Can we predict individual identity, age, and gender of Mexican gray wolves from their scent?

New Mexico State University
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Open Access
Tax Deductible
DOI: 10.18258/4256
Raised of $1,500 Goal
Funded on 6/17/15
Successfully Funded
  • $1,510
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 6/17/15

About This Project

Wolves play an important role in ecosystem health. When re-introduced into forests like Yellowstone, they helped control elk/deer populations and increased streamside vegetation. Our project aims to non-invasively identify rare and elusive Mexican wolves using their "scent", to get more accurate population count and estimates of age and gender structure. This is critical for informing forest restoration efforts in the Southwest. Backers will be rewarded with seeing the science, as it unfolds!

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What is the context of this research?

Every year, the USFWS estimates the population size of Mexican wolves as one metric to assess their progress in meeting recovery goals. Such efforts are time consuming and costly and individuals born in the wild maybe missed,

Consequently, it is of paramount importance to develop non-invasive methods of population estimation that are both cost-effective and accurate. Traditional non-invasive approaches for estimating the abundance of carnivores include 1/remote camera traps, which are especially useful if individuals can be identified based on unique coat color patterns (e.g., tigers) and 2/through the use of genetic identification either from scat (Kohn and Wayne 1997) or from tissue samples obtained with hair snare traps (Gardner et al. 2010).

The first approach is not feasible for Mexican wolves because they do not have a unique pelage, and the latter genetic approaches can be costly, take time to implement and are prone to issues such as allelic dropout which confound individual identification (DeBarba and Waits 2010).

We propose to test a new technology, based on the chemical odorant profile of scat, to quickly, inexpensively, and accurately identify individual Mexican wolves.

What is the significance of this project?

Although methods using scat are non-invasive and effective, the scientific value of samples could be enhanced if genotypes amplified from DNA sloughed off the intestinal lining and adhering to a scat sample was substituted with a less expensive and equally accurate approach.

During the past five years, we have explored a concept where chemical instruments are used to develop odorant profiles from volatile metabolites in scat that can identify individual animals ( Jones and Cheung 2007). This chemical information can provide information on the demographics of wolves and aid forensics at kill sites (Deagle and Tollit 2007, Kuhn and Natsch 2009, Kwak et al. 2009, Carrera et al. 2008, Matejusova et al. 2008).

We have proven in exploratory studies that metabolic profiling of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in scat can identify species, serving immediately as a fast and inexpensive substitute for DNA barcoding (Burnham et al. 2008). Economics strongly favor our approach where the cost per sample can be ~$14 compared to $100-150 for genotypic identification using molecular markers like microsatellites (Burnham 2006).

What are the goals of the project?

Our immediate goal is to compare scat-DNA-PCR identifications (i.e. DNA barcoding) with identifications using analytical chemistry instrumentation with chemometric (i.e. VOC) analysis.

The research dollars will be used to pay for fuel and time required to find and store approximately 100 field collected scats.


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The first step is collection of scats. Since Mexican wolves are rare and elusive, much time and fuel is needed to drive and hike roads and trails in the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area; approximately 83 wolves are occupying an area of 5,268 square miles! It is difficult to distinguish between wolf and coyote scats in the field, so more than 100 scats will need to be collected to ensure that at least 100 wolf scats are included. At least 100 scats are needed for the statistical results to be robust and significant. That is, we must be sure that the biomarkers that are discovered can be used again in the future for estimates, and with the same accuracies.

Donations will be processed by Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity registered in the state of California. Your gift is tax-deductible to the fullest extent of the law.

Meet the Team

Eric Burnham
Eric Burnham

Team Bio

I became interested in wolves after reading Barry Lopez' excellent book, Of Wolves and Men. I worked for three years as a wolf field technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. I earned a Master's of Science degree in Wildlife Science here in New Mexico, and since then I have been working on analytical chemistry instrumentation identification of canid species, individual, age, and gender identification of gray wolves using zoo scat samples. Now I want to extend this method to free-ranging wild wolves. I like to ride my mountain bike on trails here in the desert a few times a week, and I play, and continue to learn how to play, flamenco guitar.

Project Backers

  • 22Backers
  • 100%Funded
  • $1,510Total Donations
  • $68.64Average Donation
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