The International Wolf Center relies heavily on scientific research to provide facts about wolves that can be shared with the world. Radio telemetry is one such research technique that has dramatically expanded our knowledge of wolves. Visitors to the Center in Ely learn about radio telemetry by actually venturing into the forest to track wild wolves. While this is the most exciting way to learn about wolves and wolf research, technology gives amateur researchers another alternative.
What is Radio Telemetry?
Radio tracking uses radio signals to locate animals and follow their movements. Scientists have used this method to learn about many species, including elephants, small birds, whales and wolves. More than 700 wolves have been tracked in northern Minnesota in this way since 1968.
First, a radio transmitter housed in a collar is attached to the animal. When data are collected and transmitted over a distance, the process is called “telemetry.” From a distance, the researcher uses a radio receiver and directional antenna to home-in on the signal and follow it to the collared animal. Wolves travel so far and wide that biologists usually use airplanes to track them.
First, the researcher live-traps a wolf. One method uses a foot-hold trap that has been modified to minimize injury to the wolf. The wolf is drugged so that it can be measured, given blood tests, fitted with a radio collar and released. The researcher can home-in on the collared wolf from about 30 miles away by airplane. Once the wolf is located, biologists record where the wolf is, what it is doing, and how large its pack is.
Radio telemetry is used in several ways. An activity detector in a special collar can be set to record the animal’s activity over a 36-hour period. Data can be downloaded by the researcher, who sends a coded signal to the collar and then listens to the collar’s reply. These special radio collars can also be equipped with darts holding a tranquilizer, which can be triggered from a distance. This allows researchers to easily recapture an animal.
Satellites are being used in telemetry too. One type of radio collar sends its signal to a satellite to forward the wolf’s location to a ground receiver. The newest collar uses a “Global Positioning System” (GPS) to read its location from satellites every 15 minutes and store the information, which is downloaded after the researcher sends a signal to drop the collar off the wolf.
What Have We Learned?
- Radio-tracking of wolves has produced information such as these important wolf facts:
- Wolf packs each live in separate territories. In Minnesota, territory sizes range from 30 to 150 square miles.
- Wolves in Minnesota usually disperse from the packs in which they are born at one to two years of age.
- Dispersing wolves may travel straight-line distances of more than 500 miles.
- Minnesota wolves have dispersed into Wisconsin and Michigan and helped repopulate those states.
- Dispersing wolves seek areas without wolves, find mates, and in this way start their own packs.
Our online tools help you track wild wolves through the seasons as they roam the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, U.S.A. It’s fun and easy to do–great for a year-round classroom or family activity.
Note: The ongoing wolf location data has been removed from our Web site. USGS researchers would like to minimize chances of their radio-collared wolves being killed.
If you are an educator or a student and need samples of wolf telemetry data for our Track Wild Wolves Kit, download the Track Wild Wolves Data. (Note you will need the Adobe Acrobat Reader to view these files. Download it free.)
We regret that we cannot make exceptions to provide this data. The data is the proprietary property of the research entity that collects it and the Center does not have permission to distribute it for any reason.
Read wolf background information to find out the approximate age, sex and current status of some of the wolves in the this study.
For an example of one wolf’s story, read Case Study – Wolf 381.
Information on the U.S. Geological Survey Project
The Biological Resources Division of the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS), formerly the Division of Wildlife Research of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has been studying the wolf population trend in the central Superior National Forest around Ely, Minnesota since 1968. Dr. L. David Mech and Dr. Shannon Barber-Meyer are the primary scientists involved.
The main method involves live-trapping, drugging, radio-collaring, aerially radio-tracking and counting members of several packs (families). Each pack usually occupies about 30-100 square miles (an area about 5-10 miles across).
Data is usually collected weekly by employees of the USGS. Data collection is sometimes delayed by weather interfering with aerial flights, rigorous field work schedules, or lack of funding. When available for posting online, data is sent to the International Wolf Center. The budget for the project is very low, so the biologists cannot afford to follow the wolves as often as they may like. Thus, there will be large gaps in the data. Wolves that are farthest away will be followed the least.
Another reason why entries may stop being added to the data list is because some wolves disperse, or leave the area and travel hundreds of miles away. They are seeking new areas and mates to form their own packs. It is too expensive to follow them, so USGS biologists must give up gathering data about these animals.
Other times, wolves die from starvation, by fighting with other wolves, or sometimes illegally or accidentally by humans. When that happens, we will post a notice as soon as possible.
These data are presented for schools and others for learning exercises. Although they are real and generally accurate, their complete accuracy and completeness is not guaranteed. They represent examples of actual data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey scientists, who will analyze them and prepare results for scientific publication. They are not meant to be used by others attempting scientific research.
The data you have secured from www.wolf.org have not received Director’s approval and as such are provisioned and subject to revision. The data are released on the condition that neither the USGS nor the United States Government may be held liable for any damages resulting from its authorized or unauthorized use.