What’s That Scat?

What’s That Scat?

What’s That Scat?

4 minute read.
As we are out enjoying some of the many trails the Yukon has to offer, we often have to watch our step to make sure we’re not putting our boots in something smelly! These unexpected trail obstacles can be great indicators of whose habitat we are walking into, what they are eating, and how they are digesting it. Just like us, many animals have dynamic diets, and will eat what is available. Scat can be interesting but can also spread diseases, even to humans, so it should be looked at and not touched, especially by our furry companions.

Bears

Black bears are opportunistic omnivores who will eat whatever food they can find, including fish, fruit, meat, insects, and herbs and grasses. Grizzlies have a similar diet, but tend to favour high-energy meat and insects more than the smaller black bears. Like their diets, bear scat appearance is quite varied, and often contains fragments of their last meal, like seeds, bits of berries, or small animal bones. Wildlife Interpreter Maureen recounts seeing a landscape covered in red wine-coloured piles that were actually scat from grizzlies that had eaten a lot of cranberries!

Light brown bear scat with seeds visible.

Bears are relatives of mammalian carnivores, they have a digestive system similar to carnivores, without a cecum or extended large intestine. This limits how efficiently they can process leafy plant material and they must eat a lot if they are relying on these foods, which is common in the spring. As a result, when a bear eats a lot of plant material their scat often has a green tinge from the undigested grasses or a fibrous appearance. Typically, their scat is brown or black and tapered, though sometimes it can appear as more globular if it is loose. Grizzly scat tends to be a bit wider and larger piles than black bear scat. It can be hard to distinguish between the two, but both should make a hiker cautious of the trail ahead. Remember bear spray and noisemakers and stay bear safe!

Left to right: Older bear scat; bear scat that is darker brown in colour with grasses visible.

If you’re interested in getting involved in bear research, the Operation Ursus Research using Scat (OURS) project is aimed at estimating the Yukon grizzly and black bear populations using DNA available in bear scat. Lucile leads the study and shares the project story Bear Poo and You with YWP.

Canines

Foxes, wolves, and coyotes are more exclusively carnivorous than bears, but may occasionally eat berries and seeds. Their digestive system is similar to that of a bear, as is their scat. Wolves’ stomachs are specially adapted to hold a lot of food so that after a hunt they can get their share of the reward. Additionally, their stomach is very acidic to kill off any pathogens in the meat. It is tubular and tapered and may contain bits of bones, fur, or berries. It may be lighter, as it varies from tan to dark brown in colour. It is, however, smaller than bear scat: fox scat is about 1.25 cm in diameter, coyote scat is about 2 cm, and wolf scat is usually at least 2.5 cm in diameter.

Wolf scat with fur visible.

There will likely be much less of it as well. Foxes often defecate in obvious areas to mark their territory. The Wildlife Preserve exists as an ecosystem within a larger ecosystem and foxes are one of the many wild animals that visit. They seem to like to use the boardwalks at the front cabin to do their business!

Foxes often defecate in obvious places to mark their territory.

Left photo credit: L.Caskenette.

Feline – Lynx

Unlike generalist bears and canines, lynxes are specialists. Snowshoe hares are their primary food source, and can make up 75% of their winter diet. Meat is highly digestible, meaning that most of what is consumed can be broken down and absorbed easily. Lynx digestive systems, therefore, have shorter small intestines relative to body size and less developed caecum than canines.

Lynx scat of varying ages among grass.

Their scat is black, tubular and tapered, and does not have so much undigested material as the bears or canines. It is also very smelly. Like a house cat, they will cover their scat with dirt or snow, probably to hide their presence from nearby animals. Also like house cats, they often defecate in the same latrine over and over, which can be seen in our lynx habitat.

Lynx, like house cats, often poop in the same places every time. This is one of the latrines in the lynx habitat at the Preserve.

Cervids

The Yukon has a great variety of cervids (antler bearing animals) or members of the deer family. Their diets, digestive systems, and scat have many similarities. In general, they produce uniform, dark brown or black oval-shaped pellets, which result from uniform movements of smooth muscles in the large intestine and its sphincters.

From left to right: Caribou, moose, mule deer and elk. Photo Credit: L.Caskenette & J.Paleczny.

Their diets are often high in fibrous, dry tree materials like leaves and twigs, which is why their feces forms pellets. If they are eating more grasses, in the summer, it may appear softer and more clumpy. Cervids are all ruminants which means that their stomachs have four compartments: the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum and the abomasum.  This allows for fermentation by bacteria and other processes that break down vegetation. This is part of the reason that cervid scat does not have as much undigested material as the carnivores’, despite their plant diet having less digestible material. In addition, they will regurgitate their food and chew it again, also called chewing their cud!

Left to Right: Soft caribou scat clumps together versus caribou scat in pellet form.

Deer pellets are small, about 1 cm in diameter, and are left in piles of many pellets. They defecate an average of 13 times per day! Elk scat is similar but 1-1.5 cm in diameter, and moose scat is even larger at 1.5-2 cm in diameter. Deer and elk pellets are rounder than moose pellets.

Softer deer scat often clumps together as seen here.

Moose are more strictly browsers, that eat only tree materials, so mostly their pellets are harder. Caribou scat appears somewhat more rough than deer or moose scat. It is often in harder pellet form in the winter when they eat a lot of lichens and sedges. In the summer, when their diet switches to grasses and vegetation with a high moisture content, their scat often forms larger soft clumps.

Moose scat in pellet form, darker brown because it’s older.

Bovids

There are also a wide variety of bovids (horn bearing animals) in the Yukon. Our mountain sheep, mountain goats, muskox, and bison are all ruminants, just like the cervids. They are all herbivores who eat a variety of grasses, sedges, seedlings, and leaves.

