Research: Mid-Size Carnivores

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While Denali may be well known for large carnivores like wolves and bears, Denali is also home to multiple mid-sized (or "meso") carnivores: coyotes, red foxes, wolverines, river otters, mink, American marten, and Canada lynx.

  • Coyotes and red foxes are both canids, meaning they belong to the dog family. Learn more about red foxes.

    Coyotes are a relative newcomer to this area, having arrived sometime in the 1920s.

    In July 1928, superintendent Harry Karstens noted in his monthly report the presence of coyotes in the area: "The coyote has introduced himself in the past three years, as previous to that there were no coyotes in this section of Alaska."

    Coyotes are larger than foxes but smaller than wolves, typically weighing about 30 lbs. Coyotes are very adaptable and over the past 300 years have expanded their range to live all over North and Central America, from tropical jungles to deserts to the arctic! Coyotes in Denali usually live in male-female pairs, and hunt small game such as voles, ptarmigan, ground squirrels, and snowshoe hares.
  • Wolverine, American marten, river otter, and mink are all members of the weasel family. Learn more about wolverines.

    Marten are small, only a few pounds at the most, but fierce hunters. Marten are excellent climbers and generally live in forested areas where they hunt squirrels and birds. They also eat voles and other small rodents. Mink are similar in size to Marten, but are aquatic and streamside hunters who focus on fish, muskrats, and other small mammals. River otters are a larger (about 15–20lb), widespread species known for their gregarious natures and high-energy antics between dips in the water to hunt for fish.
  • The Canada lynx is Alaska’s only wild cat species. Known for their secretive natures, lynx are ambush predators that focus on snowshoe hare, squirrels, and ptarmigan. Their large feet and long legs help them “float” on the snow and achieve amazing bursts of speed.
Denali also has “micro-carnivores” like ermine and shrews, as well as predatory bird and fish species. Denali’s wide variety of predators indicate the health of its ecosystems.

Will I See a Mid-Sized Carnivore in Denali?

None of these species are highly abundant in Denali, and you should consider yourself lucky to spot any of them. Foxes are the most common, with sightings usually in tundra areas, or along the roadside. Sightings of lynx are less common, but during years when snowshoe hares are abundant, lynx sightings do increase, generally in forested or brushy areas. Coyotes maintain large territories and are very spread out, so sightings are uncommon.

Look for coyotes in alpine areas and on gravel river bars. Wolverine and marten are more rare and are both very shy—sightings of these species are special occasions. Wolverine are most likely to be spotted in rugged alpine areas, and marten are sometimes glimpsed whisking out of site in spruce forests. Look for mink and otters in and around streams, lakes, and rivers, where they search for fish.

Distinguishing Coyotes and Wolves

Distinguishing wolves from coyotes can be difficult, especially at a distance or in poor lighting. Here are some key things to look for:
  • Tail: Coyotes have a large, long, fluffy tail, while wolves have thinner tails that are slightly shorter in comparison to their height.
  • Ears: Coyotes have very large pointed ears that stand out a long ways from their heads. Wolves’ ears are smaller relative to their head size, and slightly less pointed.
  • Muzzle: Coyote have narrow muzzles that come to a sharp point. The muzzle of a wolf is thicker and blockier.
  • Size: While it may be hard to tell the size of an animal without a good reference, coyotes are only knee-high and about 30lbs at most, whereas wolves are much taller and weigh approximately 80-110lbs.
  • Sound: Both coyotes and wolves howl, and sometimes this may be the only clue to their presence. The howls of coyotes are high-pitched and dynamic, with many changes in tone. They are often interspersed with yips, barks, and other sounds. The howl of wolves is often described as “mournful” because it is lower and pitch changes are slower and more drawn out. Wolves rarely bark or make other sounds while howling.

Why Study Mid-Sized Carnivores in Denali?

Historically, most research on carnivores was dominated by predator-prey interactions, like Murie’s research on wolves and Dalls sheep. Since then, biologists have begun looking beyond simple predator-prey relationships to consider complex, multi-species interactions that make up an ecosystem. For example, many carnivore species, especially smaller ones, are both predators AND prey. These species must simultaneously hunt for their dinners while avoiding becoming dinner! Understanding these predator-predator interactions can be challenging, but they are an integral part of how the ecosystem functions.

Recent and Ongoing Mesocarnivore Research in Denali

In March of 2012, Denali park biologists noticed an apparent increase in the coyote population as the number of wolves—top predators in the park—declined. Were these changes related, or was the increase in coyotes being driven by something else, like their own prey? And what would it mean for other carnivore species if coyotes increased?

Subsequently, Denali National Park and researcher Laura Prugh, then at University of Alaska Fairbanks, launched a collaborative study to illuminate more about the relationships between wolves, mesocarnivores, and mesocarnivore habitat quality and prey. The study focused particularly on coyotes, since they are new to this ecosystem. This study approached the issue using multiple techniques and lines of questioning.

  • In part one of the study, graduate students Kelly Sivy and Casey Pozzanghera collected data on snow tracks and scat contents to investigate the spatial and diet relationships of mesocarnivores. They found that although mesocarnivores seemed more abundant in areas with fewer wolves, mesocarnivores were more likely to be active near to wolves, suggesting that perhaps they were sticking close to wolves hoping to scavenge, even though this is a risky strategy. Fox and coyote scat both showed evidence of scavenging on wolf kills. Read more details about this study of the spatial and diet relationships of mesocarnivores
  • In part two, graduate student Kaija Klauder directly examined scavenging dynamics using camera trap images from carcass sites, and looked at data from GPS-collared coyotes to better understand coyote movements and use of habitat relative to wolves. Wolves and wolverines used carrion (dead animals) heavily in winter, but coyote and foxes were rarely seen on camera - an interesting contrast with the diet study. Collar data revealed that although coyotes avoided being near to wolves year-round, in the summer they avoided areas of generally heavy wolf use, while in the winter preferred them. This could be explained by scavenging, or by the restrictions of deep winter snows forcing many animals into similar travel routes. Read more details about this study of how scavenging dynamics help us better understand coyote movements and use of habitat relative to wolves.

There are many more questions that can be asked about Denali’s mesocarnivores. For example, a pilot study suggested that wolverines may be more abundant in the park than in adjacent areas. This opens up research questions such as why that might be the case, and whether the park is acting as a “source” of wolverines in this region. In the western part of Denali, marten are an important species for subsistence trapping, and park scientists are interested in researching some of the aspects of marten reproduction and habitat use that remain to be understood.

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Last updated: July 15, 2019

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