Thursday, July 12, 2012

Study: Wolverines need refrigerators

Will insects and bacteria consume more of the wolverine's food if the climate warms?

Wolverines live in harsh conditions; they range over large areas of cold mountainous low-productivity habitat with persistent snow. The paper suggests wolverines take advantage of the crevices and boulders of the mountainous terrain, as well as the snow cover to cache and "refrigerate" food sources such as elk, caribou, moose and mountain goat carrion, ground squirrels and other food collected during more plentiful times of year. These cold, structured chambers provide protection of the food supply from scavengers, insects and bacteria. In addition, the refrigerated caches increase the predictability of available food resources, reduce the energy spent by females searching for food while in lactation phase, and decrease the time mothers spend away from cubs.

The paper appears in the current edition of the Journal of Mammalogy and was co-authored by Robert M. Inman of WCS, Audrey J. Magoun of Wildlife Research and Management, Jens Persson of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Jenny Mattisson of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

"People don't normally think of insects and microbes as being in competition for food with wolverines," said lead author Robert Inman of the Wildlife Conservation Society's North America Program. "But in fact, bacteria will devour an unprotected food source if that source is available."

Through an extensive literary review, the authors noted that wolverine reproduction is confined to a brief period of the year, and the lactation phase in females (February through April) corresponds to a period of low availability of food resources. Wolverines, which are opportunistic foragers, have adapted by amassing food caches during the preceding winter months when food is more readily available. Without the cached food supply or an unforeseen alternative (such as a winter-killed ungulate), early litter loss occurs.

Inman said, "Understanding why and how wolverines exist where they do and the various adaptations they have evolved to eke out a living will better inform population management strategies and conservation of the species."

Climate change will play a key role in management planning for the conservation of wolverines, the authors say.

In a study published in 2010, wolverine biologists demonstrated a relationship between the areas where wolverines exist (their distribution) and persistent snow cover. The first theory advanced was that wolverines must have deep snow available in springtime so that they can give birth to their small cubs in a warm, secure den. The newly released study suggests that other factors related to climate and snow pack, such as competition for food, may also be involved in explaining the limits to wolverine distribution.

Because of their dependence on snow pack, wolverines were recently listed as warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act due in large part to the threat of climate change reducing distribution and habitat connectivity. The authors say that a deeper understanding of how and why wolverines use snow pack the ways they do is critical to understanding how climate change will impact survival and reproductive rates.

"Shedding light on the specific mechanism of how climate will affect wolverines is important in order to know what to do to help them hold on," said WCS's North America Program Director, Jodi Hilty.

Inman and co-authors published a study in December of 2011 on the spatial ecology of wolverines in the Journal of Wildlife Management. This latest paper represents the second of several that will help to inform a conservation strategy for the species.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Iberian wolf lives close to humans more for refuge than for prey

The Iberian wolf lives in increasingly humanised landscapes, with limited food resources and its presence is not always welcome. But, according to Spanish researchers, food availability plays a secondary role compared to landscape characteristics, which can offer refuge and allow wolves to remain in human-dominated environments in Galicia.

The habitat of the Iberian wolf (Canis lupus signatus) varies greatly across the Iberian Peninsula and its diet revolves around what is available, ranging from wild animals to domestic waste. In contrast, this predator is able to survive in humanised landscapes where characteristics provide them refuge from humans.

"Although the wolf boasts highly adaptable strategies for survival, landscape is the factor we have analysed that best explains their distribution across Galicia," as explained to SINC by Luis Llaneza, researcher at Asesores en Recursos Naturales (A.RE.NA.) and lead author of the study published in the 'Diversity and Distributions' journal.

His research has allowed for the analysis of the relative influence of landscape attributes, human presence and food resources and the existence of wolves over an area of 30.000 km2 in the north-west of the Peninsula.

The scientists concentrated on indirect signs of the animal to identify their distribution in Galicia. In total, 1,594 excrement samples were analysed, which were then verified using DNA molecular analysis to locate them in the territory.

The results revealed that landscape properties are decisive in terms of animal safety at a level of 48%, whereas the presence of humans (buildings and roads) is influential at a level of 35% and food availability as 17%. Llaneza says that "as long as tolerated by humans, the wolf can be found in any place where there is refuge and food."

According to the scientists' model, the presence of wolves would increase if there were more semi-wild horses and wild ungulates. As the authors outline, "the amount of semi-wild horses in Galicia could be a key factor determining the presence of wolves in areas where wild prey or other food sources area not so abundant."

A safe refuge for the wolf

After studying the effect of altitude, land orography and refuge availability, researchers demonstrated that these mammals require their habitat to be a plant mosaic containing vegetation of more than 50 centimetres in height (bushes and shrubs) to hide in.

"These animals remain in Spain and little by little we are beginning to understand how they survive in human-dominated areas," says Llaneza. The study reveals that wolves choose high places that are difficult to access, such as areas where vegetation provides refuge from humans.

"The density of vegetation allows wolves to go unnoticed by humans", adds the researcher, who recalls that humans are the known cause of wolf death in 91% of instances. Some 65% of wolves are killed on the road, 20% by poaching and 6% by legal hunting.

With the participation of the University of Santiago de Compostela and the DoƱana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC), the research team concludes that a set of variables and data analysed explains only 20% of wolf distribution in Galicia. Their next undertaking will be the study of other factors that influence wolf survival in humanised areas, such as the extent to which they are tolerated.