Each week, I try to pick one of the many photos on the Explore.org Gallery pages.  This week I have selected an image from Tina Warne.  The photo shows Axel on the right with a slight food defensive face towards Grayson on the left. While it often appears that Grayson has to wait for dinner, we do monitor scats and see that he gets his fair share of food (even if it has to be a post feeding chicken breakfast).  On Thursday night, staff fed 2 beaver to the Exhibit Pack.  The Vermilion Community College Wolf Ethology class was on site learning the data collection techniques and software to begin their spring assessment of the dynamics between Axel and Grayson.  This is a trial period for a new data collection app that we hope to adopt for the pup introduction.  We will post data results from the students research during their final exam period in May.

For each log, I try to select a photo from the Explore.org Gallery that represents the weekly behavior of the Exhibit Pack.  Thanks to “jdy4wildlife” for posting this image of Grayson resting near his deer carcass.  Notice the outstretched paw that signals to the scavengers that he still has possession even though he is trying to nap.   This past week has been our first real blast of winter weather, with a polar vortex delivering some 25-30 below zero air temperatures.  Wolf Specialist Abby Keller provided some good details on wolf adaptations to cold climates.

Our wolves are all subspecies that are equipped to handle subzero temps in the wild! Gray wolves have an insulating undercoat with guard hairs to keep them warm in extreme temps. In the winter, they also develop a thick layer of body fat to keep them insulated. The paws of gray wolves are covered with fur that insulates their paw pads and increases traction on slippery surfaces. Their paws are also a kept at a lower temperature than their core body heat, minimizing the amount of heat loss in extremities. Blood that flows into the paws naturally heats up the blood returning to the heart; this phenomenon is referred to as countercurrent heat exchange. This saves metabolic energy and prevents the core from cooling down due to heat loss at the extremities. This mechanism is also found in penguins!

That being said, we do our best to offer as much comfort to them as possible. All of our wolves have 24/7 access to enclosed areas that block the wind and keep out snow. They also have several dens that the can use to rest in if they so choose. We provide multiple beds of hay for them to rest on off of the cold ground, as well as increased meals to keep their metabolism up, thus increasing their core body temp.

With the Center being closed throughout the early winter due to COVID restrictions, Axel and Grayson seemed very interested in the return of visitors to the Center by late January.  They positioned themselves at the windows, watching the activity as visitors made some face-to-face connections, especially those exuberant younger visitors.  As the Center went back to the “What’s for Dinner” program, we switched from smaller, more frequent feedings to the larger deer torso feedings.  This created some interesting rank-order behaviors between Axel and Grayson who have been posturing for some rank since Denali retired.   Grayson seems to be increasing his confidence without Denali’s intimidating presence.  With Grayson’s tendency for bonding, we are very interested to see how he interacts with the pups next summer.

This week’s Explore.org Gallery image is a photo of Axel and Grayson in a duel scent roll.  Apparently, they killed a small mammal in the enclosure and spent a significant amount of time tossing it and scent rolling.   We recently reviewed a publication entitled: Grey wolf may show signs of self-awareness with the sniff
test of self-recognition co-authored by Karen Davis from Wolf Park (originator of the Wolf Ethogram that we frequently use).  We are definitely interested in learning the motivations of wolf behaviors.

In this preliminary study, wolves showed some signs of the ability to recognize themselves
through the “olfactory mirror” and exhibited some clues of mark-directed responses,
particularly scent-rolling, which may shed more light on this still unclear behavior
and represent a sort of olfactory equivalent to passing the original mirror test.

Since we established the partnership with Explore.org in 2020, we have definitely been enjoying the many images submitted by the viewers in their Gallery.  I search the gallery to get an indication of the behaviors, feeding patterns, and overall dynamics of the Exhibit.  This week’s photo shows the “Interspecific (between species)” interaction between a raven and Axel.  I would like to thank Explore.org camera viewer “mashaka2020” for sharing this mirror moment between two social species.

We are still experiencing some warmer than average January Weather. Not only has it been stimulating wolves in an interesting way, but it has also been beautiful to photograph.  You may have noticed some recent facebook posts by staff showing the “Hoarfrost” back drop of the trees in our Exhibit Pack.

According to the definition on Britannica.com

Hoarfrost, deposit of ice crystals on objects exposed to the free air, such as grass blades, tree branches, or leaves. It is formed by direct condensation of water vapour to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when air is brought to its frost point by cooling.

With these background images, the wolves have been providing many behaviors to interpret. Normally January is filled with dominance, but this warmer weather is bring out a more social, bonding behavior.  There are many bouts of chase, resting in close proximity, nose to nose moments that are not part of our usual winter dynamics.  Will this behavior continue?  We will wait and see as a cold front is approaching and returning our winter norm temperatures back to zero and below.  To find out how the winter dynamics will change, log in to our website and join us for the “Winter Dynamics” webinar on February 4th at 4 pm Central time or sign up for the entire Webinar Series of 14 webinars, with many including the dynamics of our 2021 pup adoption.

Photo by Tanya Roerick

While we had snow in early October, the post-holiday winter has been a pattern of limited snow and warmer than average conditions.  Even though we still think it’s winter, the thick coat of these arctic wolves may make some of these mild days a bit too warm for much activity.  We have been observing  a lot of rest periods during the day when the wolves would normally be active, but like clockwork, they always seem to get up at 4 pm.  Visitors to the Center’s webcam or Explore.org’s two Exhibit cams will catch the action of the day.  Here are some examples  from recent Explore.org gallery posts.

Thanks for all of your support this past year.  We are grateful for the support of the Explore.org folks and their many, many images in the gallery of Axel and Grayson.  As arctic subspecies, they definitely thrive in winter conditions.

Photo by Sherry Jokinen. Trouble Identifying Axel? Look for the longer, straighter muzzle

Winter is officially here on December 21st, although snow and cold arrived in October.  Wolves tend to increase dominance during this seasonal change and in the months to come, we expect more dynamic interactions.  This is typically a time of posturing tails, barring teeth and loud vocalizations that is part of wolf communication.  In this week’s image, there’s several things to notice.  Grayson (on the right) has his lip curled over his canine, his ears pricked forward, but slightly turned to the side in intimidation and his hackles are raised.  This is a pretty direct threat display that catches Axel off guard a bit as indicated his his ears turned in a more sideways position.  While this may look like they are fighting, this method of expressing dominance makes it clear which wolf is higher ranking and actually avoids more scuffles for rank.   With this small social group of two brothers, Axel is the more dominant wolf, but as we make plans to adopt pups and add to the pack in 2021, there may be opportunities for rank to change.  Time will tell, but for now, staff record data and photograph and track the communication.

This week’s image was captured by Michelle Wagner from the Center’s Exhibit Webcam.  While we had snow early in the season, the recent dry spell has left ground frozen with no insulating value in the snow.  To make our wolves comfortable, we provide a layer of straw that insulates from the cold and the darker color absorbs the winter sun.  Axel is on the right and Grayson is on the left in this photo.  Recently, we fed a deer hide as an enrichment for the wolves and Grayson spend a fair amount of time plucking the hair from the hide and layered his straw bed with deer hair.  It certainly added an additional layer of comfort to the bed.