Left to Right: Muskox, bison, mountain goat, thinhorn sheep. Photo Credit: L. Caskenette

Muskox, mountain goats, and thinhorn mountain sheep also form pellet scat, even when their diets consist largely of grass. That’s because their digestive tracts are highly evolved to reabsorb as much water as possible, likely an adaptation to their arid alpine (goats and sheep) and tundra (muskox) habitats.

Sheep scat forms pellets.

Goats have varied diets that includes browse, shrubs, lichens, grasses, and even trees. Their alpine foraging sites may be sparse, which doesn’t allow them to be picky eaters. Muskoxen eat grasses, forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), and willows, which they often have to dig out from the frozen arctic ground by smashing the permafrost with their heads and pawing the ice pieces out of the way. Mountain sheep eat mostly grasses and some other low growing sedges.

Muskox scat.

Bison scat is distinct from all the other ruminants mentioned above, because it forms an indistinct pile. Their diet is also primarily grasses and other low-lying herbaceous plants, but they may eat some willows and twigs. Grasses would make their scat more loose, but we’re taking suggestions for what makes their scat so different from the other grass-loving bovids!

Bison patty.

Hopefully after hearing all of these scat facts you can see scat as more than just something gross to be avoided on the side of the trail. It can tell you who’s habitat you are in, but also what they have been eating. It is interesting to watch it change throughout the season. Of course biologists may be able to find out way more about an animal through their scat, for instance genetic samples or presence of pathogens. There is so much to learn from the scat around us!
Although all the different scat we explored above is only a small number of animals, all species do it and we encourage you to:

1. Explore other species scat/defecation/poop – whatever you want to call it!

2. Pack out yours and your furry companions (yours domestic canines) poo in the backcountry and wilderness places you visit!

3. Sing the Scat Rap Song!  

It starts with an S and it ends with a T
It comes out of you
and it comes out of me
I know what you’re thinking
But don’t call it that
Let’s be scientific, and call it SCAT
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

You can find it on the ground
It’s usually colored brown
It is shaped in a mound
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

You can smell it with your nose
It’s gonna decompose
It’s where the fungus grows
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

Birds flying through the air
Look out! Beware!
It landed in your hair
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I was hiking through the fog
When I saw a big log
It came from a dog
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I was tired of TV
I was checking out the trees
I could smell it on the breeze
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I know it’s kind of gory
But it’s a true story
It marks territory
It is a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

I picked up a chicken
And something was drippin’
It wasn’t finger-lickin’
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

A squirrel ate a nut
Digested in its gut
It came out of its butt
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

If you park your car
By the woods or a field
You might find something on your windshield
Full of berries
Both purple and white
You just got bombed by a bird in flight
It was a piece of scat
(PIECE OF SCAT!)

Photo Credit: Sophia Slater or as otherwise credited.
References:

Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Caribou (Rangifer tarandus granti) sign. ADFG. 

Blood, D.A. Mountain sheep. Hinterlands Who’s Who. 

Blood, D.A. (2000). Mountain Goat in British Columbia. British Columbia Ministry of Environment Land and Parks.

Bosch, G., Hagen-Plantinga, E., & Hendriks, W. (2015). Dietary nutrient profiles of wild wolves: Insights for optimal dog nutrition? British Journal of Nutrition, 113(S1), S40-S54. doi:10.1017/S0007114514002311

Keith, L.B. Canada lynx. Hinterland’s Who’s Who. 

Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (2018, June 25). What scat can tell you about your wildlife neighbors. CSERC

Costello, C.M., Cain, S.L., Pils, S., Frattaroli, L., Haroldson, M.A., & van Manen, F.T. (2016). Diet and macronutrient optimization in wild Ursids: A comparison of grizzly bears with sympatric and allopatric black bears. PLoS ONE, 11(5).

Gray, D.R. Muskox. Hinterland’s Who’s Who. 

Hatch, K., Roeder, B., Buckman, R., Gale, B., Bunnell, S., Eggett, D., Auger, J., Felicetti, L., & Hilderbrand, G. (2011). Isotopic and gross fecal analysis of American black bear scats. Ursus, 22(2), 133–140. 

Howard, W.T., Hutjens, M., Kilmer, L., Linn, A., Otterby, D., & Shaver, R. (2021). The ruminant digestive system. University of Minnesota Extension

Winand, C.J. (2008, September). Deer Pelletology. Buckmasters Magazine

Sophia Slater

Sophia Slater

Wildlife Interpreter & Animal Care Assistant

Sophia is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides and animal care assistants at the Preserve. She is new to the Yukon and moved here from Ontario, where she just graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Nipissing University. Hiking mountains is her newfound passion while she’s here, and she’s hoping to summit as many as she can this summer. At the preserve, she loves getting to talk to and learn from guests who come from all over the Yukon and beyond about their experiences with wildlife.

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Why are red foxes so happy among us?

Why are red foxes so happy among us?

Why are red foxes so happy among us?

5.5 minute read. 

Red foxes are as familiar to any Yukoner as seeing their friend or colleague walking down the street. They are a welcome resident of Whitehorse, and most urban environments in Canada. Though many species numbers have declined since Europeans arrived to the shores of what is now North America, the red fox is the exception to the rule. Red fox populations have only increased since human settlements have grown and expanded. In fact, the red fox is one of the most widely distributed territorial mammals in the world.1even in the Arctic

So why are red fox numbers growing alongside human populations? One reason that the arrival of Europeans coincided with a growth in the red fox population in Canada is that Europeans brought foxes with them. There was already a species of native red fox living here at that time, so both native and non-native red foxes live in North America. Native red foxes are what we typically see in the north; they are the Canadian Boreal Forest species that colonised here shortly after the last glacial period, around 11,000 years ago. Non-native red foxes are found further south, where they were released by European settlers in the mid 1700s, for hunting purposes. However, introduced red foxes are not the only reason fox numbers have increased since colonisation. Though it is commonly thought that people are generally bad for wildlife, there are certain species that benefit greatly from people, and red foxes are one of them!

