What are your thoughts when you think of wolves?
Pest and predator of your lambs and calves? Spiritual guides? Symbols of resilience and community?
Perhaps an intricate tapestry of these and other reactions.
Your answer can be any of these and of course, much more. And if you raise livestock,you may have the first response: that of a shepherd guarding their flock, where survival of your own animals takes precedence.
Nevertheless, wolves have fascinated us for thousands of years.
That’s why Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature is currently presenting Wolves! Shapeshifters in a Changing World, until 18 March, 2024. (https://bit.ly/3ThaqeW)
As we enter the exhibition, we hear the howls of wolves… or, is that my imagination at work?
And, that’s the thing; while experiencing this show, we’re welcomed into the wolfian world of shapeshifting, of fascinating science – and remarkable experiences revealed by First Nations accounts and artwork.
Wolves are elusive. Sometimes they are fleetingly glimpsed by us, where hairs on the back of our neck prickle to their howls and shadowy presence.
Or, if we are patient, sometimes nature reveals itself. Ottawa photographer Michelle Valberg is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, and is Canadian Geographic’s photographer-in-residence. She spent months researching wolves of Canada’s West Coast, sometimes sitting in a blind for days, hoping for a glimpse of wolves.
Patience was rewarded: Valberg’s photos of wolves transfix us. My reactions: I perceive deep intelligence and assessment as I gaze into the eyes of her wolf subjects. And the teeth! Certainly to be both admired and respected.
In fact, respect and admiration are my reactions not only to her amazing photographs, but also to the mammals themselves.
Museum signage explains that wolves evolved from weasel-like carnivores which lived approximately 66 million years ago.
Grey wolves entered North America 1 million to 700,000 years ago, crossing the Beringia land mass which connected Russia’s Lena River to Canada’s Mackenzie River. Now, wolves are the most widely distributed of the worlds’ land mammals.
Wolves remain keystone species, defined as being “one whose impact outweighs its abundance. In the case of wolves, their presence is felt throughout an environment. Wolf predation reduces populations of large plant-eating animals. This sets off a chain reaction of effects on countless other organisms.” (Museum signage)In the USA’s Yellowstone National Park, wolves were eradicated in the early 1900s. The consequence? Elk populations boomed, where overgrazing decimated wild flora, affecting the biodiversity of the parkland. Between 1995 and 1997, forty-one wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, stabilizing the elk populations. Chris Wilmers, wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, noted, “Elk aren’t starving to death anymore.” (https://on.natgeo.com/3LjpE17)
In ideal conditions, wolves can smell their prey at a distance of 2.4 km.
Wolves and coyotes do interbreed, a fact which many people have doubted. “Wolves and coyotes share the same ancestry and can interbreed. Gaining wolf DNA has caused northeastern coyotes to develop bigger bodies, increasing their ability to feed on larger prey such as white-tailed deer.” (Museum fact sheet)
The title of the exhibition echoes wolves’ tenacious ability to adapt to that one unavoidable constant in all Earth’s creatures’ lives: change.
Anthropomorphic change – change that human beings have wrought on Earth — is such a reality that our present Era is named the Anthropocene. The Yellowstone example dramatically demonstrates how humans’ fear of wolves caused the government to put a bounty on their heads such that they were shot. Then? Quelle surprise! We didn’t know what we were doing, of course, so we were compelled to reintroduce wolves into their natural environment when we realized what damage we’d wrought.
We don’t appear to be the brightest sparks in the universe.
Fortunately, wolves adapt. To us.
Will they adapt to the vagaries of climate change? Will we? My bet is the wolves will…
Katharine Fletcher loves wolves and exploring her natural world. To discover her visual art, which includes wolves and other wildlife, visit her at: facebook.com/KatharineFletcherArtist/