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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Thinhorn Mountain Sheep

Thinhorn Mountain Sheep

Thinhorn Mountain Sheep

10 minute read –
For a long time, it was believed that there are three distinct subspecies of thinhorn Mountain Sheep in North America each of these known as: Dall, Fannin and Stone. Each subspecies displayed different colouring of their coats where Dall would be pure white, Fannin would be white with grey, silver and black highlights and Stone sheep were white with brown and black highlights and sometimes predominantly all dark grey.

Thinhorn Mountain Sheep grow one set of horns from youth to old age.  Pictured are two rams (males).  L to R:  Young ram; mature ram.

Recent DNA gathering and analysis has revealed that all three subspecies are actually very much alike and identification of each subspecies is becoming significantly more difficult to confirm as interbreeding continues and identifiable traits or genetic markers blend together to produce a mongrelized modern day specimen.

Further, evolutionary biologists1https://www.ualberta.ca/science/news/2016/june/dna-analysis-rewrites-the-story-of-thinhorn-sheep-during-the-last-ice-age.html studying the lineages of thinhorn sheep have found evidence suggesting that the species diverged hundreds of thousands of years earlier than previously thought. Greatly influenced by the formation, movement and final melting of the glaciers, thinhorn sheep roamed a vast area in search of ice-free grazing areas known as refugia. The mountainous geography often separated groups of similar or same subspecies sheep where through isolation they accumulated some variances between populations over time, sometimes resulting in the formation of what were originally thought to be new subspecies due to variations of their physical appearance.

Genetic science continues to study these animals and new proofs are foreseen to reveal how the present thinhorn sheep populations of the Yukon, BC and Alaska evolved to be what they are today. As genetic scientists work with data gathered by paleontologists, geologists and other scientific disciplines, there is anticipated to be a more accurate understanding of how northern animals evolved into what they are today.

Despite their uniqueness in genes and variations in colour, thinhorn sheep rams share the same impressive set of horns that are admired in the animal kingdom. It is important to note that horns and antlers are not the same. Members of the deer family grow antlers which are shed and grow back each year, while sheep grow horns which are with the animal for all of its life. Also antlers grow from the tips while horns grow from the base.2https://medium.com/usfws/11-facts-about-antlers-18e689fe9e60#:~:text=Bison%2C%20antelopes%2C%20sheep%2C%20goats%20and%20domestic%20cattle%20%E2%80%94,from%20the%20tip%3B%20horns%20grow%20from%20the%20base  It’s a minor thing, but important because if a young sheep breaks off a tip of their horn, it will remain that way for the rest of its life. Female sheep or ewes also grow horns but these are much more diminutive than the male sheeps’ horns.

​ Female sheep or ewes also grow horns but these are much more diminutive than the male sheeps’ horns.

Sheep start to grow their horns shortly after birth and they will continue to grow over their lifespan, sometimes up to 20 years of age.3http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/documents/thinhorn.pdf If you look closely at a ram’s horns you’ll see rings that circle the horn in various locations. These are called growth rings or annuli rings and a new one is formed each year and they are a reliable method to estimate the age of the animal. The horns are made of keratin, which is the same hard material that their hooves are made of and it grows quickly.

The first few inches of horn that a ram grows is called a lamb tip and represents about the first 6 months of the animal’s life,4https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/hunting/dallsheephunting/pdfs/dall_sheep_guide_to_judging_sheep_horns_under_full_curl_regulation.pdf it often gets broken off as the ram’s life of fighting and careless use take their toll.