Despite red foxes having plenty of wildland in which to settle and bear their young, they’ve often chosen human settlements to set up shop. Red foxes are part of the group called ‘synanthropic species.’ These species live near humans and directly benefit from human-altered landscapes. Animals such as mice, rats, pigeons, racoons, skunks, and coyotes are synanthropic species. Red foxes, like these other animals, benefits from our landscape alterations, including gardens, bird feeders, garbage dumps, sheds, porches, and barns, all of which provide either suitable food or shelter, and often both. These species have learned how to exploit human settlements to their advantage, and they thrive in suburbs and cities that are in or near forests or fields. An ‘edge species’ lives at the border of two different habitat types, or ecotones, such as where forest meets grassland. A city like Whitehorse could be an ecotone in and of itself, since its boundaries are rich forest area. But in other cities such as large metropolises, humans have created habitats that very closely mimic an edge species’ natural environment. Gardens and yards that back onto bushy or forested area are perfect for red foxes and other edge species. Because rats, mice, and voles enjoy human suburban environments, red foxes have an abundant food source when living near people, not to mention the garbage that people inevitably leave lying around or in unsecured garbage cans.
Moreover, red foxes require shelter for denning, and the underside of sheds and decks, or your rotting wood pile all offer what a fox needs to rear its young. And because human settlements are typically near a water source, foxes will have access to that as well. Many gardeners also choose to provide bird baths or other water sources on their property, and this makes great habitat for all edge species, including foxes. A bushy yard near a field or forest is a great environment for a red fox, since they benefit from both the human environment and the natural landscape. And suburban environments offer fields where they can hunt, ditches with food and water, and woody parks which offer cover, safety, food, and denning opportunities. A great environment means large litter sizes, and high survival rates among young. The Wilderness City is the perfect environment for a red fox, and the perfect place for fox populations to thrive.

So human environments are great for red foxes, but how are red foxes great for people? As we’ve seen, our environments attract a variety of animals that people find a nuisance. Mice, rats, voles, and pigeons are all things that people don’t enjoy having in or around their house. Fallen fruit such as crab apples and berries attract mice into our yards, and without foxes, these animals can cause problems for people. Luckily, these animals are all great food sources for foxes. And people generally find foxes cute and enjoyable to observe. They aren’t threatening, even to children, and they generally won’t go after a full grown healthy cat. Foxes generally don’t cause problems for people who don’t have chickens or rabbits that they keep outside, and even then, modern fencing is good enough to often keep these animals safe. Foxes can carry rabies, which can cause problems for people, but in the Yukon, rabies is thankfully not a common disease. People have traditionally enjoyed keeping cats to help curb the rodent population, but cats also kill songbirds, and are one of the leading causes of songbird decline in North America. Foxes generally don’t kill songbirds, and subsist mostly on rodents and whatever they can scavenge. In other words, they eat what we don’t like.

Red foxes are the perfect species for urban populations, and because of this mutually beneficial relationship, fox populations will continue to grow and thrive alongside people. Come see our two resident red foxes next time you’re at the Wildlife Preserve!
This interpretetive panel is placed next to our fully fundraised Red Fox exhibit. It shares the story of red fox success across the Northern Hemisphere, from the Arctic to urban enviroments.

Photo credit: Danette Moule

Danette Moulé

Danette Moulé

Wildlife Interpreter

Danette is new to working at the Wildlife Preserve, but not new to appreciating it! Danette currently lives between the Yukon in summers, and BC / Alberta in the winters. She holds a Master's of Natural Resource Management, and has always been a big appreciator of wildlife and our natural world. Danette was raised in the mountains of western Canada, and is enjoying getting to know the north.

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Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

Uneasy neighbours: red foxes and arctic foxes in the north

This article was made possible thanks to support from the Environmental Awareness Fund. Engage and educate yourself in this blog series, about Yukon Biodiversity.

15 minute read –

Once upon a time in the distant year of 2015, a Canadian wildlife photographer, Don Gutoski won Wildlife Photograph of the Year with a haunting snapshot of a red fox scarfing down the body of an arctic fox it had just killed. This grisly image titled “The Tale of Two Foxes” was heralded as a stark depiction of climate change in the north where warmer climates lead to red foxes encroaching on the territory of arctic foxes. While climate change is both a real and palpable threat to arctic ecosystems, the reasons behind the expansion of red fox ranges into the arctic and their subsequent relationship with their tiny northern counterparts isn’t that straightforward. When is it ever, am I right? Life is complicated!

Credit: Don Gutoski’s photo titled “A Tale of Two Foxes” won Britain’s Natural History Museum Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2015. It also sparked some assumptions and conversations about climate change and species competition in the changing Arctic. 

First off, it’s unfair to treat red foxes as an invasive pest freshly arrived on the arctic tundra. Historical fur harvest records from trading outposts in northern Canada show the presence of red foxes in the arctic starting in the early 20th century. In other words, they aren’t new to the neighbourhood. One of the popular hypotheses out there attributes the red fox’s northward expansion to the warmer temperatures caused by climate change. Milder winters definitely help red fox survival in their arctic home as they are nowhere near as well insulated as arctic foxes. But this balmy weather (balmy being a relative term, the arctic is still chilly as heck) is not the only factor behind their northern migration and it’s probably not even the main driving force; people are.

A study that compared the movement of red foxes with historical climate data and the development of sedentary settlements in the Canadian arctic found that it was the settlements, not the temperature, that was most closely linked to fox migration. Why? Well, it’s probably because we’re a great food source. If you live in Whitehorse, you do not need me to tell you that red foxes thrive around human settlements. It’s a fox paradise with all the garbage and unattended dog food that they can eat and a wondrous array of leather goods to steal. The fox that sleeps under my dryer vent probably feels like it has a very plush life. Quick question: It once left a decapitated grouse on my back porch; does that count as paying rent??

