NATURE: Arctic Wolves
Earlier this year, Justin Anderson traveled with a team from the BBC Natural History Unit to Banks Island in the Canadian Western Arctic, in search of one of the landscape's most fascinating and elusive creatures; the arctic wolf.
Arctic wolves are a subspecies of the grey wolf. They have adapted to live in the high Arctic, north of the North American continent; a hostile but beautiful landscape.
Tracking the wolves in this vast, snow-covered landscape would be impossible for Justin and his colleagues on their own, so they employed the help of one of the last Inuvialuit hunters in the area, John Lucas, a skilled tracker and hunter, and also his son, Trevor.
Armed with John's knowledge of the area and the wolf's habits, Justin and his friends set out optimistically, using snow mobiles to help cover the vast landscape of snow and ice. But it's far from easy trying to find a white-coated creature in a white landscape, especially in sub zero temperatures.
Arctic wolves are specially adapted to the frozen landscape, having smaller, rounder ears than other wolves, shorter muzzles and slightly shorter legs so decreasing exposure of their extremities to the cold. Often weighing more than 100 pounds, they concentrate their body mass, an efficient way of staying warm. They even sleep out in the snow.
The wolves prey on caribou, arctic hares and musk oxen. Whilst an arctic wolf is unlikely to attack an adult musk ox, it will try and take a calf. In late spring, when the musk oxen gather with their calves to feed on the emerging vegetation, they act like a magnet for the wolf. Knowing this, Justin and his friends not only search for parties of musk ox and scavenging ravens, but also try tracking the wolves from prints left in the snow.
After enduring a fierce three day snow storm which confines the party to their tents, Justin's perseverance pays off. He enjoys an encounter with an inquisitive arctic fox which comes into the camp and an unforgettable sighting of a pair of arctic wolves.
The arctic wolves feature in a new BBC1 natural history series, Planet Earth, which begins on Sunday 5th March.
David L. Mech is a Senior Research Scientist with Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Centre. He has spent many years studying and writing about arctic wolves, and is recognized as one of the leading authorities on arctic wolves.
Further information about the Research Centre, arctic wolves and publications by David Mech