Credit Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Each year a new annuli ring is formed near the base due to stressors the ram experiences, normally associated with the mating season.  You may notice that the space between the annuli rings is not uniform. This reflects the quality of nutrition that the animal experienced during that year of his life. Large wide spaces between the rings indicate good nutritional intake and low stress. Small thinner spaces may indicate a stressful year or a reduction in nourishment possibly associated with long, hard winters, forest fires and a loss of grazing, avoiding predators and similar stressors found in nature. Once the ram reaches a certain age of maturity, at about eight years,5https://www.coniferousforest.com/dall-sheep.htm the horns will continue filling out in thickness and mass, but stop growing longer as time goes on. A mature ram’s horns can weigh up to 15 kilos – more than all the bones in his body combined.
The size and shape of ram’s horns are what distinguish it from others and there is a wide variety of shapes, formations and sizes among sheep horns. Some horns form concise symmetric circles that are located close to the animal’s head, while others grow into a cork-screw-like shape where the tips are splayed out from the ram’s head. Some rams have horns that are thicker and longer than others, this is normally associated to a genetic trait of the animal’s ancestors where the influencing genes get passed to subsequent generations.
Hunting organizations such as Boone & Crockette have devised an elaborate measuring system with which to score the horns of most big game animals. The horns are measured at specific locations including the base, the overall length of the horn on each side, the distance between the horn tips and diameters of the horn in four key places. Once these measurements are collected some math is performed to arrive at the score for that ram’s horns. Records are kept by species so that hunters know how their harvested ram compares to others. This record keeping is also valuable for biologists and others to track the various changes in sheep populations around the world and may indicate declines in health, and their supporting environment and other influences which may be indicated by the changing size or condition of their horns.

Regional governments also utilize hunters to gather important data from the field. This is usually done by making it mandatory that certain parts of the harvested animal are submitted to the Game Branch as a condition of the species harvest tag. In this way biologists get to examine a diversity of a certain species all harvested within a quantified period of time and noted locations. Biologists examining sheep submissions here in the Yukon check for a number of important indicators. Yukon regulations require the complete head of a harvested ram be submitted for inspection.6https://yukon.ca/sites/yukon.ca/files/env/env-yukon-hunting-regulations-summary_en.pdf]]

The first thing they examine is if the horns are indeed a full curl as regulations prohibit harvesting a ram that is less than a full curl.

The biologists then extract a tooth to confirm the exact age of the animal by cutting the top off and counting the rings similar to the dendral or age rings of a tree. They may also take a tissue or blood sample to test for various diseases and infections the animals may suffer from. When all the tests have been completed the biologist bores a small hole in the top side of the horn facing the rear and epoxies a serialized aluminum plug into it. These plugs help to combat the underground trade of animal heads by having each head recorded by hunter, date and location.

Having access to all this data helps biologists to better understand the health of the wild sheep herds and may provide clues on where a disease is developing and which way it may be moving geographically.

Photo Credit: Kevin Pepper

Photo Credit: Kevin Pepper

Rams are famous for bashing their horns together to determine which is dominant for breeding purposes, but that is only for a few days each breeding season typically in late November and December. They also use their horns to communicate among themselves in ways that humans can only guess at. They will sometimes interlace their horns gently and rub their ears together which appears to be a welcoming gesture. Like most creatures, mountain sheep use body language to communicate with others. It may be a twisting of the head or extending their noses while they peel their lips back to reveal their teeth, or something as simple as their stance and how they wiggle their ears as they stare at others from a distance. They often grunt at each other as well.

Rams will often gently head-butt  each other as a form of greeting, similar to how a house cat bumps your leg when seeking attention. They can be quite gentle in their horn touching activities or they will get up on their hind legs and really lean into butting another ram with all the force they can muster.

Photo Credit Mark Newman

Photo Credit: Mark Newman

With remarkable muscle tone, balance and coordination mountain sheep demonstrate how well they have adapted to living on rock faces as they frolic and cavort in situations humans try to avoid. Often it will take a human significantly longer to cover a vertical climb it only took a few seconds for the sheep to navigate. Mountain sheep are remarkably strong and have endurance that allows them the energy and stamina to evade predators such as wolves and bears on the uneven and precarious mountain slopes they call home. Young lambs are a popular target for migrating Golden Eagles arriving in the spring season from their over-winter habitats. So sheep must be watching in all directions for potential dangers that could impact on them or their offspring.

Young lambs are a popular target for migrating Golden Eagles.  Ewes must be watching in all directions for potential dangers that could impact them or their offspring.

Mountain sheep have superior eyesight for distance and low-light conditions, they have horizontal pupils that help them to see panoramically to detect predators that could approach from different directions.  They also need to be able to see forward clearly so that they can run over rough terrain. They have excellent peripheral vision and can see behind themselves without turning their heads due to where their eyes are located on their skulls. Remember they need to look around their horns too.

Thinhorn Mountain Sheep are remarkable creatures perfectly adapted to thrive on the mountains of Northwestern Canada and Alaska and will remain a featured megafauna species here at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve.

