By John Pollpeter
Exciting news for the Woodlands Nature Station as staff welcomed five little squiggly red wolf puppies in the small wolf den on April 26, 2022. There was some suspicion as Ember, the four-year-old mother, started to show signs of pregnancy a few days prior, which can be difficult to tell until parturition. Jasper, the 75-pound, 13-year-old male, also started to show protective behaviors and began delivering food to Ember, which are telltale signs of upcoming pups. Once these changes were noticed, staff whirled into puppy mode, checking the dens twice a day, setting them up with soft bedding, and increasing food amounts. And on that Tuesday, those suspicions were confirmed to be correct. Three males and two females were born. Sadly, one male pup did not survive the first 24 hours, which is not uncommon with large litters. But the other four, dubbed by the staff as the “Fantastic Four”, continue to grow and get stronger every day.
The Woodlands Nature Station has been involved with the Red Wolf Recovery Program since 1991. Over its 30-year history, it has been home to four litters of red wolf pups. Extirpated from Kentucky, the only red wolves found in the state are the captive pair at the Nature Station. Nationwide, there are only 200 American red wolves left, with almost 99% of those living in zoos and nature centers. A small population of around twenty animals live in the wild in northeastern North Carolina and St. Vincent Island in Florida. There is no intention to release any red wolves into Land Between the Lakes, as its high population of coyotes would be a direct threat to any potential of red wolf establishment. The population of coyotes in Land Between the Lakes is estimated to be about 350-450 individuals. Coyotes are a more successful species, tolerant to human development, and more adaptable than red wolves. Red wolves, endemic to the southern United States, disappeared in the 20th century. The more adaptable coyote moved into its former range in the 1970’s as they traveled eastward, with territory for the taking. The coyote has assumed much of the role of the red wolf in the ecosystem as “top dog” or apex predator.
These puppies were a more-than-welcome surprise, as the Red Wolf Recovery Program deemed Jasper too old to breed, as no red wolf male has been able to breed successfully over the age of 12 years. So, Jasper broke the record and surprised the team, with the healthy litter of four. This litter marks an extremely important step forward, as Jasper’s genes were deemed the seventh most valuable for the success of the red wolf species. This is Ember’s first litter, and although nervous, she has turned out to be a very dedicated mother. It is very interesting to see the teamwork this monogamous pair of wolves conducts in raising its litter. Jasper patrols the dens, standing guard just outside, and brings food to Ember. Meanwhile, Ember spends most of her time nursing, maintaining the pups’ temperatures, keeping the den clean, and moving them from den to den depending on their current needs.
The new pups are still quite vulnerable. We could easily lose them in the next few weeks to an environmental or unknown genetic factor. After about four to six weeks of age, the pups, with their parents’ assistance, will venture out of the den on their own. It is at this time that the visiting public will have a chance to see them. The Facebook account for the Woodlands Nature Station will produce weekly “Pupdates”, allowing visitors to follow along on their journey of growth and development. Regular red wolf programs will be given in June when the wolf pups are more likely to be seen. At times, Nature Station volunteers and staff will have interpretive booths to talk about the red wolves and possibly point out the pups. So, it looks like it could be an exciting summer, giving the public a chance to learn more about this critically endangered canine, the American Red Wolf (Canis rufus).