Because … Science

The interplay between elk and wolves promises to keep biologists busy for as long as there are elk and wolves

By Rob Breeding

“Because Science” is a television program hosted by a young, hipster “nerdist” who explains how things like zombie apocalypses might work if there was such a thing, using science. It’s entertaining, especially when the show examines the counterintuitive, such as why you don’t really want super-human strength.

Answer: you’d routinely break off the doorknob, then have to use your superpower to bash down the front door to get in your house, for starters.

Science is more commonly used to help us understand how the natural world works, or at least that’s the plan. The understanding part, I mean. It just doesn’t always work out that way. For example, consider the latest news out of Yellowstone, where the interplay between elk and wolves promises to keep biologists busy for as long as there are elk and wolves.

A story making the rounds is that wolves don’t keep elk on the move the way we assumed in the pre-reintroduction days. The theory was that wolves would force elk to be more mobile to avoid becoming dinner. This would give vegetation a break, allowing damaged riverine habitats to rebound.

There are signs habitat is on the mend, but the absence of lounging, unthreatened elk slurping willow shoots all day long might not have anything to do with it. A new study suggests elk movements are less likely to be a response to wolves than we thought. That’s not to say they like hanging out together — from the elk’s perspective at least. But the threat of being eaten seems to be less profound than that of moving off the richest feeding grounds and risk entering winter underweight.

So far the great wolf restoration experiment in Yellowstone has been wonderfully complicated. Every time someone tries to pin one result or another on wolves, some unexpected reaction bulges out between our fingers like a squeezed water balloon.

Scientists are also trying to make sense of a more ancient predator, one that predated science. Examining the bones of the Smilodon, or saber-toothed cat, recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Southern California, has led some to conclude the big cats must have lived and hunted in packs.

The evidence is Smilodon bones showing signs of severe injury and breaks, injuries that have healed. This suggests packs, or maybe prides if you prefer the feline term. Healing suggests that at least for a while, others did the killing and allowed the wounded a share until they recovered.

Prides are the social arrangement used today only by lions. By themselves, healed bones don’t prove anything, but their preponderance in the pits, one of the world’s great preservers of Pleistocene fossils, is good evidence Smilodons lived a very non-feline lifestyle.

Saber-toothed tigers, as we called them when I was a kid, are one of the great, charismatic predators of prehistory, second only to the Tyrannosaurus Rex, in my book. The big cats, a bit larger than modern lions, sported a pair of nearly foot-long canines. As fierce as those teeth appear, we’re still trying to understand how exactly the cats used them. These saber teeth were too fragile to be wielded recklessly, and since the digs at the pits have turned up few Smilodon skulls with broken teeth, the cats must have been judicious with their bite.

The fossil record also suggest sabertooths roared. Only a few modern cats do that, and the preserved Smilodon larynx bones are similar to those in lions.

How Smilodons lived their lives will always be a bit of a mystery. To settle the matter for certain we’d need a time machine. “Because Science” has that covered too. You can view the show’s segment on wormhole time machines on YouTube.

That’s probably the only way we’ll settle the wolf/elk debate once and for all.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.