Gray wolves could emerge as a “canary in the coal mine” of global warming by suggesting how climate change will affect species around the world, researchers say.
“We’re not so much looking at wolves as a predator but as an indicator,” says environmental scientist Christopher Wilmers of the University of California-Berkeley. Shorter winters without wolves mean about 66% fewer elk deaths every April, which threatens starvation for scavengers.
With wolves preying on elk, however, the drop in carrion is only about 11%, a much less dire situation.
“Because gray wolves are so intensively studied, they may give us very good data on the effects of climate change,” says ecologist Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund in Bozeman, Mont. “More specialized species, such as snowshoe hares, could show such effects even sooner,” he says, “but they receive less study.”