Fourteen wolves, a book about rebuilding Yellowstone

For several years now, we haven’t reviewed books for teens and children in these pages. However, we love the idea of ​​starting over, because some of them are – we think – really a way to bring science closer to the young and because… our older readers loved them too! This is the case of fourteen wolves (Science Editorial, 2021), by Catherine Barr, an ecologist and journalist who, before dedicating herself to children’s books, worked with Greenpeace and then at the Natural History Museum in London. Illustrations in the volume by Jenny Desmond, already a 2016 winner of the The New York Times Best picture book for kids Polar bear.

fourteen wolves It retraces a story that many other books and articles have already quoted, cited, and taken as an example—even if you’ve never had the prospect of telling it to children: It’s the rebuilding of Yellowstone Park, the world’s first national park (it was actually founded in March 1872). Here, in 1995, the fourteen wolves that gave the book its title were flown in from Canada by helicopter, duly anesthetized, and after a while into large enclosed areas for the environment, released for free into the park. They were the first to set foot on those lands since the late 1920s (although others were introduced in the following years): in fact, hunting activity completely wiped out the population of Yellowstone.

Stories of failure and return

When we talk about ecosystems, we know that we are talking about many elements that are directly or indirectly related to each other, and where the change of one affects the others in a chain. When the “wolf element” disappeared from the park, one of the first and most obvious effects was observed on herbivores, particularly the wapiti (Cervus elaphus canadensis), a subspecies of royal deer from North America and Northeast Asia. Although it is the main prey for many species that inhabit the park, such as bears, and partly coyotes, as well as to human visitors (Yellowston Park site) Reports Wapiti hunting is an important activity in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, the three states where the park is located), and the absence of the wolf has had a significant impact on the Wapiti population. In fact, in the seventy years or so before the wolf was brought back, the population of Yellowstone’s wapiti had grown enough to damage the vegetation. One studio Posted a few years ago on biological conservation, where the authors proposed an analysis of the triple food chain that includes the wolf, the wapiti and some plant species 15 years after the re-wolf, it is reported that in the beginning of the 1990s, the number of deer exceeded 15,000 samples. This had several consequences: the vegetation decreased, especially the poplars, willows and other deciduous species, and with it the birds that nested there and the beavers, whose damming activity helped protect the river banks; With their absence, erosion began.

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The return of the wolf to human action has profoundly reshaped this ecological landscape, making it one of the most cited and studied examples of literature reconstruction. The effects were felt above all on the wapiti, whose population declined in favor of plant species and, with it, its companion animals. It is particularly interesting to note that the effect did not depend exclusively and directly on larger predation on this deer but on how it changed its behaviour. With the return of the main predator, in fact, the wapiti also began to avoid areas where they were most likely to attack – at least, as evidenced by Element For 2018, in the moments of the day when the wolf is most active.

Overall, these factors meant that vegetation could recover; One of the most significant impacts was the increase in beaver numbers (also helped, again, by the reintroduction of some specimens): the 49 colonies present in the park in 1996 They have become 127 in 2007. Although this does not depend exclusively on improved vegetation, particularly willow trees which are an important food resource, the positive impact of this recovery is undeniable, which has restored moist habitats that also benefit amphibians, birds and insects.. .

The complexity of ecosystem dynamics

The reconstruction of the Yellowstone wolf has been an unusual study opportunity for many researchers. Over time, the research partially underestimated the role this predator played in the changes that occurred in the park. For example, by analyzing data collected over ten years, one studio Posted in From the Royal Society b He highlighted that wolf predation on herbivores alone is not actually sufficient to restore the park’s riverside ecosystem; On the other hand, the work of the beaver itself played a major role, adjusting the hydrological conditions, improving the yield of willows. stay like Reports D article pocket, the particularly long and intense hunting period and drought period may have contributed to the deer population decline prior to the return of the wolf.

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At the same time, other work highlights how the wolf behaves in the park’s ecological dynamics in ways not immediately understood, for example by helping to enhance the resilience of the wapiti to climatic conditions: in water-scarce years (when therefore increasing scarcity of vegetation that Deer can feed on it), wolves feed on males more, allowing females to reproduce. And the possibility of maintaining the stability of the wapiti population, which before the return of the wolf was subject to strong changes mainly related to climatic conditions, helps them in this. Better deal with droughts, which could increase due to climate change. On the other hand, how He writes David Misch, one of the world’s leading wolf experts, on controversies and the role of the species, sometimes described as nearly salvation and sometimes severely reduced: “The wolf is neither a saint nor a sinner except for those who want to make it. I know.”

Not all of the consequences of the wolf’s return, nor the actions that diminish its role in shaping the ecology of Yellowstone Park, have been addressed in fourteen wolves. On the other hand, this is a children’s book, and if there is one aspect that emerges clearly from these studies, it is that the observed environmental dynamics are extraordinarily complex. However, the book has precisely this advantage: the ability to recreate even the youngest, clearly, the complexity of ecosystems, and the deep interweaving that connects different elements, from the wolf to plants passing through other animals, to the young. , which can Take advantage of the corpses of prey. And while the beautiful illustrations relive the magnificence of the described ecosystem for the reader, the narration, which can take into account even some small aspects of wolf biology (hunting at dusk, dangers of the pups), becomes especially relevant to us. Living in an area where the wolf has returned naturally, without resettlement procedures. Today, in the face of the widespread controversy we are witnessing about the restoration of the wolf in Italy, it may be worth reading and allowing fourteen wolves, just to remind us that the consequences of their existence can certainly be of great benefit to the environment, but above all, they are not taken for granted or immediately understood.

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