Ram follows an Ewe closely.

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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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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Playful Prey

Playful Prey

Playful Prey

6 minute read –
As many of us know from watching our dogs, cats, or children at home, young animals love to play and they play often. Play behaviour has been observed in many mammals and even in reptiles1Burghardt, G. M. (2015). Play in fishes, frogs and reptiles. Current Biology, 25, 9-10. and octopuses!2Kuba, M. J., Byren, R. A., Meisel, D. V., & Mather, J. A. (2006). When do octopuses play? Effects of repeated testing, object type, age, and food deprivation on object play in Octopus vulgaris. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 120, 184-190.   While you and I can easily imagine what play looks like, researchers still want to learn more about the function play serves in an animal’s life.
Young animals love to play and they play often. Play behaviour has been observed in many mammals and even in reptiles and octopuses!  Seen here at Yukon Wildlife Preserve, lambs of Thinhorn mountain sheep frolic in the spring sunshine.
The majority of play in wild animals occurs when the individual is young, then becoming very infrequent (if occurring at all) in adults. Other behaviours are either expressed throughout an animal’s entire life such as eating, sleeping, and social behaviours, or are expressed at a certain time due to biological constraints, like mating behaviours that only occur when an animal is capable of reproducing. But play itself isn’t constrained by biology, so being concentrated during a particular time makes play an extremely unique behaviour that must have some key role in the animal’s development.
Play also often resembles other behaviours that show up later in life.3Pellis, S. M., & Pellis, V. (2009). The playful brain: venturing to the limits of neuroscience. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld.  Think about puppies that jump on each other with their mouths open, teeth showing, and playfully going for each other’s necks, or kittens that quietly hunch down and pounce on a toy. These animals are essentially practicing for either settling dominance disputes between pack members or becoming a fierce predator respectively. Play in prey animals like ungulates (hooved animals) often mimics their predator avoidance strategies, which may be giving playful prey an advantage in survival.4 Byers, J. A. (1984). Play in ungulates. In P. K. Smith (Ed.), Play in animals and humans (pp. 5-41). Oxford, U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Taking what we know about play and what mysteries remain to be revealed in specific species, I looked at the play behaviour in mule deer fawns to see if this pattern of play behaviour mimicking antipredator behaviour held in this species of deer.

To avoid losing fawns to predators in the summer, mule deer females rely on a good defense that often involves a coordinated effort of multiple females. In the winter, both males and females of all ages form large social groups which lowers their individual risk of being attacked. Knowing that mule deer adults are social and rely on being able to communicate with one another especially in stressful situations, the fawns should spend most of their time playing with each other to really build on these social skills, right?

What I love most about nature is that usually our simple assumptions don’t actually hold true.

In comparison with the closely related white-tailed deer, who use their speed and agility to out-run predators and will not defend their young, the fawns of both species played very similarly, instead of matching to their antipredator strategies.5Carter, R. N., Romanow, C. A., Pellis, S. M., & Lingle. S. (2019). Play for Prey: do deer fawns play to develop antipredator tactics or to prepare for the unexpected? Animal Behaviour, 156, 31-40.

So what is happening here?

Thinking back to the timing of play, when this behaviour is most common in an animal’s life is also when the cerebellum (the part of the brain responsible for movement and coordination) is undergoing the most growth and rapidly building connections between cells. This growth is influenced by the animal’s experiences at the time, leading us to believe that play may help with modifying the brain’s development by creating more connections in the cerebellum, increasing the animal’s ability to perform movements.6Byers, J. A., & Walker, C. (1995). Refining the motor training hypothesis for the evolution of play. American Naturalist, 146, 25-40.

The fawns followed the timing trend with the majority of play occurring when the fawns were less than four weeks old, decreasing as the fawns got older despite becoming more active during their days overall.7Carter, R. N., Romanow, C. A., Pellis, S. M., & Lingle. S. (2019). Play for Prey: do deer fawns play to develop antipredator tactics or to prepare for the unexpected? Animal Behaviour, 156, 31-40.

Figure 1. (A) The proportion of active time in which mule deer fawns of different ages played and (B) The average duration of active time for mule deer fawns at different ages.

During play, fawns spent most of their time running, stotting, and rapidly turning around while remaining close to their mom. Running and exploring the area where you are likely spending the most time, may give fawns the opportunity to learn how to navigate their surroundings and be better prepared to escape a predator.

