In Ontario, researchers are investigating the interbreeding of eastern wolves and coyotes – and what that means for wolf conservation.

Story and photos by Neil Ever Osborne

Under a dense canopy of deciduous forest near Huntsville, Ont., John Benson disappeared into a hole in the orange-brown earth. He wriggled through three metres of the narrow underground den, paused momentarily, and then shifted back and muttered, “I can hear them scratching.” At the same time, a radio-collared female wolf patrolled a ridge at the forest’s edge 150 metres away. We knew this thanks to the rapidly pulsing beeps coming from a tracking apparatus held by one of Benson’s colleagues, who shared the animal’s proximity and direction with us.

Full-time field work — conducted year- round since 2008 — unfolds this way for Benson, a canid-focused biologist, and his crew, who use sophisticated instruments and innovative scientific methods, along with a painstaking number of hours in and above the bush to get their job done.

A PhD candidate at Trent University, Benson is collaborating with Brent Patterson, a research scientist at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, to study the mechanisms underlying hybridization — interbreeding — between wolves and coyotes in central Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park and adjacent areas west to Georgian Bay. Scientists have known for a while that eastern wolves interbreed with both coyotes and grey wolves. Little is known, however, about mechanisms that promote or inhibit interbreeding between these species, and the implications for the conservation of eastern wolf populations in Ontario that are at risk from factors such as habitat loss. Benson’s findings, soon to be published in peer-reviewed journals, might be the first attempt to untangle these complex questions.

But data collection is not your typical walk in the park. Benson and his research team capture wolves, coyotes and hybrids to deploy radio collars and obtain DNA samples that identify each individual animal’s genetic ancestry. They work primarily with eastern wolves (Canis lycaon), eastern coyotes (Canis latrans) and eastern wolf-coyote hybrids. But they also encounter and study larger hybrids of grey wolves (Canis lupus) and eastern wolves.

During the spring each year, collared animals are tracked to their dens to determine their reproductive success and find the newborn pups that can be implanted with radio transmitters, so their first-year survival rate and movements can be documented. Most of the newborn and adult animal tracking is completed through aerial surveys, allowing Benson to monitor signals from radio collars and internal transmitters, each with a different frequency so he can identify the wolves he is tracking. Individual frequencies also tell Benson whether animals are alive or dead, and let him home in on their position. To date, he has studied the movements of more than 220 wolves, coyotes and hybrids.

Field work continues through winter as Benson visits the locations of collared animals to determine predation patterns by observing deer and moose remains. He also counts tracks in the snow to estimate the number of animals in each pack, and collects non-invasive DNA samples, such as bits of fur, for pack members that have not been captured.

From this research, Benson is determining where wolves, coyotes and hybrids are found in the study area. He is comparing the survival and reproduction rates of these animals and investigating the influence of genetic ancestry and environmental conditions, as well as genetic-environmental interactions. Behaviour such as territoriality, mate choice and habitat selection is being examined in the context of these population dynamics.

When all this data is synthesized into a comprehensive model of hybridization dynamics, Benson and his colleagues should be in a position to evaluate the population viability of Algonquin-area eastern wolves in the face of hybridization with coyotes and grey wolves. He hopes his work will “open up new lines of questioning and highlight additional research needs which should help to direct future wolf and coyote research in and around Algonquin Park or elsewhere in Ontario.”

And watching Benson get pulled from the darkness of a den, helped by volunteers holding each leg, you get the sense he could very well be further involved.