadcast on a different radio wave frequency. When you want to listen to a particular radio station, you tune in to the broadcast signal using a radio, which is actually a type of receiver. If you want to listen to a different radio station, you change the receiver's (in this case your radio) settings to tune in to another frequency. Similarly, the radio collar of each wolf broadcasts a unique frequency and the biologists use antennas and receivers to tune in to those frequencies and use the strength of the signal to pinpoint the wolf's location. This system of using radio transmitters and receivers to track the movements of wildlife is called radio telemetry.
Figure 1. In this science fair project, you'll use real radio telemetry data to track the movements of packs of wild wolves, like the gray wolf shown here. (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2008.)
Using radio telemetry to find and follow specific animals has helped wildlife biologists learn many things about the gray wolves, which live in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, including where the wolves travel, what they eat, how much they move around, when they rest, how many wolves live together, and how often they come in contact with humans. From years of observation, biologists know that gray wolves live in packs. These packs usually consist of a group of 5–9 wolves. Two of the wolves, a male and female pair who are unrelated, are the dominant wolves. They mate and birth a litter of pups every year. The other wolves in the pack help feed and raise the wolf pups, but do not have any pups of their own. Often, the non-breeding wolves in a pack are older offspring of the dominant pair. These wolves will stay around for a couple of years before dispersing (leaving the pack) to find their own mates and start their own packs.
Wolves are territorial. Each wolf pack has a specific territory (area of land) in which it hunts for food, raises its pups, and that it defends from other wolf packs. How large do you think a wolf territory is? And do they use the same area of land all year around? Do they travel more in some seasons than in other seasons? These are the types of questions that wildlife biologists try to answer, and you can discover the answers, too, by analyzing the tracking data from real wild wolves! This science fair project will show you how to access, map, and analyze radio collar tracking data from two wolves belonging to the Pike Lake wolf pack in the Superior National Forest in Minnesota. Get ready to find out when and where those wild wolves wander!
Terms and Concepts
- Radio collar
- Radio telemetry
- Gray wolf
- Wolf pack
- Dominant wolf (sometimes called an alpha wolf)
- What is the structure of a wolf pack? Why do animals sometimes disperse (leave the pack)?
- What is the reproductive cycle of wolves? When do they breed and for how long do they gestate?
- What are the dietary needs of a wolf and how do they hunt their food?
- What is life like for a wolf pup as he or she "grows up"?
- How does radio telemetry work?
- What are some applications of radio telemetry?
This science fair project is based on this publication:
- Strauss, Andrea Lorek, ed. Track Wild Wolves Activity Kit. Minnesota: International Wolf Center, 2005.
To complete this science fair project, you'll need to use data from these websites:
- International Wolf Center. (2007, December 21). Background Information on the Wolves Involved in the U.S. Geological Survey Project. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/telemsearch/wolfinfo.asp
- International Wolf Center. (2008). Track Wild Wolves. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/telemsearch/vtelem/telem_main.asp
Additional information about gray wolves can be found by exploring these websites:
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, December 28). Gray Wolf. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 29, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gray_Wolf
- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. (2013). Gray Wolf factsheet. Retrieved February 21, 2013, from http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wolf/facts.html
These resources offer more information about radio telemetry:
- Michigan Department of Natural Resources. (n.d.). Radio Telemetry. Retrieved December 30, 2008, from http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12143-70426--,00.html
- Wikipedia Contributors. (2008, December 20). Telemetry. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved December 30, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Telemetry&oldid=259154035
For help creating graphs, try this website:
- National Center for Education Statistics, (n.d.). Create a Graph. Retrieved June 2, 2009, from http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/createagraph/
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Materials and Equipment
- Computer with Internet access
- Tracking Wild Wolves Activity Kit (1). Can be purchased from the International Wolf Center, product #8060. The kit includes:
- Activity booklet with several possible wolf tracking projects and information about wolves and how they are tracked.
- Map (1) of the Minnesota Superior National Forest. Note: If you are interested in trying more than one of the activities listed in the booklet, or more than one of the science fair project ideas listed in the Make It Your Own section, then you will need more maps. You can either make photocopies of the map included in the kit you buy, or purchase packages of additional maps from the International Wolf Center.
- Colored pencils or crayons. Total of 4 different colors, all of which are easy to see on the map and differentiate between.
- Lab notebook
- Graph paper
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Before beginning this science fair project, make sure you've read the "How do I plot wolf locations?" section (pages 7–9) of the activity booklet, which comes in the Track Wild Wolves Activity Kit.
In this science fair project, you will map the radio-telemetry-derived locations—based on information collected over the course of nearly two years—for two wolves from the Pike Lake wolf pack. The identification numbers of the wolves are: 879 and 881.