In a place like the arctic where resources are scarce, human settlements and by extension, human garbage (or “anthropogenic waste subsidies” if you want to impress your friends) can provide a relatively bountiful food source for red foxes. This isn’t really a good thing though. While both red and arctic foxes like to yummy down on some trash, human-created food sources favour the survival of red foxes over arctic foxes. This in turn could lead to diminished arctic fox populations in the future.

Red foxes are bigger and heavier than arctic foxes so when it comes to direct competition between the two, red foxes are more likely to be the victor. We already have grim photographic evidence of that exact scenario. Both types of foxes also have very similar diets, similar subsistence strategies (scavenging and food caching), and both of their reproductive success depends on having a den to shelter their pups. Leading very similar lifestyles put these two fox species in direct competition for resources. If this is the case, why haven’t red foxes wiped arctic foxes off the map? It’s probably because the relative survival of these two species isn’t contingent on a fox vs. fox death match. Sorry to disappoint. 

If I’m being completely candid with you, dear reader, when I was initially handed this topic, I was kind of hoping to write a shocking and grisly article about fox-on-fox violence. The carnage! The tragedy! Oh the terrible realities of nature! Not because I want bad things to happen to tiny foxes (I don’t), but because I am an absolute ghoul of a human being and that kind of content makes for a gripping article. Either way, this is not the case and I am legitimately relieved to know the arctic tundra isn’t strewn with fuzzy white bodies. Yes, red foxes do prey on arctic foxes but they are by no means out there slaughtering their smaller arctic counterparts into extinction. I mean red foxes also eat other red foxes, it’s the nature of well… Nature.

A group of researchers conducted a forty-year study of fox dens on Herschel Island and the Yukon’s coastal mainland to investigate the relative abundance of red and arctic foxes in the area. In those four decades, both of these fox populations remained relatively unchanged. We (and by “we” I really mean the researchers and biologists who specialize in this kind thing and not myself, a humble turnip and writer) don’t entirely understand all the factors that keep the balance between these two residents of the Yukon arctic. It’s a very complicated relationship and there’s a lot to unravel; here is what we know/can infer from previous studies.

Two major characteristics of the Yukon arctic that limit red fox expansion and increase the arctic fox’s competitive edge are a) limited food resources and b) the cold. As I mentioned before, red foxes are bigger and heavier which helps them bully arctic foxes away from food sources and denning sites but it also means they need to eat more. Both red and arctic foxes are opportunistic carnivores that feed on small to medium sized animals and the carcasses left behind by larger predators. While the arctic fox’s diet is largely reliant on lemmings, the red fox’s diet is more generalized which can help offset their greater need for food. But does it offset it enough? Nope.

During the winter, when food availability is at its lowest, red foxes are burning through a lot more energy than arctic foxes to keep warm. Obviously, they can survive the bitter chill of arctic winters as they’ve been up there for about a century. Red foxes can survive the winter, sure, but arctic foxes were designed for it. Not only do they need less food than red foxes, but they can drop their basal metabolic rate during the winter to conserve more energy and thus need even less food! Arctic foxes also have an incredibly dense winter coat so they need less energy to stay warm and they have a lighter foot-load (meaning they sink down less when they’re scooting around in the snow) so they burn less energy in transit. Arctic foxes are just super energy efficient, folks, I don’t know what to tell ya! While the red fox’s food and energy needs decrease their survival rates in the winter, arctic foxes can coast through it with a lemming and a box of tic tacs. Okay, that’s an exaggeration but you get the picture.

Their dietary requirements can also restrict red foxes spatially. We can see a good example of this if we look at the denning strategies of red and arctic foxes. Denning isn’t easy in the arctic: digging a burrow has a high energy cost and suitable denning sites are limited by the climate, soil type, and that ever-present permafrost. Here’s the real kicker, ideal denning areas and food rich areas don’t occur in the same place! Prime denning real estate is a high, dry area like a ridge, mound, or bank with coarse sediment, lots of sun exposure (i.e.: less frozen dirt to dig through) and low snow accumulation. This setup provides foxes and their pups with protection from the elements, predators and they’re less likely to get snowed in.

Food rich areas, on the other hand, are low, wet places like stream valleys where a higher yield of plant life results in a higher number of delicious rodents. Essentially the complete opposite of the ideal denning area. Great. Foxes then have to make a choice: choose a den with more protection from predators and the weather or choose a den closer to your food? Clearly, the red foxes with their greater need to feed are going to pick the den that’s closer to the buffet. Red foxes often move into dens dug by arctic foxes so they’ll effectively push arctic foxes out of these areas. However, arctic foxes have more flexibility when it comes to denning since they have lower food requirements. When red foxes and arctic foxes are occupying the same area, arctic foxes will prioritise dens with great predator protection and lower food density. When red foxes aren’t around, arctic foxes will favour dens closer to food rich zones instead.

With all this considered, the effects of climate change should have increased the red foxes dominance of the tundra. Warmer winters decrease the arctic fox’s advantage over red foxes and warmer weather increases the amount of plant growth and, in turn, the amount of rodent-based food sources. However, this hasn’t happened. Why? Researchers believe that the answer to that also lies in climate change and the food-related limitations of the red fox. Seal carcasses left behind by polar bears are a really important food source for foxes in the arctic. The warmer temperatures caused by climate change are reducing the ice sheets, increasing the ice-free season, and changing the patterns of seasonal ice flow. All of this is putting stress on polar bear populations and stressed polar bears likely lead to fewer seal kills and thus fewer seal carcasses. Climate change giveth, climate change taketh away, I guess.

