Sit down with any biologist and they’ll explain in detail how their industry has shed so much light on the amazing species of plants and animals that inhabit our planet. In a relatively short amount of time, so much has been discovered.
However, even though thousands of hours are spent uncovering secrets of the natural world, there are still some things researchers know almost nothing about. But, a field biologist named An Nguyen just shed some light on one the most mysterious.
Every day, field biologists set out to gather lots of information about new plants and animal species to help better understand the roles they play in the environment. One country still full of mystery, however, is Vietnam.
Vietnamese field biologist An Nguyen spends countless hours exploring the exotic life sprawled throughout his home country. He spent years honing his practice, and according to him, Vietnam has a plethora of things yet to be discovered.
Especially in the dense forests covering much of the country. Nguyen’s goal is to discover new species of animals every time he goes out in the field, and he has a special way of keeping track of them.
Each time he encounters something new, he gets a tally mark tattoo on his wrist. It might sound a little crazy, but this guy is passionate about his work. And recently, he added another tattoo to the bunch.
Nguyen and a partner headed into the Greater Annamites Ecoregion — a vast stretch of forest that runs throughout eastern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia — looking for an elusive animal that went missing years ago.
It’s called the silver-backed chevrotain, but many people also refer to it as a “mouse-deer.” Of course, the animal is not the result of deer and mice mating. The name comes from their physical appearance.
Don’t they look like they have the stature of a deer but the face of a mouse? Well, these little creatures are extremely rare, and although Nguyen knew they were supposed to live in Vietnam, he never actually saw one himself.
The species is actually on the world’s “most wanted mammals” list. They’re so rare that biologists all over have a particularly strong urge to find them. Also on that list is the Wondiwoi tree kangaroo and the long-beaked echidna.
In fact, there are a total of 1,200 species on the Global Wildlife Conservation most wanted list. Chevrotains are also listed as being “data deficient,” meaning very little information about them exists.
The first person to ever give an account of the silver-backed chevrotains was a British zoologist named Oldfield Thomas. In 1910, he came across four chevrotain carcasses, but no sign of any more.
For the next 80 years no one came across even one chevrotain, which naturally led scientists to believe the animal was extinct. However, that all changed in 1990 when Russian researchers got their hands on an actual specimen.
This didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t extinct, however. Snare hunting caused the demise of many species throughout Vietnam, and the chevrotains could easily have succumb to the cruel tactic. But, Nguyen was determined to find answers.
Nguyen and his crew interviewed villagers in the area, and when they described occasionally seeing an animal that matched the chevrotain’s description, the team rigged up three cameras in the forest.
Nguyen set up the cameras in November 2017, and they stayed there until April 2018. After reviewing the footage, he was shocked to see there, in front of the lens, was an actual silver-backed chevrotain!
It wasn’t just one either. All three of the camera locations saw plenty of chevrotain action during those months! However, to ensure the numbers Nguyen recorded weren’t inflated, he had a specific method of calculating his estimate.
Nguyen and his team counted every hour of action as one “event.” Incredibly, all three camera captured a total of 72 events. Now that’s a lot of chevrotains! Nguyen was astounded by the discovery.
Although the footage didn’t give them specific information about the biology of the animal, they were able to jot down tons of notes regarding behavioral patterns, which was so much more than they ever had.
The excitement of the first camera experiment led to another batch of cameras placed in the area. This time, 208 events occurred from April 2018 to July 2018! This was concrete evidence the chevrotains were thriving.
However, the research was far from thorough. Lots more studies must be done to truly learn the ins and outs of the chevrotains. One worry the team had was that bringing attention to the species might cause poachers to hunt them.
Despite the worry, Nguyen was ecstatic he managed to land footage of the elusive chevrotains; it was a field biologist’s dream come true. It was the same excitement one photographer felt after he captured his own footage of a rare species.
There are three recognized species of wolves with numerous subspecies varying from region to region. These packs are made up of fearsome predators who easily dominate their prey. Their main nutritional source is red meat.
