The Interesting History of Isle Royale

Island ecology may have been popularized by tropical climes, but it certainly isn't limited to them. Michigan's Isle Royale National Park, a chilly 50 mile by 8 mile island in the corner of Lake Superior an important benchmark in the island's important research history is being celebrated.

For nearly 50 years scientists have been studying the interaction of wolves and moose on the island and their effects on the forest, the longest running predator-prey study in the world. Naturally, such a long term study has naturally opened up other, broader areas of research on the island.

The wolves and moose are recent immigrants to the island, even by our standards. Moose started colonizing the island around 1900 or so, and were followed in the 1950's by a pack of wolves who came to the island by way of ice bridge from Canada. In 1958, almost 50 years ago, research began on the wolves, moose and their surroundings, giving ecologists a unique chance to study isolated predator-prey relations on the forested island. Unlike most of the large, landlocked areas where moose and wolves interact, humans are not a factor on the island, and ecologists have been able to study an ecosystem largely exempt from our impact.

I like that one of the lead scientists, Rolf Peterson, stressed the importance of prolonged studies, which was elaborated in the PR:

The primary lesson learned from this long-running study is that wildlife systems are complex, unpredictable and dynamic by nature, and they are influenced by a large number of environmental factors, added Vucetich.

"The data collected in the Isle Royale study provide a historical perspective that is very different from isolated snapshots of 5- or 10-year periods," he explained.

Collection of thousands of moose bones over decades, for example, enabled scientists to assess the levels of mercury and lead accumulation in bones prior to and after changes in clean air regulations.

And man do they have bones. Lots of them. On the website, there's a picture of just one portion of the collection, and a great description of the how and why of the collection process. Also, if you want more information on their research, they kindly list all the publications that have come from study on the island. I know what I'll be reading this week.

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