The snow is up to our knees as we trek across the valley bottom. “There’s some over here!” one of us announces, and the other shuffles over to examine the finding. A line of animal prints extends into the distance, weaving in and out of thick brush.
“Yeah, this one looks like a wolf. It’s too big for fox prints,” says the other one. We clear the GPS in preparation to map this length of tracks and trod off, knees high, through the deep snow. Immediately, the tracks turn towards an Atlas Cedar tree, and the snow at its base has been discolored by urine. While this is a good find, we are still hopeful that we will find the holy grail of samples: a fresh pile of wolf dung.
It takes a certain level of… maturity to spend your days searching for feces. Care is always taken to avoid touching any of the samples to eliminate contaminating it with our own DNA, and also for our own peace of mind. We use sticks or rocks to examine the sample to confirm if it looks to be from a wolf (and not the dreaded, cryptic wild boar, whose scat can look very similar at first glance) before collection. Several other canids, or wolf-like animals, also live in the forest, including foxes and domestic dogs, and feces from these animals may resemble that from a wolf. In these cases, we can use context clues, including content, size, and consistency, to deduce the species.
The winter has been particularly brutal this year, and many of the wildlife species may have been impacted by the severity of the cold. But we bundled up and braved the snow to see if we could collect any data on the health of the wolves during the blizzards. Would the wolves starve as their prey dies off or hides? Would they switch to seeds or berries? Or would they have more hunting success now that other animals were also weakened by the cold? Any question we have about the wolves’ health can be answered by looking at their feces. And with all the questions we have that need to be answered, we are going to need a bigger sample storage freezer.