Thursday, April 28, 2011

Denning Season Is Here Again

It’s that time of year again. The days are growing longer and notably warmer, and field biologists with the Red Wolf Recovery Program find themselves spending the majority of their days climbing, crawling, and wriggling under the hot sun through some of the most inhospitable habitat imaginable. Ticks, chiggers, horseflies, poison ivy, and entanglements of briars are just a few of the obstacles in their path as they embark on this year’s search for a fuzzy new generation of red wolves. Despite the unpleasantries, denning season is without a doubt the highlight of the year for biologists. It is this new recruitment of red wolf puppies each spring that essentially represents the fruits of the previous year’s labor. Each year, the number of new wolf litters allows biologists to gauge how successful the previous year’s efforts were in trapping and tracking wolves, dealing with mortalities, forming new pairs, and preventing hybridization.

[Red wolf pups approx. 7 days old. Photo: R. Nordsven/USFWS]

This year’s den search got off to a nice start. The first two litters found were of partially unknown parentage. Of course, the maternal sides of the pups’ pedigrees were known. It was the paternal side that was in question. Fortunately, blood results indicated that the puppies from both litters were indeed pure red wolves and not wolf/coyote hybrids. This was great news, and it gave us a new sense of optimism right out of the gate regarding this year’s denning season. Adding to our optimism was the fact that both of the females were first time mothers, having taken over as the new breeding females after the deaths of their own mothers. We weren’t sure if we would get litters out of these females this year, so again, it was a great start.

[Taking a blood sample from a Milltail Pack pup. Photo: D.J. Sharp]

The next litter discovered was from the Milltail Pack on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. There were no pedigree questions here as we knew who both parents were. And it was even more good news when we found seven healthy puppies. An average red wolf litter is four pups, so a litter of seven is always a welcome sight.

[Red wolf pups approx. 12 days old. Photo: R. Nordsven/USFWS]

Additional litters were found during the next several days; the current count stands at nine litters and 37 pups, with a few more possible litters yet to be found. Following a tough year of losing a number of breeding wolves due to premature mortality, this is shaping up to be a surprisingly good year of pup production. -- Ryan


  1. Absolutely too cute. This is such a wonderful project. As the pups mature, will all stay in the area or will some be captured and relocated?

  2. Although a few pups may remain in their natal territory their entire lives (e.g., females that become the new breeding female upon the death of their respective mothers), most wolves disperse from their natal territory as they mature. The age of dispersal varies, but on average it is at about 18 months of age. The distance that they disperse also varies greatly. Some may disperse only a short distance to a neighboring territory, while others may travel great distances before choosing a place to settle down and find a mate. Since this is currently the only population of wild red wolves in the world, these wolves will not be relocated outside of the five counties in eastern North Carolina that are known as the Red Wolf Recovery Area. They may at times, however, be relocated within the recovery area for various reasons, for example, in an attempt to form a new breeding pair with another single wolf in the recovery area.

  3. Thank you for posting the story and the pictures. I'm very excited about the new puppies.