This article originally appeared in the November/December 2012 issue.
Carnivore Chaser 50kg
Hit point = 12/6
Armor = mesh
The glider-wolf of Victoria was discovered and cataloged by Lady Victoria Challenger of the Imperial Scout Service while surveying the Fijord Subsector. They are pack animals living in extended family groups with an Alpha male/female bonded (for life) pair leading the group. Commonly two pups are born to a pair and are cared for by the entire pack for the year it takes them to reach maturity.
Glider-wolves live on a relatively low-gravity world (0.7G Earth standard) with an unusually dense atmosphere for such a small world, just above Terra-standard. A large number of the animals who live here can either actually fly, or glide short distances to try to escape from predators or catch prey. The glider-wolves are among the latter.
The wolves have a long streamlined build, relatively light for a predator. Their front paws have 3 long fingers with semi-retractable claws and a semi-opposable thumb. They are not tool users, but domesticated ones can manipulate specially-designed tools. They learn quickly and have an intelligence equivalent to a 5-6 year old human child. They are quite social animals and are easily domesticated if adopted when young. Lady Victoria trained hers to handle communications equipment and activate the turret weapons in her scout ship.
They are brownish grey in color with black lateral banding covering their upper side, shading to light tan on the belly. A semi-rigid cuticle “helmet”-like structure with four fin-like flat extensions extends over the back of the neck and appears to help the animal steer in its short flights. It also helps the animal by protecting its neck and head from the larger flyer predators. In males this structure has red marbling through it that brightens when the animal is excited or angry.
When chasing prey the animal will run and then just before catching up to the prey item will leap into the air and extend a flap of skin connected from its front legs to the rear ones and along its sides. Several extensible ribs attached to a low ridge along the top of the spine and give the flap some rigidity. This allows the wolf to come down on top of the prey with its full weight and cling to its back for the kill. Since several wolves will do this at once they can bring down even low flying gliders like the Grass Mantas that graze over the flatlands. The front claws extend to their full razor-sharp length (5cm) when the animal spreads out its claws for the attack.
The wolves have a tough hide and thick, though sleek fur that provides excellent protection from predator and prey bites and claws. The wolf also exudes a slightly musky (though not unpleasant) oil which makes the animal slightly slippery to hang on to, so they can be tough to catch and hold long enough to hurt in a fight. The long, sleek body with its highly flexible build, long round tail, and long head with the laid-back large ears all combine to give it an appearance akin to a wolf/weasel mix.
Though diurnal, glider-wolves have large, bright eyes with light gathering adaptations to enable them to see extremely well in the dark. The adaptations also give them the long distance visual ability and clarity they need to help them survive in on the wide hilly expanses of the mountain lakes regions of Victoria where there is little cover other than rocky shelves and the tall grasses. Glider-wolves on the hunt will often stand up on their hind legs to see over the grasses, which can reach up to 1.2 meters in height, and some pack members will do so while the rest are sleeping in order to protect the pack from attacks by Grass Mantas cruising for prey.
The packs have an average of 8-12 members at any given time, including young. An Alpha animal will lead the pack but their social construct is looser than that of the usual Earth models. Males and females alike will compete for Alpha status, but as males have the heavier bodies only they will participate during hunts. Since they form life-long mated pairs, a pair-bonded Alpha unit will lead the pack together—the male hunting and the female organizing the pack, and when one of the pair dies the other may lead alone. How Alpha status is transferred is not fully understood but it appears to be conferred by some mutual agreement among the pack members. Some ritualized dominance behavior has been reported but it is unclear if this is play or actual dominance behavior. The current theory is that the wolves have some type of low-range sub vocalization to cooperate within the pack. Researchers who have studied the wolves in the field for a long time have reported that the wolves make few sounds when interacting during a hunt, and show an unusually high degree of cooperation without any audible vocalizations. Cooperation between several packs has been observed when the wet season brings out large numbers of Grass Mantas. Unlike terrestrial wolves, glider-wolf pack territories overlap, though the actual social mechanism for inter-pack cooperation is unknown at this time.
