Hot Topics in Science: Wolves Eating Otters?

Every month, on the second week of the block, there is a Hot Topics in Science discussion at Quest. This discussion is a space where faculty and staff get to share their work and research with the Quest community. This past block the presentation was done by Dr. Chris Neufeld and was titled Life and Death on a Small Island: Novel Interactions Between Wolves, Sea Otters, and People in Kyuquot Sound, BC. Neufeld is a faculty member of the life sciences, with a BS in Biology from University of Victoria and a PhD in Ecology from the University of Alberta. He teaches a variety of courses at Quest in areas such as marine ecology, community ecology, and research methods. His latest presentation was about his research and a field course that he recently taught, called Behavioral Ecology.

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Photo credit: Chris Neufeld

This past summer, Neufeld and twelve Quest students headed to Kyuquot Sound in British Columbia to document interesting animal behavior. During this class students researched an animal of their choosing, did an in-the-field ID quiz, and spent time kayaking and boating to observe sea otters and seabirds. In addition, together they spent some quality time where they got to cook and eat meals together.

After this class, Neufeld returned to Kyuquot Sound to conduct his own research. He discovered that there were rumors amongst the Kyuquot population about wolves eating otters around the region. This was intriguing because both are top predators, wolves on land and otters in the ocean, and usually both species remain in their regular habitats. He went out to investigate whether there was actually an interaction between these two species.

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Photo credit: Chris Neufeld

Neufeld surveyed the islands by doing the glamorous work of scientists: collecting wolf poop. He went through the trails, which were used both by humans and wolves, collecting poop and otter carcasses samples.  In addition, to track the wolves’ activity, he placed camouflaged and silent cameras around the islands registering pictures every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day.

After analyzing the pictures, he discovered two wolves with a litter of 8 pups. This is a sign that there is plenty of food available, since wolves will only have pups if there is an abundance of resources. Even though the research is not conclusive because they did not catch any images of the wolves eating the otters, the analysis at the lab and the abundant number of pups suggests that the wolves might indeed be eating the otters.

Photo credit: Chris Neufeld

When asked about the next steps for this research Neufeld says the task is two-fold. First, it is necessary to identify everything that is in the poop samples collected and determine how much of the scat contains sea otter fur or bones. Second, run genetic and microscopic analyses on the otter remains to determine the age and sex of the otter carcasses consumed by the wolves. He plans to continue this work throughout the year, possibly with the help of student volunteers.

Photo credit: Chris Neufeld

Behavioral Ecology is just one of the field classes offered at Quest. Another example is Quest for Antarctica, in which students spend a block on a boat going to shore collecting data, doing readings, talking to professional researchers, presenting, and perhaps even swimming. There is also a class called Classics in the Aegean, in which students travel around Turkey visiting major sites, presenting and discussing philosophy. These aforementioned courses are only three of the many field courses that are taught at Quest ( Thanks to Quest’s block program these courses usually run for one month, which would have not been possible elsewhere due to conflicting schedules with courses running parallel.

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