Camera Traps Show Carnivores Thriving on Wisconsin's Chilly Islands

Coyotes on Stockton Island, Wisconsin, in 2015.
Photo: Max Allen/Erik Olson/Tim Van Deelen

Islands aren’t all tropical birds and bright flora. In northern Wisconsin’s Lake Superior, the Apostle Islands are often foggy and cold—but that doesn’t make them devoid of life. In fact, carnivores are thriving there, according to new research.

The study, released earlier this week in the journal Community Ecology, relies on more than 200,000 photos taken by motion-activated cameras over three years. These 160 hidden cameras snapped some shots of 10 of the state’s 12 land carnivores: black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, gray wolves, red foxes, weasels, American martens, and fishers. As the images reveal, this meat-eating community is doing pretty damn well, despite the harsh conditions required to reach these remote islands.

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An American marten on Cat Island, Wisconsin, in 2015.
Photo: Max Allen/Erik Olson/Tim Van Deelen

Lake Superior’s waters are choppy in summertime, and the ice varies in the wintertime. This complicates any studies of the islands, but apparently, these human obstacles are no feat for the various carnivores that spend time there. The scientists believe many of these animals swim between islands or use ice bridges during winter months. Climate change will make those ice bridges less of a possibility in the future, which could spell trouble for the species that depend on the islands’ resources.

“We were surprised to find an intact carnivore community, including gray wolves and American martens, on these islands,” said study author Max Allen, who is a wildlife ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, in a press release. “We found more carnivore species on islands that were larger and/or closer to the mainland.”

A gray wolf on Stockton Island, Wisconsin in 2015.
Photo: Max Allen/Erik Olson/Tim Van Deelen
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They also saw black bears. The team found them on 13 of the 19 islands examined. Gray wolves, on the other hand, were spotted on only a single island, a difference the study authors attribute to the animals’ variation in food choice and social behaviors. Some smaller creatures like weasels thrived on islands that were farther from the mainland, the study found.

This study is among the first to take a close look at carnivores in an island ecosystem. It’s also one of the first to zoom in on a temperate island ecosystem. The world of ecology is ripe with findings of bright tropical islands, but it rarely takes a look at the grayer island life.

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A bobcat on Oak Island, Wisconsin, in 2015.
Photo: Max Allen/Erik Olson/Tim Van Deelen

Large carnivores like these don’t tend to live on islands. In fact, the introduction of such creatures can be devastating to the delicate balance of life on these islands, as we’ve seen happen with invasive predators (like feral cats). It’s unclear how dependent these species are on the island environments, but we know everything is connected, man. Losing access is probably not a good thing.

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On the bright side, this study shows how resilient these carnivores can be. If they’ll traverse the rough waters of Lake Superior to reach these isolated islands, who knows what else they’re capable of.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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