Yellowstone Wolves Appear to Be Adapting to Climate Change

Wolves in Yellowstone seem to be adapting to climate change, new research has suggested.

A study published in the Journal of Zoology on Wednesday found that their behavior at the scene of kills and their diets had changed over the past 50 years.

The scientists examined the data of the teeth of wolves in Alaska 50 years ago and compared them with wolf teeth data from contemporary packs in Yellowstone National Park.

What they found suggested that wolves could be adapting their feeding habits to meet challenges posed by climate change.

"We consider climate change may be a contributing factor," said one of the study's authors, Amanda Burtt of Indiana University's Anthropology Department.

"Decreased snow fall and rising temperatures limit optimal feeding opportunities for wolves and could result in more scavenging behaviors and/or the consumption of smaller animals," she told Newsweek.

Burtt added that the study of wolf teeth revealed that the present-day wolves of Yellowstone were using carcasses more intensively than their cousins did in Alaska 50 years ago.

Gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone in 1995 in a rewilding program hailed as a success for biodiversity.

Climate change is already impacting the ecosystems in Yellowstone. The National Park Service explains on its website that a 2014 study found climatic conditions at the park, such as annual snowfall, had already changed beyond normal variations. Plant and animal species are being affected.

The number of wolverines, for example, is expected to fall because they rely on deep snow drifts to make their dens—and the heavy snowfall required is becoming less frequent. The number of aspen trees has declined too, while grizzly bears are denning later in the year and being forced to hunt elk outside the safety of the park.

The study of wolf teeth has also suggested that the Yellowstone packs behave in an egalitarian way around kills—challenging perceptions of wolves as very hierarchical animals, according to Burtt. Instead, the team found the Yellowstone wolves were co-operative and social eaters who shared meat with all the animals in the pack.

"Wolves have comparable access to flesh and bone resources regardless of their age, size, sex, or pack size or association," Burtt said.

Gray wolves were once protected under the Endangered Species Act but were removed from the legislation during the Trump administration. A federal judge restored protections for the animals across much of the western U.S. in a decision earlier this month. The judge said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not shown enough evidence that wolf numbers could be sustained without federal protection.

"The future of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remains to be seen," Burtt said. "For now, these wolves persist and are perhaps adapting their feeding strategies as humans continue to change their world with some challenging their very survival."

Stock image of gray wolf in Yellowstone
Stock image of a gray wolf in Yellowstone. They were reintroduced to the park in 1995. Debraansky/Getty Images