Most people who saw the movie, or read Farley Mowat's controversial non-fiction book "Never Cry Wolf" know about the research that was done in the 1950's and 60's regarding the diseased caribou populations in the Alaskan wilderness. Ecologists initially suspected that wolves were killing off the population, but it turned out that the caribou herds suffered from serious disease. The wolves were actually helping to thin out the sickly members of the caribou population.
Perhaps less known, but equally poignant, is the Isle Royale study of wolves and moose in northern Michigan. The study is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Some of the findings have far reaching implications.
It turns out that the wolves and moose on Isle Royale are ecologically dependent upon one another. The wolves eat the moose and thin out the population. And in turn when the moose population drops, it has the same effect on the wolves, thinning out the size of the wolf packs. The fifty years of research has confirmed an ebb and flow of life on the beautiful Lake superior archipelago.
But the study has provided many other wonderful insights.
For example, sometimes people think that ecological interdependence implies a mechanical or deterministic view of the cosmos -- place that can be absolutely predicted and calculated and a universe without free will, chaos, randomness, and personality.
But by watching the wolves closely, the Isle Royale ecologists observed something paradoxical about the ebb and flow of life on the Island.
In January of 2000, while observing the wolves, researchers watched a lone female wolf enter into the territory of the middle island pack (the dominant pack of four wolf packs on Isle Royale). The female wolf was immediately attacked by the fierce middle pack. She was wounded badly and forced into the icy waters of Lake Superior.
Although the wolf should have drowned, she survived and swam to the shore. Then one of the male wolves from the middle pack split from his group to lick the wounds of the female. The two later mated and formed a new pack on the Island that soon became dominant.
The ebb and flow of life within the island's wolf packs is curious. The story of the lone female wolf and the male wolf abandoning his pack implies choice and free will (a paradox when considered alongside of nature's collective dance on Isle Royale).
Thanks to fifty years of studying wolves on Isle Royale we can see that although nature is in a constant state of balancing itself out, our choices still matter in some mysterious and paradoxical way.