Psychedelically colored wolves depicted by thermal imaging will shed light on how mange affects the survival, reproduction and social behavior of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.
Scientists will begin using the thermal imagery on wild wolves in February. Remotely triggered thermal-imagery cameras will be set at locations that wolves frequent and the resulting images will be uploaded to computers weekly for Cross and his colleagues to examine.
To see them, visit: http://nrmsc.usgs.gov/research/mange_wolvesYNP
Cross was cutting a patch of hair off a captive wolf in the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone as part of a study he'll carry over to Yellowstone National Park this February. Cross is a disease ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Bozeman.
"Not much is known about mange," said Doug Smith, Yellowstone's wolf biologist. "All the work done about it is descriptive. We think it's affecting the size of the population."
The cameras will record the actual temperature of the animals photographed and save it onto a memory card, just like a digital camera. Those images can then be collected weekly and downloaded to a computer for viewing.
Wolves are so well insulated that when resting on the ground in the evening, they are hard for the thermal-imaging camera to differentiate from a rock, Cross said.
"Like many cold-adapted animals, they're very good at insulating," he said.
Once the wolves start moving around, the camera picks up heat signatures coming from the wolves' eyes and legs.
"Shaving patches in the wolves help us make sure what our equipment should be detecting in the field," he said. "And it gives us a baseline of healthy skin to compare to the infected wolves."
Cross theorizes that infected wolves will have to increase their food intake to compensate for a loss of fur.
"We expect them to have to kill more to supplement their energy costs," he said.
On the flip side, the wolves may be less efficient hunters because of the loss of fur. He's also wondering if other wolves in the pack will help nurture a sick wolf by sharing food, or is it simply survival of the fittest.