Wolves are secretive creatures, so it’s rare to catch a glimpse of their comings and goings. But scientists in northern Minnesota are changing that—using GPS technology to create vivid maps of gray wolf pack territories in the state’s Voyageurs National Park.
It took six wolves fitted with GPS collars (five males and one female), a summer’s worth of data, and tens of thousands of pinged locations to produce the stunning map.
Biologists have long known that wolves are deeply territorial, with ranges stretching from 50 to at times 1,000 square miles, and trekking dozens of miles in a single day. But to see—on a granular level— how these wolves are traveling is another thing entirely.
“With these collars, we can watch where six different wolves in different packs are traveling every 20 minutes for six to seven months of the year,” Thomas Gable, a researcher with the Voyageurs Wolf Project and PhD student at the University of Minnesota, told Motherboard in an email. “That is incredible.”
One of the wolves, from the “Moonshadow Pack” and whose movements are shown in white, noticeable veered off into two neighboring territories.
“Why this wolf made more of these movements than some of the other wolves I don’t know,” Gable said, referring to this behavior as an “extra-territorial foray,” which is common among juveniles who are considering leaving their own pack.
Two of the wolves can also be seen crossing a highway shown on the map, while a third—shown in red—stayed exclusively on one side of the road.
When asked about this on the Voyageurs Wolf Project’s Facebook Page, Gable responded that it’s possible “the combination the highway and how other pack territories were made the highway a perfect dividing line between two pack territories.”
Since 2015, the Voyageurs Wolf Project has used GPS collars and camera traps to document the habits of wolves in Minnesota where the species was nearly eradicated due to targeted hunting campaigns. A bounty on wolves continued in the state through 1965 until the 1970s when recovery programs under the Endangered Species Act allowed the animals to bounce back.
The project is a collaboration between the University of Minnesota and Voyageurs National Park, and receives funding from Minnesota Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund.
Through these efforts, the Voyageurs Wolf Project has learned that one wolf back has adapted to hunt freshwater fish as a seasonal food source in addition to deer and beaver, NPR wrote last year.
It was this wealth of data that inspired the new map.
“We have lots of interesting GPS collar data from wolves and I thought it would be neat to find ways to share that data and information with the public,” Gable said. “So I made a map that showed the movements of of these six packs, posted it on our Facebook Page, and it was a big hit.”