Lone wolf: Canada’s newest marine mammal

Globe and Mail
Chris Darimont, Chris Genovali and Paul Paquet
March 13, 2009

Where does biodiversity come from and how can we preserve it? These are fundamental questions the answers to which conservation scientists now seek at a frenetic pace. Why? Because the planet – Canada included – is rapidly running out of diversity. And in the face of this abrupt loss, plans (and especially action) to preserve it are failing miserably.

This week, our team of conservation scientists from the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and several universities revealed in the Journal of Biogeography a previously unknown source of biodiversity. Knowing that conservation science by definition ought to transcend academia, our goal is to let Canadians know what they are poised to lose if urgent measures are not taken to protect this newly identified biological treasure.

Deep in British Columbia’s coastal temperate rain forests, an area known as the Great Bear Rainforest, roams a wolf like none other. Our data set, drawn from nearly a decade of our non-invasive work, combines genetic information with a summary of the unique ecological, morphological and behavioural characteristics of these special wolves.

Genetically, wolves nestled in the moist forests west of the coastal mountains are the most divergent population in western North America. In fact, these rain-forest wolves are more differentiated from the western continent’s two subspecies than the subspecies are from one another, even though previous taxonomy had placed coastal wolves in one of these subspecies.

Why is this so? The ecological environment in the Great Bear Rainforest differs markedly from any other that the species inhabits worldwide. Where else on the planet do you find swimming, salmon- and seal-eating, island-hopping, tiny deer-munching, red-coloured, small-skulled wolves? Nowhere else does this “phenotypic,” or observable, diversity exist in wolves.  And, critically, we show how the ecology on the coast drives the genetic differences we observe in wolves.

If, as our research and an emerging body of evidence suggest, ecology drives genetic differences, then the striking inference is that the ecologically distinctive Great Bear Rainforest likely gives refuge to many more genetically unique animals and plants. In this way, one animal (the wolf) provides us with a key insight into an entire ecosystem.

We think this inference is valid. After all, if any animal is capable of dispersing from the coast into interior habitat and vice versa (and, in dong so, dilute genetic differences between areas), it’s the highly mobile wolf. But the genetic data indicate this is not so, and that suggests using the wolf was a highly conservative test of the area’s potential to harbour many more unique life forms.

Given their marine-oriented lifestyle, and with tongue planted somewhat firmly in cheek, we like to think of coastal wolves as “Canada’s newest marine mammal.” Not so far-fetched, though, when you consider that polar bears are officially designated likewise.

Semantics aside, we argue that the unique genetics, ecology and behaviour of coastal wolves satisfy strict criteria for this population to be recognized as an “evolutionarily significant unit.” This designation is a recent and innovative classification used by scientists to differentiate unique populations within species. In many ways, it is a more informative equivalent of the older “subspecies” classification system and, in theory, grants protection and special conservation status to populations.

But how about in practice? This new information comes at a critical time when the future of nearly 70 per cent of the Great Bear Rainforest is being deliberated by government, industry, first nations and environmentalists. The stated intent is to institute some form of ecosystem-based management; in the view of many scientists, including Raincoast’s, this proposal is seriously flawed. It more closely represents minor adjustments to the status quo and commercial clear-cut logging and does little to ensure the persistence of sensitive, wide-ranging carnivores such as wolves.

So, knowing a little more about biodiversity and steps we ought to take to preserve it, the question is: Will resource-extraction industries continue to be granted a licence to despoil the remaining ancient forests of coastal B.C. and the irreplaceable biological treasures they sustain?

Chris Darimont and Paul Paquet hold academic positions at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the University of Calgary, respectively, and serve as conservation scientists for the Raincoast Conservation Foundation in Victoria. Chris Genovali is executive director of Raincoast.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.