Mule deer fawns also liked to perform chaotic twisty and twitchy movements during play that caused them to stumble around and almost lose their balance (though in a couple of instances the fawns did fall over!). These are what are known as “self-handicapping” movements in play and are thought to help a baby animal learn the limits of their bodies and how to correct themselves when they are close to losing their footing.8Spinka, M., Newberry, R. C., & Bekoff, M. (2001). Mammalian play: Training for the unexpected. Quarterly Review of Biology, 76, 141-168.

Figure 2. Sequence of self-handicapping movements during a fawn’s play.  Play Sketch based off of a video recording of play.

Imagine if a deer was trying to outrun a coyote, and that deer trips on a clump of grass. If that deer had spent time playing in a way that threw them off-balance, then they may have an easier time correcting themselves and continuing on, increasing their chance of survival.

Another part of the brain is involved here and that is the prefrontal cortex. This region is right behind your forehead and is responsible for planning, decision making, regulating emotions, and developing social skills.9Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., & Himmler, B. T. (2014). How play makes for a more adaptable brain: A comparative and neural perspectives. American Journal of Play, 7, 73-98.  Animals who are not given the chance to play show an increased stress and fear response when experiencing a novel situation and have difficulty interacting with other individuals as adults. The prefrontal cortex, like the cerebellum, undergoes a lot of growth and development when an animal is young, overlapping again when animals are the most playful.10van den Berg, C. L., Hol, T., van Ree, J. M., Spruijt, B. M., Everts, H., & Koolhaas, J. M. (1999). Play is indispensable for an adequate development of coping with social challenges in the rat. Developmental Psychobiology, 34, 129-138.

Instead of mule deer fawns playing to develop their specific antipredator strategy (using a coordinated defence against predators), play may more generally improve the fawn’s overall physical and emotional resilience as they grow into adulthood, gaining and refining the skills they need for their survival. The occurrence of play directly impacting survival has been found in grizzly bears,11 Fagen, R., & Fagen, J. (2009). Play behaviour and multi-year juvenile survival in free- ranging brown bears, Ursus arctos. Evolutionary Ecology Research, 11, 1-15. feral horses,12Cameron, E. Z., Linklater, W. L., Stafford, K. J., & Minot, E. O. (2008). Maternal in- vestment results in better foal condition through increased play behaviour in horses. Animal Behaviour, 76, 1511-1518. and mountain goats 13Théoret-Gosselin, R., Hamel, S., & Côté, S. D. (2015). The role of maternal behavior and offspring development in the survival of mountain goat kids. Oecologia, 178, 175-186. with the most playful cubs, foals, and kids being more likely to survive into adulthood.

Mountain Goat kid exploring its habitat at Yukon Wildlife Preserve.   The occurrence of play directly impacting survival has been found in grizzly bears, feral horses, and mountain goats with the most playful cubs, foals, and kids being more likely to survive into adulthood.

Playing by running and jumping around builds up the fawn’s strength, endurance, and coordination – all necessary for a prey animal’s survival. Also adding in those unique self-handicapping movements that twist and disorient the fawn may help to train them both physically and emotionally for dealing with unexpected, stressful situations akin to coming face-to-face with a predator.

Play is such a common and well-known behaviour that we see it every day and could point it out at any given time, yet in terms of its function for different animals, it remains a complex and fascinating behaviour. We think of play as a fun and relaxing activity yet it seems to have a critical impact on an animal’s survival by facilitating the development of crucial motor and cognitive skills.

So next time you are watching your pets play in the backyard or your children roughhousing in the living room, you can think of all the complex brain and motor skill development that is happening as well!

Rebecca Carter

Rebecca Carter

Visitor Services Coordinator

Rebecca joined the Wildlife Preserve in the summer of 2020 after moving from Manitoba to the beautiful and wild Yukon. Rebecca earned a degree in Biology with honours from the University of Winnipeg studying behaviour in mule deer (one of her top 20 favourite animals.. it’s hard to choose!). She loves connecting with others through nature and sharing stories and knowledge about the animals at the preserve with visitors.