It’s also been noted in Sweden and Norway that global warming is actually dampening rodent reproduction rather than increasing it. The resulting drop in the rodent population is having a negative impact on the arctic fox populations in these regions. If the same is true in the Yukon, it would have an even larger negative effect on red foxes due to their greater resource needs. Unfortunately, we’re lacking long term data on rodent populations in the Yukon so we don’t know if this is the case or not.

This complicated web of physical needs, adaptations, and environmental factors have led to this not entirely understood balance between two fox species and who knows which ways the scale will tip in the future. There is one thing I can tell you for sure though: previous studies have shown that an effective way to increase or reduce red fox populations is the addition or removal of human-related waste. This isn’t so much an issue in the mostly-vacant Yukon arctic but in other arctic regions with mining or oil drilling operations, it poses a potential problem. Red foxes aren’t a horrible invasive species laying waste to adorable arctic foxes but a garbage-induced boom in red fox population could negatively impact their little arctic counterparts. So clean up your garbage, don’t feed foxes, and rest a bit easier knowing that while climate change is messing up the arctic, at least it’s not inducing a fox war up on the tundra. It’s really more of a muted territorial scuffle.

Joelle Ingram

Joelle Ingram

Human of Many Talents

Joelle is a former archaeologist, former wildlife interpreter, and a full-time random fact enthusiast. She received her master’s degree in anthropology from McMaster University. One of the four people who read her thesis gave it the glowing review “It’s a paper that would appeal to very specific group of people,” which is probably why only four people have read it. Her favourite land mammal is a muskox, her favourite aquatic mammal is a narwhal. She thinks it’s important that you know that.

867-456-7400
 info@yukonwildlife.ca

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Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Mountain Slopes – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

11 min read –
The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, concluding with mountain slopes.

Mountain goats on their cliff habitat at Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Looking around the local landscape we easily see the topographic differences near to us and in the distance. These elevational changes of the geography influence how animals move, reproduce and make a living. Some have evolved physical adaptations providing them with advantages to live in different habitats compared to other species.

Some creatures have evolved to live on the rock faces of mountainsides, while others are better equipped to live in the valleys often near rivers and other water bodies. Some other species can live easily on all land types, like the Caribou that often travel great distances over all types of terrain along their migration paths.

 Caribou often travel great distances over all types of terrain along their migration paths.

The land all around us is in a continual state of change as it has been since time began. The Preserve is located within the Takhini River Valley. The river is south of us, only a few hundred meters away. Glaciers filled this valley up until about thirteen thousand years ago. While they were here, the glaciers altered the landform in some very dramatic ways as they bulldozed great areas of soil and rock, gravel and forested areas resulting in what we can see today. Look at the mountain tops across the valley and you’ll see the smooth rounded tops where the glaciers ground them down; and the other mountains with jagged and pointed tops indicating where the glaciers did not have a similar impact because they did not grow that high. However erosion is still at work as the influences of wind, rain, ice and snow continue to alter the landscape.

This type of landform provides a spectrum of variables that influence the safety, nourishment, and rearing of offspring that many species have adapted to over thousands of their generations.

Going back millions of years, many species evolved due to the influences of what they prefer to eat and where that food source could be easily found throughout the year. For example, beavers depend on wooded vegetation and while trees grow on mountain slopes, beavers had greater opportunity and benefit to feed on the vegetation that grows next to waterways, so beavers evolved to be more adept at swimming and thriving in an aquatic environment that also sustains certain species of trees that beavers adapted to thrive on.

Mountain Goats and Sheep are the megafauna species featured in the rocky habitats here on the Preserve, They evolved specialized hooves and muscle groups to allow them to move quickly, and safely, on the various rock types found on these slopes.

Of course there are numerous other species present here as well and while they have not evolved noticeable physical adaptations to live on the rocks, they have learned how best to live in this habitat and find the resources required to raise a family and make a living. Our ever-roaming foxes are often seen walking among the goats on the rock faces in their never-ending search for food. Many birds will nest on rocky crags and outcroppings as the precarious nature of these do provide some level of protection against predators like the fox. Eagles, hawks and owls often select a high perch on the rocks as they scan the area looking for their next meal. They often build nests in the protected areas in a crack high up a rock face to take advantage of these lookout positions.

Golden eagle nest on Lake Lebarge’s eastern shores early 2000’s.  Photo D. Caldwell

Rodents also make their homes within the jumbles of rocks hoping they have chosen a safe place to raise a family. Members of the weasel family, including Pine Martin, mink, weasels and even the cunning Wolverine will seek a suitable place to den among the rock slides as well as the forested areas nearby. Bears of course also seek out suitable places in the rocks to den and hibernate over winter.There are no bears denning on the Preserve at this time that we are aware of.

Also not present on the Preserve, are other creatures like Marmots and Pikas that typically make their homes high up in the rocks and mountains of the Yukon, Some species seem to be very widespread and can be found in a variety of Yukon habitat types. While some others are localised to specific geographic locations or elevations where they have the greatest opportunity for success. The ubiquitous Arctic Ground Squirrel also favours mountain sides to make a home.

Keep in mind that numerous natural influences like wildfires, landslides, avalanches and similar disruptions may alter the living conditions for a number of animals that will need to go in search of a new home to raise a family. The same may happen when a grizzly bear selects a den near a favoured grazing area of sheep or goats. To remain safe, the sheep will seek out a new grazing area well away from predators and other dangers.

Thinhorn Sheep rams enjoy sunshine in their predator-free grazing grounds at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.  In the background we see the sheep-accessible cliffs within their habitat.

Rocky habitats are not without their dangers. During the winter season ice will form in small cracks and crevices within the rocks, as the ice becomes colder and swells it further fractures the rock sometimes making it dangerous in that it may break away completely and fall further down the slope.

