At some point in their lives young wolves enter a phase that will lead them to live outside the pack of origin. This usually occurs around two years of age, and follows a period in which the young wolf, after having been fed and weaned, takes part in the life of the pack, learns the hunting techniques with the pack and helps it in breeding the new litter.
Searching for a new territory where to settle with a partner and creating their own pack is the reason of their new restlessness. This phase, present in almost all animal species, is called “dispersal” in English and corresponds to the movement from the place of origin to the place where it will settle to undertake its adult life.
It is a very delicate period in the life of wolves, who are confronted to several risks during their long journeys: they are often victims of human traps, road accidents or attacks by other territorial wolves . It is not possible to hunt big ungulates alone and wolves must settle for smaller prey, carcasses or waste.
The journey of the wolves during their “dispersal” can last months and be hundreds of kilometres long, so it is a fundamental mechanism in the dispersal of individuals throughout the territory for the purpose of regulating the population and above all for the colonization of new areas.
If the journey is successful, the wolf occupies a new territory to defend and to settle into, living on its resources and creating the opportunity to meet a partner and give birth to a new generation.
The dispersal movements of the young wolves have played a fundamental role in the current expansion of the Italian wolf population, from the time when there were few split groups of wolf specimens living in central and southern Italy until today as the species has regained most of its range, and Italian wolves have resettled France and even reached the Iberian peninsula.
Beyond the border
In the 70s the northernmost area in Italy, where the wolf presence had been reported, corresponded to the Sibillini Mountains, between the regions Umbria and Marche. In the following years the species undertook a long journey to the north; at first they were single “explorers”, then some of these wolves met, forming packs, and they occupied permanently territories that they found free from conspecifics at that time.
Through the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines and the Ligurian Alps, specimens in dispersal arrived in the early 90s in France, where the species had been eliminated at the beginning of the twentieth century, causing some kind of stir.
Their appearance and the growing damage to animal husbandry, an economically very important sector across the Alps, was initially considered the result of illegal releases by Italian researchers and environmentalists; an investigation was even opened, as it was considered impossible for the species alone to have been able to cross the Alpine chain, but both the genetic data and the vicissitudes of some specimens to whom a radio collar transmitter had been applied have shown that only the great walking skills of this animal led him to resettle in places so far from their place of origin, in the Apennines.
The story of M15, aka Ligabue
The proof of the great walking qualities of a wolf was provided in Italy by a specimen equipped with a transmitter in 2004, the first one to be equipped with a GPS collar.
The young wolf, almost a year old, was recovered along the Parma ring road after a car crash. Held for a short time for treatment at the Wildlife Recovery Center (CRAS) of the Regional Park of Boschi di Carrega, where it was renamed “Ligabue” by the operators, the wolf was released into the woods in a place not far from Parma, equipped with a GPS collar that every 4 hours sent position signals to the researchers of the “La Sapienza” University of Rome, who monitored it.
Ligabue, called by the researchers with the initials “M15”, has been followed for 318 days with the help of GPS, from 11th March 2004 to 22th January 2005, thus showing its incredible journey.
From December 2004 his traces on the snow were followed by the Piedmont Lupo Project staff who through the genetic analysis of the faecal samples found confirmed the presence in the area of Ligabue and verified that he was in the company of a she-wolf, F70.
Starting from the Parco dei Cento Laghi on the Parma Apennines, through peaks and valleys, highways and railways, Ligabue crossed the border with France and then returned to Italy between the Maritime and Ligurian Alps, where a new pack was probably forming.
He had traveled more than 1000 km and had settled in about 240 km of his area of origin.
Unfortunately Ligabue was found dead in February 2005 in Val Pesio, but the documented chronicle of its journey showed that wolves can travel long distances and colonize even France from the Apennines.
A children’s book was also dedicated, published by the Parco delle Alpi Marittime within the European project LIFE WOLFALPS, loosely based on the story of the wolf M15, better known as “Ligabue”. History conceived and illustrated by Martina Guidi, told by Alessandra Cella.