Researcher studies Yellowstone wolf skeletons, offering clues about life in the pack
BILLINGS, Mont. — Yellowstone National Park wolves tend to be healthier than wolves in other areas, based on an examination of about 160 of their skeletons over the last three years, an expert says.
Sue Ware, a paleopathologist who works for the Denver Museum in Colorado, said her research also shows that Yellowstone wolves still confront diseases and injuries ranging from broken bones due to elk and bison kicks, to bites from other wolves and even cougars.
"One good thing about the research that I'm doing is that it provides another lens for looking at these wolves," said Ware, who has also studied the bones of wolves in Canada, Alaska and the upper Midwest. "It gives other researchers a little more information on each and every one of these guys. It's a pretty interesting story all around."
Ware has even studied the bones of dire wolves, a relative of the gray wolf that went extinct about 9,500 years ago in North America.
Ware said the bones of one Yellowstone wolf belonged to the alpha male of the Rose Creek pack. Ware found that it had loose, blunted and missing teeth, its muzzle was riddled with holes from a bone infection, and it had sustained an old injury from an elk kick.
But a week before its death, wolf watchers witnessed it hanging onto an elk during a hunt.
"I don't understand how an animal could live through this," said Ware. "He was never challenged for his position in the pack, and he was doing everything you would expect him to do in the pack."
Ware's research has also found that wolves, even while not fully healed from a previous injury, will still participate in the hunt, sometimes suffering a re-injury.
"One of the things that is most detrimental is re-injury," Ware told the Billings Gazette (http://bit.ly/njjNwF). "I see a lot of re-injured bones."
To conduct her research, Ware has the tissue removed from carcasses. Her research includes measuring details from bite marks to determine what kind of predator made it.
One of the wolves was "21M," the alpha male of the Druid Pack that lived to age 9 with cracked and worn teeth and an injury to the top of his skull.
She said "483F," a female of the Leopold and Geode Creek packs, had scars on the top of her skull that came from another wolf and probably a female cougar. Ware said the wolf survived those attacks but later died of a brain infection likely as a result of those injuries.