The most common and well-known wolf is the gray wolf. These wolves live all over the world, but the second largest gray wolf population inhabits Canada. In fact, 90 percent of the historic habitat range remains the same for these gray wolves.
Although Gray Wolves widely inhabit Canada, there is a small group of wolf species that lives in a remote part of Canada. Many Canadians have never heard of them, and most Canadians have never seen one in the wild.
They might be widely mistaken for one of the three main wolf species, but they are quite different in every way from their hunting habits, living environments, and their demeanor. They live a totally different lifestyle on the secluded coast of British Columbia.
This wolf inhabits the vast 250 miles of coastline and roughly 25,000-square miles of forest in the Great Bear Rainforest. Glaciers have carved out massive fjords with dangerously steep inclines and finger-like tidal areas that drain into the rich ocean teeming with marine life. What animal would be tough enough to live here?
A sea wolf, of course! They get their name for their preferred diet of seafood only. There are several months out of the year that sea wolves strictly prey on fresh salmon entering the ocean, but that’s not all they will eat from the plentiful coast.
Sea wolves also hunt larger animals like sea lions and seals. Sometimes they opt to eat a far less strenuous meal by digging up clams or catching crabs under rocks. So, the first way these creatures differ from your average wolf is by diet. Some sea wolves go their whole lives without ever even seeing a deer.
According to Ian McAllister, a photographer who has studied these animals for more than 20 years, “DNA studies show that these wolves are genetically distinct from their continental kin.” So, while they may have “wolf” in their name, they’re actually something quite different.
“They are also behaviorally distinct,” said McAllister, “swimming from island to island and preying on sea animals.” They are capable of swimming for miles to get from one island to another. They can also completely survive by island hopping without ever needing to leave the coastline.
McAllister also stated, “They are also morphologically distinct — they are smaller in size and physically different from their mainland counterparts.” This main physiological difference can be attributed to the distinct evolutionary path the two wolves experienced. The smaller wolves, sea wolves (left), being more agile and better equipped for aquatic living.
As mentioned, the wolves’ favorite foods are clams, mussels, and salmon. They have access to plenty of land-dwelling creatures upon which to feast, but for some reason — probably due to their genetic makeup — they prefer the saltier things in life.
Scientists and researchers believe that sea wolves would eat even more salmon than they do already if it were not for the presence of large bears. The sea wolves (wisely) leave the fish grounds alone when bears are present and will not compete with the far larger predator for fish.
But don’t think these unique wolves are shy, either! Ian was able to swim right up to them and get some truly amazing shots. “The curious canines approached me so closely that I could hear them grunting into my snorkel,” he said. “I took several frames, then pushed back into the deeper water without daring to look up.”
Thanks to McAllister’s diligent research and beautiful photographs, we can all finally get an up-close look at these rare wolves and see the magical world in which they live in. Can we get as close as Ian did? Likely not — but these photographs sure can make it feel that way.
McAllister is encouraging the British Columbia and Canadian government to list sea wolves as a species and recognize their evolutionary differences and significance. If he can get the government to do so, then it would help protect sea wolves in terms of conservation.
“Currently, they are not only unrecognized but completely unprotected,” he said. “They can be hunted and trapped even within protected areas. There is nowhere within their range on the central and north coast of British Columbia, where they are free of human [persecution].”
It is believed that these creatures used to live along the Pacific Coast from northern California to Alaska. Human inhabitants settling in the area drove them from their homes and drastically decreased their range.
“The government still considers wolves as vermin,” McAllister said. “We have learned a lot and society has changed in how it views wolves, but there is still a lot of work to be done to really recognize how fortunate British Columbia is to have these unique wolf populations.”
In 2018, McAllister was prepared to really spearhead the educational aspect of his photography and research so the general public and government leaders had the knowledge needed to advocate for these creatures. He even worked with National Geographic on magazine articles to kick off his campaign.
So if you travel to the coast of British Columbia, keep your eyes peeled! Who knows, you might just get a chance to catch a peek of one of Mother Nature’s unique animals — and become an advocate for sea wolf recognition!