Why we need more than science

This week, Dispatches from the Field is excited to feature a guest post from Dr. Laura Coristine.  In her post, Laura shares a bit about her early passion for working with one of the most charismatic megafauna out there: wolves.  To learn more about Laura, check out her bio at the end of the post.

My passion for science started with wolves. As an 11 year old I read every book on the topic that I could find. I hadn’t yet heard of journal articles; back then, finding my way to a university and wading through the stacks would have been a two-hour metro ride, and who knows what I would have found. Suffice it to say, the world was not connected. There was no information at anyone’s fingertips, unless they sought to become an expert.

Fast forward to university: by third year I was desperately contacting every researcher in North America who had ever studied wolves. I sent e-mails. I mailed letters. I made long distance phone calls. It was a full-time job, and finally, impressed by my determination, a researcher put me in touch with Canada’s foremost wolf expert. I was hired for the summer.

When I showed up for my first day, I was told I would be learning the secrets of what wolves eat. I was enchanted, for a very brief moment. And then came reality.  “Do you know,” I was asked, “that wolves eat vegetation and berries?”. Of course, I knew. I had first read that fact as a child. I have to confess though, that for someone reputedly intelligent enough for academia, I was remarkably slow to connect the dots. But finally it clicked: I had been hired to study wolf dung.

The job, in a nutshell, involved teasing apart differences between what different species of wolves ate through the seasons. I was rinsing and sterilizing wolf scat until the particulate matter had washed down the drain (the janitor was called almost daily to deal with the clogs in the sink). And at the end of this process, I was left with a tangle of hairs from the wolves’ prey – rabbit, beaver, and the occasional deer or moose and the even more occasional berry. Although I must say identification of hairs was fun, the process, in a nutshell, stank.

Then there was the process of assessing wolf skull morphology to assess hybridization and species composition of wolf packs. I thought this was a step up from the fecal analyses…but it turns out we were boiling wolf heads – road kill and hunting remnants – in a vat until the meat fell off. I became vegetarian after that task.

In the field and on the trail of wolves at last! Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

But finally, as a reward for my patience with unappealing lab tasks, I was let loose into the field to sample wolf vocalizations for my honours project, which aimed to replicate a study conducted 30 years earlier. My supervisor was convinced that with better methodology and better sound recording equipment, we might see new results.

Through each night of August, I chased wolf packs and coyote-wolf hybrids across the Madawaska Plains of Ontario.  After staking out known pack territories during the day, my field assistant and I followed a rigorous protocol of night-time howling and waiting for wolves to respond.  I learned the crack and waver of a wolf call, the higher pitch of a coyote, and the excited yips of the youngest wolves.

The crowning moment of my field season, though, was the evening a small farming community invited us to a corn roast before letting us roam through a farmer’s field to collect our audio recordings.

It was a quiet night; my call raised only a single howl, rapidly swallowed by the inky dark of a rural night sky.  We waited.  And waited.  Waiting was not part of the protocol – we were supposed to move on, but we had been told that this was the place to find our wolves.

And then I jumped.  There, off to the side, was a flash of eyes, and then another.  Not a sound. But as I turned slowly in a circle, I realized that we were surrounded on all sides.  Breath catching, we were held immobile by a circle of glowing wolf eyes.

There is a tension between human and nature – at least for a human who has not grown up completely inside of nature.  My mind turned to Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, to Russian folktales of wolves chasing man, human fear warring with the scientific fact that no healthy wild wolf in North America had ever killed a human.  And then I howled, and the wolves howled back: long, wavering calls that rose and broke in a symphony of nature, until slowly, gradually, the wolves quieted and watched us.  Long moments of looking at each other across the farmer’s field, silence stretching out to eternity before their eyes winked out and disappeared.

There is a tension between human and nature. Photo credit: TJ Gooliiaff.

At the end of the summer, I was asked to return for a Master’s.  Despite the scat and the boiled skulls, the entire summer had been one of the most amazing educational experiences of my life. But I didn’t know how to break the news: science had already collected so much information on wolf ecology – what was left to discover? I couldn’t see myself returning for graduate studies to continue studying what we already knew.

Wolves, like many large mammals, are under threat from climate change, from habitat loss, and from human fear and persecution.  Wolf ecology, behavior, and diet are well known, well established.  When I was asked to return, I realized that sometimes it isn’t a matter of learning more about a species.  Instead, it is a matter of using the information we have to change policies and decisions about nature.

Dr. Laura Coristine is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. Her research focuses on ways to promote native species’ range movements in response to climate change. She is actively involved in efforts to inform Canada’s CBD2020 commitment to increase terrestrial and aquatic protected areas. Her research has been featured on Quirks and Quarks, and various other online, radio, and television media. ​On dark summer evenings, you can sometimes find her outside howling for wolves. To hear more about her adventures, follow her on Twitter: @LauraCoristine.

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