He was a lone wolf. The words conjure up images of a confident, independent-minded individual: autonomous, self-sufficient, neither needing nor wanting company.
The harsh reality proves otherwise, as witnessed by the unfortunate circumstances of the wolf that Julie described in her last column. Often living the epitome of a cooperative lifestyle, wolves work together to pull down game 10 times their size. They are not adapted to a solo life, and the one we trapped in February was no exception.
A small male, he had been traveling alone, his once long and full red-brown coat now eroded to short stubble over most of his body due to a mysterious affliction called follicular dysplasia. Only a plume of full fur over the back of his neck hinted at the magnificent coat he’d once had, one that would have kept him warm without shelter even with January temperatures averaging 20 below zero.
Most nonhibernating Arctic and sub-Arctic mammals maintain their body temperatures either by taking advantage of warmer conditions under the snow (voles, shrews, and to some extent marten, mink and the like), or by growing a luxurious coat.
Moose and caribou, with their long, hollow hair, can endure fairly severe temperatures without increasing energy requirements. Fur animals, including wolves, not only have long outer hairs but also grow a dense, downy undercoat that likewise prevents heat loss. Only if temperatures drop so far that even their fur and habits can’t keep body temperatures up do they start to burn extra energy for vital heat production, typically by shivering. That means either finding energy-sustaining food and a lot of it, or burning body fat while going hungry and losing weight and condition, making hunting even more challenging.
We know this wolf was driven by hunger. Most wolves have either learned by experience or been taught by other educated pack members to stay away from traps and snares. Many instinctively avoid any disturbance or human odor even if it smells of food. This one’s hunger overrode his caution as he scratched up lynx traps, trying to inactivate them so he could steal the grouse-and-rabbit bait.
Hungry animals take chances that well-fed ones will not. Starving wolves may drown crossing bad ice, traverse steep slopes of unstable snow only to die in an avalanche, get kicked to death trying to tackle a large animal solo, or invade the territory of another wolf pack only to get ripped to death by those indignant landholders. Or bumble into traps.
The loss of his coat must have cost him sorely this winter. Half an inch of thin fur covered his sides, while only quarter-inch-long fuzz protected other areas. During weeks of 20 below and 30 below temperatures, instead of energy-free warmth from his coat, he must have burned fat for body heat, increasing his caloric requirements.
First he burned his stored fat, and then he started burning his own body for survival. His empty belly tucked painfully up, and once-bulging muscles had wasted away, indicating early starvation. At roughly 70 pounds, the small male probably weighed at least 15 pounds less than he should have.
His hip bones and back bones protruded sharply, ribs etched in pronounced curves with their intercostal muscles sunken and free of any shred of fat. Instead of the muscles of his shoulder blades swelling powerfully, they lay deflated and sunken, sacrificed to maintain heat and life.
We don’t know why he was alone. Perhaps weakened by the energy demands of keeping warm he’d been unable to keep up with his pack. With a moderately-heavy snow pack, wolves should be having a relatively easy time taking down prey that are themselves weakened by burning extra energy pushing through deep powder and further stressed by malnutrition as their food becomes increasingly difficult to access.
Perhaps his mates ostracized him for some reason. Wolves often sport battle scars, and this one proved no exception. Indeed, numerous healed scars blemished his hide. The old wounds, on his legs, hind quarters, lower back and ears would have left nasty gashes, fully penetrating his skin. A patch of white fur high inside one hind leg bore witness to an injury severe enough to alter the color of newly-grown hair.
All these wounds are consistent with mauling by other wolves. Being killed by their own kind is a primary cause of death in wolves. Although usually caused by intra-pack conflicts, occasionally a pack member will be driven from his home pack. Had this fellow been cut from his own? Battled another pack? Or somehow been seriously dinged up in some other accident?
Of course, he could have just split temporarily from his home pack. His teeth suggested middle age or older: chipped and worn points, but lacking the severe breakage, wear and occasionally infection or decay we’d expect to see in a truly aged canine.
Wolf pelts in our area rarely make the top-quality fur parka ruffs that we use to prevent frostbite. Based on the small but long, fluffy fur on his neck, this wolf had once been one of the best. Follicular dysplasia had not only ruined his life, but also rendered his once-beautiful pelt valueless as a fur. Perhaps it still has worth for educational purposes in the Denali Park collection, where we plan to donate it.
A lone wolf indeed, who may have been doomed even before he encountered our trap.
Trappers and lifelong Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins live in Lake Minchumina.