First steps ...

(21.04.2017, Alexander Martzok)

Photo: Akshay Rao Image 1 of 3 Open lightbox

The aim of my own little scientific expedition to the WSC was to observe the behaviour of wolves close by. I have been interested in these animals for a long time but until now I got my knowledge about them only from documentations and popular texts. In my bachelor project I worked with desert locusts but after that it was time to make some new experience as a future behavioural- researcher. I wanted to work with canids that have fascinated me for so long. Although I have informed myself about the behaviour of canivores, I was still kind of trapped into the cliché of the wolf as a fearless hunter.

Well this picture was turned upside down when I arrived at the WSC. Of course it was not possible to actually observe the wolf on a real hunt but I was surprised how gentle most of the animals were in the interaction with humans and conspecifics but even more that some of them showed anxiety behaviour against humans or even foreign objects. Every wolf, just as every dog living here in the wild park has its individual character. So my first task was not only to get to know the wolves as a species but also every single animal under our care.

Most fascinating were the contradictions, which I could observe on the animals. There is Kaspar for example, he is the leader of the oldest pack, who seemed not to fear anything and has his own idea how our tests have to proceed. Especially the “whelp”- pack (who are actually no whelps any more) gives an insight into contractive characters. Maikan and Etu have nearly the same weight but latter appears taller by his voluminous fur. An illusion you can easily be fooled by, as both weigh the same. Every time I came near to their home enclosure, Maikan disappeared between the bushes while Etu approached the fence to check what was actually going on. I was wondering how Maikan seemed to dominate Etu, while he was not one of the bravest wolves compared to him. Short time after my first observation we went on a paid walk with Etu and I was surprised by his behaviour.  He was not only submissive to every other wolf pack we passed but also to some of the dogs. He was crouching down so deeply, I was wondering how he was still able to move forward. His gait reminded me at one of a lizard’s walk. In contrast to this Etu showed no fear to new objects in the area or to foreign persons, a behaviour that is very common among wolves and actually an important survival strategy, especially against human persecutors. One easily forgets to not simply compare the behaviour of these animals to the criteria of our own species. Fear of human or foreign objects might be weak in our eyes but in the wilderness it means not to expose oneself to unnecessary dangers and could be an important fitness advantage.

But not only the existing circumstances were interesting, in the four weeks I spent here I could observe slight changes in the behaviour of some animals. Probably it is just my subjective impression, which has to be proved empirically, but I had the feeling there were small changes in the relationships in Tala's pack. How the name implements, Tala dominates the other pack members and when I arrived, our tallest wolf Chitto was very submissive to the female, his tail was between his rear legs and his head bend down. I observed a feeding where Tala would not let him come near to any food. But since one week it appears to me that Chitto showed far less submissive behaviour than before. When he interacts with Tala his tail is now at least above the plane of his back if not perpendicular a few times. A colleague told me, he even ridden up on her, a behaviour that is a gesture of dominance beyond the mating season.  But Tala seems not to be impressed by Chitto's new confidence. I never saw her in a submissive posture to Chitto and she still claims all the food for herself if possible.

I am looking forward how the relationship between this dyad and the rest of the pack will develop. I will use the coming months to increase my knowledge about wolves and to get more experience in handling dogs.