Gravel screes are the deposits of smaller rocks, pebbles and dirt that have fallen from above and form a skirt of loose materials at the base of a rock face. These can be difficult for mammals to walk on quietly and safely and as such provide another level of security for the creatures that dwell on the mountainsides. Flash floods caused by voluminous rainfall and spring snowmelt can also be dangerous for the creatures that live on the rocks.

Rocky habitats are not without their dangers, which change based on the season.  Here, Thinhorn Mountain Sheep walk through deep snow along the cliff edge at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

Because rocks warm in the sun and hold that warmth after the sun sets, some rock faces are preferred by early arriving bird species, like raptors, that will nest there to get started on raising the offspring that may hatch while snow still lies on the ground. Raptor parents teach the offspring how and where to hunt after they have learned to fly. They have lots to do within a short seasonal weather pattern, so nesting in the warmth of the rock faces provides them with an advantage to raising a healthy next generation.

Like all other habitats on the Preserve, winter brings some profound changes to mountain slopes the animals must literally take in stride. The goats and sheep cannot run and frolic on the snow covered rock faces as they do in the ice-free season. They pay closer attention to where they travel and may use alternate trail systems during these times to prevent slips and falls. They still make it look much easier than it is and they sometimes look quite smug as they look down at us staring up at them from the road.

The spring thaw also introduces new dangers as the warming rocks may cause the ice to melt from beneath, creating loose patches that can break away when a foot is placed on them. Meltwater cascading down the slope is another seasonal hazard the creatures are well conditioned to avoid. Staying warm and dry is its own reward when the chill winds blow high up on the rocks.

As the ice and snow melt away and the winter white gives way to the browns and greens of spring and the migratory populations return for another summer in the Yukon, the many animals species return to raise their families and prepare them for a life that continues to transform and evolve due to climate change and the other forces of nature like earthquakes, wildfires, floods and the influences of mankind.

It may appear that some animal species are well established and very set in their ways, however they are evolving each day to maximize new opportunities provided by an ever-changing planet and the relationships between their habitats and their ability to get what they need to survive. We humans may not notice these changes right away as they can be quite subtle and appear meaningless to us. An example of this is the recent addition of crows and hummingbirds to the Yukon. They are expanding their summer ranges north as the climate warms and they can find enough nectar producing flowers to sustain them as they explore new habitats in the north. The flowering plants they depend on are also moving further north and their presence here will result in other changes that may take us some time to see and understand as they move into habitats presently occupied by the traditional species we normally focus on. Change is all around us, but it can be difficult to see clearly or understand the scope of these changes.

So take the time to look beyond the megafauna and other species we consider to be normal, you may see something astounding. Just ask Whitehorse bird enthusiast Cameron Eckert who found and photographed an adult female Calliope Hummingbird, on Herschel Island in June of 2017, 1,800 km north of its traditional breeding range.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Wetlands Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

13 minute read – 

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, continuing with wetlands.

Wetlands are a vital part of Earth’s ecosystems and contribute a number of essential benefits for the land and all the flora and fauna that live on it. At the most basic level, wetlands act as a filtering system to produce clean healthy water for creatures and plants to consume. Wetlands are also the preferred habitat for a wide variety of creatures that range from the smallest of insects to frogs and other amphibians all the way up to include North America’s largest deer species, the Moose, which seasonally depend on the aquatic plants that grow in wetlands for a large part of their diet.

Many other species have evolved to live in wetlands for the numerous benefits they provide in terms of maintaining a reliable food source, protection against predators and wildfires. Wetlands act as a buffer between larger bodies of water and dry land, these places are often called interface zones. These areas also act to prevent flooding of the land as they buffer rising lake and river water levels and reduce dramatic erosion and physical impacts to other habitats.

Again, look beyond our majestic megafauna moose, there’s so much diversity to see in the wetland habitat. Where there’s water, there’s usually waterfowl of many types, including Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese, Common Loons and a wide assortment of ducks who may visit with us for a few days to rest and re-energize during their migrations to and from their summer ranges each year. Some bird pairs may decide to remain and raise a family at the Preserve, so ducklings and goslings paddling behind mom is a common sight over the summer.

You also will see the many barn and tree swallows gathering on the wire fence taking a break before returning to their stunt flying in pursuit of flying insects. Numerous warbler and finch species and our non-migratory chickadees, red polls and sparrows are but a few you’ll have a chance to observe.  Blue birds fly over both the grassland and marsh habitats in search of food, as do small hawks like the Sharp Shinned, Sparrow Hawks, Harriers, and an occasional Screech Owl. Of course there are the varieties of gulls that spend the summer season inland and do a terrific job of keeping edible waste items in check.

The wetlands are abundant with insects and rodents making these areas diversely populated. Bald eagles often hunt ducks on the marsh and when they do, things happen very fast. The eagle will silently glide in over the fence and drop down to about a meter above the water using the air currents to avoid flapping wings and alarming any ducks in view. A successful capture is frequently announced by the rest of the duck flock quacking and taking to the air in a loud blusterous effort. Foxes and lynx also hunt the bird population in the marsh. They are often seen trotting quickly among the long grasses searching for duck nests from which they may steal an egg or hatchling to take back to hungry young kits waiting in their den. While they don’t particularly enjoy it, lynx can be accomplished swimmers and are sometimes found in the water in pursuit of ducks.

Keep a keen eye out in the marsh for muskrats that are infrequently observed swimming or grooming on a frost heave. There are no known beavers in the Preserve marsh, if you do see a large swimming creature it is probably a muskrat.

The marsh, and waters draining from it, are home to tadpoles, which become frogs, who also consume their fair share of a wide variety of insects. Examples include: water boatmen, beetles, mayflies, scuds (a small shrimp-like bug), caddis flies, blood worms, leeches and the most voluminous populace of them all – mosquitos. These insects are the beginning of the food chain which supports the many thousands of creatures in existence today, and some have been around for a very, very long time.