- To start this project, you should find out more about these particular wolves. Use the U.S. Geological Survey Project http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/telemsearch/wolfinfo.asp to look up the wolves' ages, genders, when they were fitted with a radio collar, and any other available information. Record the data in your lab notebook.
Use http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/telemsearch/vtelem/telem_main.asp to find out the locations of each wolf over the course of an approximately two-year period, starting November 6, 2002 and ending November 22, 2004.
- Select wolf identification number 879 from the pull-down menu. Search all dates since 11/06/02.
Record all the location data from 11/06/02 through 11/22/04 in a data table in your lab notebook. Make sure to include:
- Wolf ID
- Township number north (TN)
- Range west (RW)
- Section number (SE)
- Repeat the steps above for wolf number 881.
- Note: During some times of the year, when wolf hunting is allowed in some states, the database is unavailable. This protects actively radio-tagged wolves from being preferentially hunted. During those times you can still do this science project using the historical location data contained in this Telemetry Data pdf.
Mark each location data point (for each wolf) on the map. In the end, you should have one dot for each location data point listed in your data table.
Color-code the data points on the map, according to season. Mark data from both wolves in the same colors. Choose one color for each season:
- Fall (September–November)
- Winter (December–February
- Spring (March–May)
- Summer (June–August)
For each data point, decide which season it falls in and choose the appropriate color. Use the township number, range number, and section number to find the location on the map corresponding to the wolf's position for each data point.
- Follow the instructions on pages 7–9 of the activity booklet in the Track Wild Wolves Activity Kit to learn how to use the township, range, and section numbers to find a particular location.
- Put a large dot in the appropriate section number for each wolf location data point.
- Some sections may have been visited by the wolves in more than one season; these sections will have multiple dots, one for every season in which they were visited.
- Color-code the data points on the map, according to season. Mark data from both wolves in the same colors. Choose one color for each season:
Once you've marked all the data points on the map, for both wolves, mark the boundaries of the wolves' territory.
Use the color you've associated with each season to outline the boundaries of the territory for that season.
- To reduce confusion, you may want to only mark the external section lines, as shown in Figure 2.a.
If a particular section (or sections) on the map is part of the wolves' territory for more than one season, outline that section in all of the colors that represent the seasons when the wolves were located there.
- For example, in Figure 2.b., section 15 is part of the wolves' territory in three different seasons.
- Use the color you've associated with each season to outline the boundaries of the territory for that season.
Figure 2. The examples above show how the wolf territory should be outlined in a different color for each season. Figure 2.a. on the left shows the territory outlined for a single season. You may find that territories for different seasons overlap, like in the example in Figure 2.b. on the right.
Calculate the size of the wolves' territory and make a bar graph to represent the data.
- Count the number of sections in the wolves' territory to calculate the size of the territory. Each section on the map is equal to 1 square mile.
- There should be a total of five bars in your bar graph, one each for fall, winter, spring, summer, and one representing the total territory independent of season. Note: the total territory should not be calculated by just adding up the fall, winter, spring and summer territories. Do you know why? If not, look at your map again and Figure 2.b. to try to figure it out.
- If you need help making graphs, or would like to use an online program to make them on the computer and print them, try Create a Graph.
- Calculate the fraction (or percentage) of the total territory that the wolves use in each given season.
Use your map, calculations, and graphs to try to answer these questions. Note: there aren't any "right" or "wrong" answers to these questions. You're simply looking at the data and trying to describe any trends that might be there, and come up with hypotheses to explain those trends. That is exactly what scientists do.
- During which season do the wolves travel the most?
- During which season do they travel the least?
- Can you relate their level of activity to the annual cycle of when breeding, pup birthing, and raising young pups occur?
- Are there any important natural landmarks (water, areas that might have good food, etc.) that you can spot on the map which may explain why they stay in certain areas?
- You may want to test your hypothesis using data from other wolves. The second Variation, listed in the Make It Your Own section, offers a suggestion for two more wolves (in another pack) whose data you could use for hypothesis testing.
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- The U.S. Geological Survey Project http://www.wolf.org/wolves/experience/telemsearch/wolfinfo.asp includes information, when available, about how the wolves died. Analyze the data to determine what the most common cause of death is. Are certain types of death more frequent in certain areas? Hint: Map the last known location of dead wolves to find out. You may want to think of a color-coding scheme to help you analyze the data visually on the map.
- How do the territories of different wolf packs compare in size? Try the experiment above using wolves 879 and 881 from the Pike Lake pack and wolves 861 and 887 from the Birch Lake pack.
- Does the territory of a wolf pack change from year to year or does it stay the same? Plot the data from the Pike Lake pack, this time separating the data by year.
- Plot the data from several wolves associated (in the same time period) with the same pack. How often does the data suggest they travel together versus separately? Does time of year matter? How about gender?
Looking for more big data science projects? Explore the World of Big Data with Your Science Project!
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