A team based at the University of Victoria recently reported the results of a study in an area of British Columbia known as Bella Bella. The area includes a mainland land mass separated by water from five nearby islands. There appear to be two genetically distinct populations of wolves in this small area: a group on the mainland for which deer and other land animals were the primary prey, and another group on the islands, which were smaller and primarily hunted fish and sea animals. Science has long considered that populations in such close proximity must be essentially identical, since individuals can move between the populations relatively easily, but the study, which examined 116 individual wolves, identified a genetic difference between the two populations.
Researchers collaborated with members of the Heiltsuk First Nation living in the region, who have observed the wolves for nearly a decade. It was the locals who first tipped off the researchers to the existence of the two wolf populations: when the researchers announced their intention to study the local wolves, Heiltsuk elder Chester Starr “asked if [they]were going to study the ‘timber wolves’ of the mainland or the ‘coastal wolves’ of the islands”, said Dr. Chris Darimont, one of the researchers.
“I thought that was peculiar because the state of science at the time told us that there really shouldn’t be differences within wildlife populations across such a short distance, especially as wolves are fantastic swimmers.”
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