Photos show a Michigan wolf that fell through the ice into Lake Superior, then clawed its way out

ISLE ROYALE, MI – One of Michigan’s Isle Royale wolves went for an unintended plunge into Lake Superior this past weekend, and a research crew flying overhead was able to capture it all on camera.

Michigan Technological University’s winter wolf/moose study is now underway on the remote island in Lake Superior. For 64 years, scientists have been studying the wolf and moose populations on this island archipelago, analyzing how these big animals impact their environment. It’s the world’s longest-running predator/prey study.

Each winter, researchers flying overhead and some on the ground work together to survey the island. Isle Royale sits about 60 miles northwest of the Upper Peninsula mainland. So far this year, the study team has documented the movements of moose and some of the wolves that have been brought to the island in recent years – or born there since then. The wolves are needed to help keep the wilderness-munching moose population in check.

On Saturday, Rolf Peterson, a longtime research professor at Michigan Tech who is a winter study leader, was in a survey plane flying along the Isle Royale coast when he saw a wolf fall through thin ice on Lake Superior. The temperatures were in the subzero range and the wolf had been traveling by itself, tracking another wolf that was also walking alone. The unlucky wolf was walking across one of the Lake Superior bays when it fell through the ice.

“It pulled itself out by its claws on its front feet, then had to warm up and try to dry out …,” Peterson said in a social media post on Sunday. Followers of the page were impressed by the wolf’s survival instincts – and some left comments hoping the drenched wolf would be OK.

“Probably, although we have had cases of wolves dying after falling through the ice (and not being able to climb out),” the research team responded.

Peterson shared his photos of the wolf incident online this weekend, along with a narrative of what the wolf was doing in each frame. Here’s what he saw:

#1 Before it fell through the ice at a different spot, the wolf broke a small hole in thin ice to get a drink. The ice formed the night before, and was just over half an inch thick.

An Isle Royale wolf walking on a partially frozen bay of Lake Superior. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

#2 The wolf is seen here leaving the site of its accident, and probably starting to feel the cold penetrate.

Isle Royale wolves

A wolf walks away after falling through a partially frozen bay on Lake Superior, along Michigan’s Isle Royale. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

#3 Entry and exit paths are pretty clear, as well as the imprint of its front feet used to pull itself out.

Isle Royale wolves

Tracks leading to and from an open spot on the ice where a wolf fell into the water of Lake Superior off the coast of Michigan’s Isle Royale. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

#4 The ruffled fur indicates the wolf was well-submerged except for its head and back.

Isle Royale wolves

A drenched and cold wolf walks away from the spot where if fell through the ice and into the water. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

#5 Generating some body heat, the wolf ran at a good speed up and down the shore, sometimes running in tight circles. Occasionally it ran onto the shore and rolled in snow.

Isle Royale wolves

A wolf trots along in the snow on Isle Royale after falling into a partially-frozen bay of Lake Superior. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

#6 After 5 minutes of energetic activity, the wolf lay down on the harbor in full sun and out of the wind and started to clean the ice out of its fur.

Isle Royale wolves

A wolf on Michigan’s Isle Royale that fell into a partially-frozen bay of Lake Superior tries to get the ice off its fur. Photo provided by Rolf Peterson and Michigan Technological University.

After last year’s winter study – with team members surveying overhead in planes and traveling by skis – researchers estimated there were 28 wolves living on Isle Royale – double the number since the last count in 2020. The big uptick showed these predators were gaining a foothold in the remote outcropping of national park wilderness. They were brought in to put a dent in the island’s huge moose population after the native-born wolf packs had fizzled to just two inter-related wolves that could not have viable pups. So far, the new wolves appear to be a solid step towards a re-balancing of the predator-prey relationship the National Park Service hoped to spark when in 2018 it began trapping and relocating wolves to the island from Minnesota, Canada and Michigan’s mainland Upper Peninsula.

Love stories about Isle Royale and its wildlife? Read more here:

Isle Royale’s last native-born male wolf: The secrets his bones revealed

Wolf population doubles: More pups, new packs on Michigan’s remote Isle Royale

The mysteries of Michigan’s Cemetery Island

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