One of the Preserve’s apex insects is perhaps the most vicious predator on the property: The Dragonfly. These remarkable insects reached their evolutionary peak before the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and since that time they have changed very little because they have attained top status in their portion of the insect world and dominate. However, some believe the dragonfly’s life cycle is unbalanced and are being punished for something.

You see, dragonflies start their lives hatching from eggs underwater to begin their larval stage, when they are known as nymphs or naiads, During this part of their lives in the mud under the water they are voracious hunters and will attack other insects many times larger than themselves, they even hunt tadpoles and small fish. They eat all they can catch and grow larger and stronger. Here’s the part thought to be unfair.

Photo of dragonfly taken during the 2020 Yukon Biodiversity Bioblitz, held at Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Dragonflies live underwater as these top predators for up to three years for some species. Then, one warm sunny day they climb up a stalk of grass out of the water and begin a remarkable transformation from a ferocious water bug, into an adult to become one of the most accomplished fliers on this earth, The sad part perceived as punishment is that the adult dragonfly only lives for about three days before it mates and perishes according to Nature’s plan. Three years underwater living and fighting in the mud and only three days as an accomplished and dazzling flier, then, it’s life cycle completes, it perishes, it’s all done – it does seem unfair.

The winter season brings profound change to the marsh. Many of the summer residents have either migrated south or have found warm shelter for the winter months. Of course the water freezes creating a barrier between those that live under the surface and those that live above. Insects continue to grow, eat and thrive under the water, now much darker due to ice and snow blanketing the surface, blocking most of the sunlight. In winter moose, both in the wild and in the wetlands habitat at the Preserve, can no longer access the aquatic vegetation they enjoy so much and turn to other vegetation to support them. Alas, winter also impacts the vegetation that grows above the water and since moose are also very efficient browsers, they adapt in winter by browsing more of the plant than the tender bits at the ends of the branches they consume in the summer. Look at the bushes near the fence line in the moose habitat to see how well cropped they become over the winter season.

No water due to freezing temperatures means no waterfowl as they all migrated south before the cold weather arrived. This is also true of the many songbirds and migratory raptors who raised families throughout spring and summer. Mice and some other rodents adapt to the seasonal change similar to the rodents in the grasslands – they create tunnels to travel in, stockpile food in middens and raise their families. Just because it is winter does not mean they stop breeding and producing offspring.

The predator species that depend on the mice and voles in the marsh change their hunting strategies as well when the land is frozen with a layer of snow above. Foxes are often seen leaping into the air to pounce on their lunch the same as they do in the grass pastures. The wild foxes on the Preserve move from habitat to habitat many times a day as they patrol in search of food, which is much harder to find and capture during the winter season. Winter is obviously a greater challenge as ground squirrels are hibernating, small birds have moved away and snow cover impedes easy mouse hunting.

Moose will avoid the frozen ice of the marsh during freeze up and the spring melt so that they do not break through and become stuck in the mud just a short distance below this thinner ice, which can become quite sharp and injure their legs as they struggle to climb out. Therefore, they stay closer to the fence, and terra firma, for easy and safe walking.

The return of the spring sun, the resulting longer, warmer days and the melting of the ice and snow announce a new season for all the creatures that make a living in the wetlands. The changes occur quickly as creatures work hard to make the most of the warmer weather, as they have a lot to do in a short period of time. Some years there are only about 140 ice-free days between spring thaw and winter freeze up. Thankfully the days are longer allowing for more to be done beneath the Midnight Sun.

If they don’t already have one or if they are just reaching reproductive maturity, many animals will need to find a mate; also they must find or build a place to raise a family then nurture and care for their offspring until they are independent and know how to sustain themselves.

Some creatures must learn how to fly after they have grown flight feathers. All will need to learn how to acquire food, which means some will have to learn to hunt while others will need to learn to forage where the foods they require grow. All will need to learn what predators and similar dangers are and how best to avoid them.

It sometimes looks like an idyllic life to we humans, but in reality each day is a life and death challenge for wild creatures as they strive to reach maturity and have offspring of their own and the circle of life is completed.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

Grassland Habitats – Yukon Wildlife Preserve

10 min read –

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve features eleven iconic northern animal species, but if you look closely at each of the three primary habitats on the Preserve you’ll see many more species than “only” eleven. The three primary habitats include: grasslands, wetlands and mountain slopes. Each of these habitat types support animal and plant species that have evolved together over millions of years resulting in communities where they all make a living and contribute different values to the continuing health of their specific habitat. In this three-part series we’ll review each habitat and examine the greater community it represents, beginning with grasslands.

Grasslands can be naturally created following wildfires and floods from many years, decades, and centuries before, it’s been going on for millions of years really. Glacier movements have also created vast grasslands as they scraped over the Earth’s surface removing forests and altering the landscape by creating valleys and water drainage systems that are now vital components of the local habitat.

Here at the Preserve we have animals that are considered grazers that eat the grassland vegetation commonly made up of wild grasses, primitive grains, fungi and other plants that grow within their habitat. The featured species in the habitat are sometimes called megafauna and our grazing megafauna include Wood Bison, Musk OxWoodland Caribou, Elk, Mule Deer and even Thinhorn Mountain Sheep.  Some of these species also eat the tender branch ends, buds and leaves of trees like willow, birch and aspen.  These creatures are also called browsers as they wander through their habitat and consume the tips of the bushes and young trees they encounter. The resulting pruning of these trees and bushes by the animals contribute to greater health of the habitat vegetation by removing old growth and stimulating new shoots and buds. Their digestive waste (poop) adds nutrients back into the ground and frequently provides an ideal habitat for insects to thrive, and insects form the foundation of the food chain all creatures depend on.

