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Genetics results add new insight to indigenous knowledge about wolves

Research published today in the open access journal BMC Ecology affirms indigenous knowledge long held by the Heiltsuk First Nation. Heiltsuk elder Chester Starr had long maintained that 'timber wolves' occupied the mainland of the British Columbia coast, Canada, whereas a different group of 'coastal wolves' lived on nearby islands. In this article, a collaboration of wildlife scientists and geneticists provide new genetic evidence that these groups of wolves appear to be distinct, complementing Starr's knowledge.

Chester, known as 'Lone Wolf' in his community of Bella Bella, had worked with the researchers studying wolves for nearly a decade. The idea that closely occurring populations, separated by small bodies of easily-crossed water, were distinct did not fit well with the current understanding of wolf biology. The research team at first dismissed it.

The scientists used tiny amounts of DNA, extracted from wolf faeces, to follow up on Chester's assertion. As he predicted, the team observed a genetic difference between mainland and island wolves.

Dr Chris Darimont, Hakai-Raincoast professor at the University of Victoria and a scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation says: "As scientists we should be skeptical, not dismissive. Earlier in my career, I had assumed that ecological knowledge could only come from science. I was wrong, and it's exciting to learn from this and similar experiences with indigenous colleagues"

The profoundly different ecological environments likely created this pattern. Islands offer wolves more marine foods, like salmon and marine mammals. Over time, the seafood-consuming island wolves bred more frequently with one another and less frequently with their deer-loving relatives on the mainland.

Dr. Paul Paquet, Senior Scientist at Raincoast and adjunct professor at the University of Victoria says: "An emerging mutual recognition is that although indigenous and scientific approaches constitute different paths to knowledge, they are rooted in the same reality and provide complementary information"

The authors say that these approaches and the co-development of new insight are useful in addressing today's conservation challenges and opportunities. In this case, efforts at landscape conservation can be informed by detailed information about the habits of animals across space.


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Notes to Editor

Population genetic structure of gray wolves (Canis lupus) in a marine archipelago suggests island-mainland differentiation consistent with dietary niche
Astrid V. Stronen, Erin L. Navid, Michael S. Quinn, Paul C. Paquet, Heather M. Bryan, Chris T. Darimont 2014
BMC Ecology 2014, 14:11 doi:10.1186/1472-6785-14-11
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