How smart exactly are wolves? As some readers will know, I posted yesterday on one archaeologist’s investigation of the shadowy origins of dogs, and that led me into a short discussion of wolf behavior. Today, I’d like to share a great wolf anecdote I heard while attending a recent talk in Vancouver given by acclaimed environmental writer Andrew Nikiforuk (an old friend of mine) and conservationist Ian McAllister. While this post strays a little from the customary terrain of this blog–archaeology and history–I hope that you will bear with me.
McAllister has been studying the wolf populations that roam the northern British Columbia coast. Superbly adapted to coastal living, these wolves have devised rather novel ways of hunting. Instead of stalking primarily big game such as deer, these canines have developed a huge appetite for seafood. One of their favorite prey is salmon.
During the great salmon runs, McAllister noted, he has spied dozens of dead salmon at a time lying on the banks of salmon streams–the result of one night’s hunting. The wolves capture the fish, carry them ashore and then neatly, almost surgically, decapitate them, eating only the fat-rich head.
To prove his point, McAllister showed a photo he had taken of one such kill site, littered with the headless bodies of salmon. I found it utterly fascinating. Below you will find a short YouTube video of a wolf hunting a salmon.
There’s been a lot of talk around our dinner table lately about a fascinating new book entitled The Philosopher and the Wolf. Half autobiography, half philosophical meditation, the book explores the intense relationship that University of Miami philosopher Mark Rowlands had with a wolf that he naively adopted as a cub. As Rowlands recounts it, Brenin the wolf was a superb companion, but as a true pack animal he could not tolerate solitude.
Indeed, Rowlands could not leave his wolf alone anywhere. When once he left Brenin in his jeep during a ferry trip, the frustrated animal began to literally eat his way through the vehicle, shredding seats and seat belts and gnawing away the roof. There wasn’t much left of the interior when Brenin was done. So Rowlands learned to take his wolf with him everywhere, even into the classroom.
I thought of this anecdote today as I was read an intriguing news article about the work of archaeologist Jeff Blick. Blick, who teaches at Georgia College & State University, is an expert on prehistoric dogs. He has spent much of the past two decades analyzing the skeletons of 112 dogs that he and his colleagues excavated from the Weyanoke site in Virginia. It is, by all reports, the largest collection of prehistoric dog skeletons in North America.
Blick, who much prefers cats to dogs in his private life, has learned an awful lot about these 1000-year-old canines. The dogs were about the size of a modern Shetland sheep dog, and while some were sacrificed, at least one was buried at the feet of its owner. They dined on fish, turkey, and turtle meat, and they may well have been barkless. Many of the early Europeans in the Americas commented on the fact that the native dogs didn’t let out barks; instead they tended to howl like their wolf ancestors. (And for those of you who have never heard what a wolf sounds like, please click here.)
Blick is interested in the question of where and how dogs were first domesticated. Some research suggests that eastern Asians were the first to domesticate wolves and that their faithful pets followed them on a long cold trek across Beringia to the New World. Other research points to an origin in northern Africa. Blick himself now hypotheses that people in North America and other parts of the world independently domesticated dogs and he is now trying to gather ancient canine DNA to test the idea.
All this of course begs the biggest question of all in my mind. Why did humans first tame wolves and turn them into dogs? I’m beginning to think that wolves themselves had at least a small say in the matter. They didn’t want to be alone.