As a point of reference, let’s focus on the Wood Bison (essentially a wild cow), their grassland habitat and all that lives there. Bison are another force of change on the landscape and have played a significant role in altering the landscape from transforming forest to grasslands and altering the vegetation of the grasslands. Bison often rub against trees to satisfy an itch on their bodies. If you look closely at the trees that are still standing in the Bison habitat at the Preserve, you’ll notice the bottom six to eight feet of bark has been rubbed off the tree. This prevents the flow of sap in the tree which will soon die due to a lack of nourishment, the Bison keep rubbing on the tree and soon they will have caused it to fall flat on the ground where it will rot. The Bison also eat any saplings that may start from the seeds of the once standing tree preventing new tree growth from beginning in the area. Over time, many thousands of Bison have had a tremendous influence on the land transformation on the continent and contributed greatly to the creation of the prairie regions of central North America. 

The stars of the show – the megafauna – are the bison of course, but there are many other creatures that are equally impressive when you get down and have a closer look, or look high into the treetops. The Arctic Ground Squirrels, commonly called gophers, are easy to see and hear as they whistle and chirp, fulfilling their jobs as the alarm system for the area they live in. They warn against predators mainly because Arctic Ground Squirrels are a preferred food for many carnivores, or meat eaters, who live on or visit the Preserve.

Eagles, hawks and owls can often be seen seasonally watching the ground from a high vantage point or flying lazy circles high above. Foxes and lynx like to eat ground squirrels too, so these prey animals are always on the lookout for danger and whistle loudly and scurry back to their burrows to evade what might be coming towards them.

Bald Eagles watch from high and low for prey animals – including Arctic Ground Squirrels who come out of hibernation in early spring.  In grassland habitats we can see the megafauna such as bison and deer, as well as the life cycles of smaller animals like the ground squirrel, who are quite vocal in their response to predators.

Ground squirrels contribute to the health of the habitat as a primary source of protein for other creatures that live there, but ground squirrels have a further contribution to the health of the habitat –  by digging burrows which allow water, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide under the surface to help fertilize the ground so that vegetation grows well.  Of course, numerous other creatures take advantage of the burrows dug by the ground squirrels. Mice of different varieties, voles, short-tailed weasels and an assortment of insects also like to seek shelter and make nests in these burrows.

In the spring when there is an abundance of melt-water, and before it gets too hot and dries out the puddles, look along the ditches next to the fences and if you have a sharp eye, you may find tiny Wood Frogs hopping among the wet grass and puddles.  Some migratory song-birds feed on these frogs as do the foxes and weasels.

The song birds are another very visible occupant of the grassland habitats. Some eat the seeds of the wild grasses and the Alfalfa hay we feed to supplement the bison’s diet. Other song birds eat from the huge selection of insects. Special mention should be given to the small population of Little Brown Bats1Canadian Wildlife Federation that migrate here for their summer vacation to eat voluminous amounts of mosquitos from each of the habitats; we are grateful for their contributions to pest control at the Preserve.

When the seasonal cold weather comes, the grasslands change. Most grasses stop growing and go to seed in the late summer to early fall and many of the seed eating migratory birds begin their trip back to the south when this vital energy source becomes available. The end of summer triggers a number of changes for both the landscape and the animals that live on it. Some species will migrate south to warmer climates while others will begin their preparations to live through a Yukon winter. Some mice and voles gather winter food caches and will store these in holes they dig or in middens they make from long grass once there is some snow on the ground. In short, they adapt to live in colder conditions when there is much less food available, so they gather food when it is in abundance and store it for their needs over the winter months.

Arctic Ground Squirrel gathering dried grasses.  Some animals, such as rodents, gather food when it is in abundance and store it for their needs over the winter, or early spring, months.

A midden is a temporary shelter rodents make out of long grasses and moss and looks like a ball of grass or a bird nest with a closed top – just a small hole to enter and exit. Ground squirrels gather and store food as well but for the springtime when they emerge from hibernation and nothing is growing yet. Arctic Ground Squirrels are among the first species to begin hibernation and start sometime in mid to late September depending on the weather conditions. The gender of a ground squirrel will also dictate hibernating times with females entering hibernation earlier in the fall, as well as emerging later in the spring, than males. During hibernation, they do not wake up to eat. They are usually the first creatures to emerge from hibernation in the spring as the snow melts away.

When the snow begins to cover the hard frozen ground, it looks like it’s only the megafauna and a few ravens that are living here, but beneath the snow is the winter community of tunnels and middens that some rodent populations build and use to move about seeking food, reproducing and visiting with friends.  Others, like the Arctic Ground Squirrel, hibernate through the long, cold winter.

Foxes and owls are famous for their winter hunting abilities. They listen for rodents moving under the snow and can capture them with remarkable accuracy. Owls catch the mouse in its talons after listening from a distance and determining where the small creature is when those sharp talons pierce the snow and hold the mouse firm. Foxes can be seen listening while turning their heads from one direction to another in order to pin-point the location of the mouse ahead of them. With a high arching jump the fox pounces on the mouse through the snow. Not all attempts are successful and practice will improve results for young foxes to secure a meal. 

But they will never run out of mice to practice on. Depending on the availability of food and when conditions are good, some momma mice can give birth to a litter of babies up to ten times per year and there can be from one to sixteen pups per litter. And the next generation will only need 6 to 8 weeks to reach reproductive maturity so they too can start having babies. Yup, that’s a lot of mice living in the grassland habitat.

Take the time to look beyond the megafauna and observe what else lives in the grasslands habitat, it’s wonderful how all the creatures work together without direction to maintain the places they live and thrive in. It’s their nature.

Doug Caldwell

Doug Caldwell

Wildlife Interpreter

Doug is one of the Interpretive Wildlife Guides here at the Preserve. An avid angler and hunter he has a broad knowledge of Yukon’s wilderness and the creatures that live here. With a focus on the young visitors to the Preserve, Doug takes the extra time to help our guests to better appreciate the many wonders of the animal kingdom here in the Yukon.

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