Column: Oak Bay’s mysterious guest generates multiple questions

Barbara Julian is local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here monthly about Oak Bay’s suburban wildlife.

  • Oct. 27, 2016 7:00 p.m.

Oak Bay is Dog City, so it is fitting that just offshore, dog’s ancestor paces. Why though did a wolf decide to take up residence on Discovery Island some four years ago?

Canis lupus (timber wolf) normally likes to live in a pack of two to 15 individuals. Isn’t this one lonely?

Presumably it finds enough to eat on Discovery and Chatham islands, but wolves are sociable, highly communicative and mutually co-operative animals. Is this one just a recluse, or does it sit in the fog on a lonely winter’s morning wondering how to get through that humming lit-up hinterland across the water which is Greater Victoria, and which smells menacingly of humanity?

How far away, Wolf may wonder, would there be some decent woodland and the company of its own kind?

In a pack, although only the alpha male and alpha female mate (what makes the alphas alpha, and how do they recognize each other?) every individual has a role in the hunt, in sentinel duty and in youth-minding. Oak Bay Wolf probably finds plenty of otter and mink to live on, but it would be interesting if biologists took a sample of its droppings to a lab where its diet could be analyzed.

Did the wolf go to Discovery in the first place in pursuit of a swimming deer? Setting off from where, exactly? A society of wolves living on the coast of the Great Bear Rainforest has uniquely learned to catch salmon off-shore, but that’s a specialized skill, as described in Ian McAllister’s fascinating 2007 book The Last Wild Wolves.

Wolves have long childhoods during which they are instructed by their mothers (who may have up to seven pups in a litter), and learn co-operative hunting strategies. There aren’t many salmon left off Oak Bay even if Wolf somehow learned to catch them, but wolves also scavenge the carcasses of dead seals and sea lions.

Wolves vocalize hundreds of signals, commands, warnings and entreaties, but they don’t bark as  domestic dogs do. Intriguingly, researchers in a Hungarian dog cognition lab have concluded that dogs invented barking as a way of communicating with humans, once they began the long project of inter-species bonding. They listen closely to their people, and try to talk back. The earliest domestic dog bones found by archaeologists are 14,000 years old, but dogs began separating from wolves (evolving through intermediary species) some 100,000 years ago.

When the Oak Bay wolf followed a party of visiting humans across Discovery Island one day in September, was it planning predation or merely wanting company, and feeling curious? After all, the nearest thing it had to a relative – a domestic dog — was part of the group. Was this wolf repeating the ancient behaviour of its ancestors who began the first bonding between humanity and another species?

Did that eons-old bonding start when curious ancient wolf followed curious ancient human, watching, smelling and listening from nearby islets or hilltops?

Does our wolf like its solitary existence on Discovery, or does it feel lonely? We don’t know, but if we did know its secrets the Oak Bay wolf wouldn’t be the mystery we so enjoy having on our doorstep — wild, close, and thinking unfathomable wolf thoughts.

Barbara Julian is local writer and nature enthusiast. She writes here monthly about Oak Bay’s suburban wildlife.

 

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