What vocalizations there are make for a short list and are, with the sole exception of the alarm howl, specifically social comfort sounds. When greeting each other glider-wolves make a loud “yawp-yawp” sound, typically when the pack reunites after a hunt or after having scattered on the defense. Pair-bonded mates and females caring for the pack’s pups will make soft clicking sounds deep in their throats as a greeting and comfort sound. Pack members on watch for threats to the pack in order to sound the alarm for the others who may be scattered across the sloping hills will make a surprisingly loud, long piercing howl. The howl is also used when hunting Grass Mantas to coordinate the pack when changing hunt strategies. It is not used for hunting other prey.
The glider-wolves live among the highland lakes on the major
continent of Victoria in temperate-to-alpine climate zones. The lakes
form near the edges of cliff sides and have waterfall drop offs that can
be over 100 meters tall. Rivers and wetlands that drain the rolling
hills of the region during the spring and mild summer interconnect the
lakes. During the heavy rainfall of the winter Grass Mantas are most
active and both the glider-wolves and mantas hunt each other during this
time. During the dry seasons the mantas are less plentiful and only come
out of the lakes for far shorter times since they are more vulnerable
then, so the wolves mainly prey on the burgeoning Tick-Tock herds at
that time and have their pups.
The hunting strategy depends on the prey item: for ground animals like Tick-Tocks (so named because the small ungulates make a “tick-tock” sounds as comfort noises when hidden and grazing in the tall grasses) are surrounded by pack members who slip low and silently through the grasses, but no flight is used. The flying abilities of the wolves are reserved solely for escape and avoidance, and the hunting of, the fearsome Grass Mantas that fly out of the lakes in search of food.
Typically the hunting of the Grass Manta is as follows: the pack splits into two halves and the members crouch low among the grasses along a steep slope. Rocky shelves pepper the hills and some young members of the pack – pups of about 8-10 months, will play around and under one of these when a manta is spotted flying out from a lake’s cliff side waterfall. The manta will fly upslope of the pups to gain speed when it dives down to snatch one up and carry it to the lake to feed. The adult wolves will position themselves perpendicular to the down slope, one pack higher up the slope from the other and with the pups in between the two groups. When the manta swoops low to attack the pups, the pups scatter to the shelter of the rocky overhangs and the manta flies past the first group of wolves. This group sounds the howling hunting call and accelerates towards the rocky overhang.
As they accelerate, the wolves’ bodies release adrenals that shift their metabolisms into chase mode and allow them to accelerate from a dead stop to 75kph in just a few seconds – a speed which they can maintain for up to a 200m distance before slowing to a 30kph lope. As the wolves head for the rocky shelf, their bodies also use a cartilaginous banding along the spine to help their acceleration and flight: the adrenal surge combined with the increased flexing that running provides triggers this banding to stiffen like a steel spring. This mechanism is analogous to the Earth Cheetah: the stiff spine acts as a spring to builds and releases extra energy during the high-speed dash, but unlike the Cheetah’s it only does this during the chase. Once at the edge of the rocky shell the wolves dive into the open air and expand their ribs and wings to glide down towards the grass manta. Using the ground effect principle that enables sports enthusiast to glide down mountains wearing wingsuits, the wolves close on the manta.
The second, downslope part of the pack accelerates as the manta approaches and times its dive off the shelf it had positioned itself near in a maneuver timed to put its members parallel with the manta. Now both groups will attack the manta by landing on its wings and body, using their long claws and locked teeth to anchor their bodies to the slippery manta. The combined weight and drag of the wolves causes it to crash into the grasses, where the wolves tear it apart to feed. The lead male of the hunt howls to call the rest of the pack in to feast off the kill, which is shared first among the hunters and pups, then among the rest of the pack.
Glider-wolves have not shown themselves to be dangerous to humans studying them, or camping near their territory. They have been known to silently enter and investigate the campsites of researchers in the night when everyone is asleep, which can be disconcerting to someone who has to get up in the night to use the latrine. A very few of the animals have been kept and trained by Scouts to act as companions and it is reported that the wolves seem a lot smarter than most think, almost enough so that Lady Victoria lobbied for them to be declared as semi-sentient.