867-456-7400
Rebecca@yukonwildlife.ca

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A Thinhorn Sheep’s Case for Eating your Greens

A Thinhorn Sheep’s Case for Eating your Greens

A Thinhorn Sheep’s Case for Eating your Greens

Did you know you can tell a Dall sheep’s age by their horns? There are dark brown grooves on the curl of the horn of a ram that are called anulis. If you count those grooves they will tell you how old he is. Actually, those grooves will tell you how many winters he’s been around.

Horns on a wild sheep and a sheep raised at the Wildlife Preserve both experience a stunted growth in the winter, but there are differences between the horns. One of the biggest reason for those differences is because wild sheep and Preserve sheep have different diets. Let’s take a closer look at some of those differences.

In Kluane National Park and Reserve where I have the privilege of working in the summers, there is a mountain called Sheep Mountain, home to 400 Dall sheep who spend their entire life on the mountain. Those wild sheep rely heavily on 20+ varieties of grasses and sedges making up 46% of their annual diet. They also eat several varieties of willows and sages, especially the pasture sage (artemisia frigida) which grows abundantly all over the mountain. Together sages and willows make up over 30% of their overall diet. In the summer, in addition to fresh grasses, sages and willow buds, the wild sheep feast on fresh alpine flowers, berries, lichens and horsetails, and they get the nutrients they need. In the winter though, their diets is drastically reduced to mostly dry grasses and sages. Because it takes a lot of energy to grow horns and the food is more scarce and less rich in nutrients during the hardest time of the year, sheep’s horns stop growing during the winter, leaving a deep dark grooves in the curl.

At the wildlife Preserve, sheep are fed pellets containing a special formula with many of the nutrients they need to be healthy, and this on a daily base. Sheep at the Preserve are also less vulnerable to disease as they are vaccinated and cared for when sick. Although the growth of the horns is diminished during the winter and the rings can still be observed, they are not as obvious and well defined as the rings on the horns of a wild sheep. Comparatively, the size of the horns of a wild ram is generally smaller than the size of the horns of a Preserve ram of the same age.

The structure of the horns is also a bit different. The horns on a sheep at the Preserve are a lot smoother than the horns of its wild relative. The wild sheep’s horns are quite bumpy and the color is somewhat darker. This is also due to the difference between their respective diets. The formula given to the sheep at the Preserve have certain minerals that alter the chemical composition of the horns.

Sheep Mountain has become a popular destination for many outdoors lovers looking for the challenge of a good hike up to the  ridge, both for the amazing scenery and for the hope of getting a closer view at the sheep in their natural habitat. As this hike is attracting more and more visitors, the staff is increasingly doing more education about approaching the sheep. Hikers are asked not to come within 50 meters of the sheep, even when they are lying down, and to travel below them whenever possible. The sheep get very nervous when they perceive a threat and their natural instincts is to run up hill.  A few years back I was observing a lone ewe (female sheep), when she suddenly started bolting upwards on the mountain. Not to far behind and above her, a black shape came running and cut her off. It was a wolf and it was all over in no time. Since dogs can very easily be mistaken for a wolf, it is imperative for dogs to be on leash at all time. When the sheep are laying down they are digesting their food which has to go through 4 different stomach chambers in order to absorb all the nutrients they need. It’s a harsh life up on the mountain and the sheep only have access to fresh nutritious foods for about 4 months out of the year. They need to eat all they can to make it through the next winter and if they are constantly being distracted and interrupted while eating or digesting, they are not getting the nutrients they need to fatten-up for the winter.

Of course here at the Preserve the sheep are well feed and don’t experience many of the stresses of their cousins of the wild, including the risk of starvation or the stress associated with predators looming or human–caused distractions.

In any case, the next time you come to visit us, take a closer look at the horns on one of our beautiful ram and see if you can spot some of those rings. Can you tell how old he is?

 

This article orgingally appeared in the Preserve Post Quarterly Newsletter in Winter 2015. 

Johanne Maisonneuve

Johanne Maisonneuve

Johanne joined the Wildlife Preserve in the Fall of 2014 as a wildlife Interpreter in the winter. In the summer she is a visitor attendant at Kluane National Park and Reserve. Passionate about the outdoors, she has spent a lot of her time learning about the ways of the land throughout the Yukon in the 40 years + she has lived in the territory. A cabin dweller at heart, she now enjoys sharing her knowledge and experience with visitors from all over the world who come to visit the Wildlife Preserve. 

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