In her first year at Hollins, Virginia Lucey ’24 experienced an epiphany after taking classes and labs in environmental science and ecology. “I really got into it,” the sophomore from Great Falls, Virginia, said. “I was definitely interested in pursuing environmental science as my major.”
For her ecology lab, Lucey got a taste of experiential work beyond the classroom when she and a friend tracked bird migration. She realized, “My favorite part of science is getting my hands dirty, the going outside part,” and she set her sights on performing field research during this year’s January Short Term. Because of the richness in biodiversity there, she learned there were numerous opportunities for field work in locations around the equator. She intended to pursue such projects someday, but for the moment, Lucey wanted something a little closer to home. In addition, she was more interested in how northern species have evolved and was drawn to studying more about them.
Struggling to find programs that focused on northern ecology, Lucey contacted her advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Elizabeth Gleim. “She reached out to some Hollins alumnae, and one of the opportunities she quickly found involved researching wolves in Minnesota. I thought, ‘That sounds amazing.’”
For J-term 2022, Lucey was accepted at Osprey Wilds, a private, nonprofit residential environmental learning center located in east central Minnesota. Blending classroom instruction with extensive hands-on research, the center “allows students to come in and get field experience for the first time,” she explained. “The student research actively contributes to the work of Osprey Wilds.”
After arriving in early January, Lucey worked an intensive schedule of ten-hour days for two weeks. She and approximately 40 other students from across the country began by absorbing the basics of everything from wolf ecology and the politics of wolf conservation to tracking wolves and other northern animals such as bears and birds. With this foundational knowledge, the group headed north to Ely, Minnesota, home of the International Wolf Center, which “advances the survival of wolf populations by teaching about wolves, their relationship to wildlands, and the human role in their future.” There, the students observed the ambassador wolves Axel, Grayson, and the seven-month-old pup, Rieka.
“Every day was a different kind of adventure,” she recalled. At the Wildlife Science Center near Osprey Wilds, the students observed the behavior of more than 100 wolves. “About half of the wolves had been born at the research center and were bottle-fed, and the other half came from wolfpacks that had been rescued after they had become a problem in a certain area. It was cool to see the difference in how they behaved. Bottle-fed wolves are much more dangerous than wild wolves. To a fully wild wolf, humans are an unknown so they tend to avoid us. Bottle-fed wolves don’t fear us and almost see us as part of the wolf hierarchy.” Thus, Lucey noted, it’s humans trying to “domesticate” or “tame” wolves that leads to dangerous interactions, not wolves themselves. Wild wolves will avoid humans, whereas wolves that have been raised around them will interact more closely. They do not see humans as a source of food, but close interaction can be dangerous if they think a human is threatening their pack position or territory.
After working at the Wildlife Science Center and International Wolf Center, Lucey and her group traveled still farther north, where they actively tracked wild wolves, both in the air and on the ground. “We did telemetry flights, where we went up in little four-seater planes and tracked wolfpacks based off of radio collars,” she said. They also spent extensive time hiking in forests and on ice. “We’d be like, ‘It’s so warm today!’ when the temperature rose to minus-15 degrees. Wolf research is mainly done in the winter. The main time you can see wolves from the air is when they are traveling over frozen lakes. That’s the only time you’re going to catch them from out under the trees, where they blend in completely. When it comes to tracking them in the woods, you can follow their step-by-step paw prints through the snow. During the summer you really can’t do that unless of course you’re an exceptionally skilled tracker.”
In the Minnesota wilderness in January, weather conditions are generally the biggest potential hazard. “We spent a lot of time in advance studying about winter survival, how to avoid frostbite and warm up different appendages.” But just because wild wolves weren’t a significant threat didn’t mean she and her group could let down their guard. The students were eager to find moose tracks, but they wanted to avoid any close interactions with a live moose, particularly if they had a calf with them, which makes a moose more dangerous than wolves.
“A wolf will see you and think, ‘You’re not worth the trouble’” Lucey explained. “A moose will see you and think, ‘If I don’t attack you, you may attack me,’ or its calf.”
Conducting research at sites where wolves killed prey such as deer offered Lucey some of the most fascinating learning experiences. However, finding those sites often depended on happenstance. “We would be driving somewhere and would suddenly stop because our instructor had seen vultures or ravens. He would take us out to where they were and we’d find kill sites that were sometimes still in process – a wolf will come back to one several times if it’s a big prey. In one case, we got to do an informal dissection to gather information such as how healthy a deer was at the time of the kill.”
Lucey described her two weeks in Minnesota as “an amazing opportunity for anyone who wants to look into field research and prepare for what it’s really like. It’s not always pretty – a lot of wild animal research is dealing with blood and guts and scat – but our instructors and others made sure we got to listen to a lot of cool people, leading experts who are running a lot of different wolf projects all over the world. We got to learn about opportunities that you can’t find out about online.”
She added, “Wolves are one of those big charismatic animals that field researchers dream of working with, and the reality of getting into that selective field is small. So, this was definitely a step into that. It was just an awesome experience.”
Top photo: Virginia Lucey ’24 (far left) with members of her wolf tracking group (photo by Autumn Pozniak)