Wolf trees provide insight into the history of the land

The structures of trees in a forest often give us clues into how the land was once used.

If you have ever seen a tree in the forest that seems out of place because it is much larger than the trees surrounding it, you may have seen a wolf tree. A wolf tree is defined as a tall forest tree with large girth and great, spreading branches. Wolf trees are usually surrounded by smaller trees, signifying that the tree was once the only tree in the area and that the smaller trees have grown up years after the wolf tree was established. Many wolf trees are over 150 years old and are a different species then its smaller neighbors. However, it is the structure of the wolf tree that gives it away. 

Wolf trees have a unique structure 

Trees grow and retain lower branches in response to light availability. Most trees growing in a forest setting lose their lower branches when the leaves on the branches become shaded. The low amount of light reduces the ability of the leaves to produce sugars through photosynthesis. Rather than operate leaves at a diminished capacity, the tree cuts off supplies to the limbs nearest the ground, and grows new branches with new leaves near the top of the tree, where sunlight is brightest and photosynthesis can produce optimal amounts of sugars. In order to train your eye to recognize the structure of a wolf tree, Michigan State University Extension professionals recommend comparing the structure of a tree growing in a forest with a tree growing in an open setting, like a yard or a park. The difference in structure between the two should immediately be clear. 

What purpose did the wolf tree serve? 

When settlers from Europe arrived in North America, many of the forests were cut down to provide lumber for building as well as to clear fields for planting. In some cases, single trees were left behind to provide shade and acorns or nuts for pasture animals. These trees grew past maturity without competition, much like trees grow in our parks. Over time, some of the fields that were cleared were then abandoned and allowed to grow back into forest land. Trees began to grow up around these giants creating the scene that helps us identify what we now call wolf trees

Value of wolf trees    

While most wolf trees don’t have much commercial value because of their abundant lower branches and largely hollow structure due to age, these trees are extremely valuable for wildlife. The hollow nature of wolf trees means there are numerous holes in which birds and small mammals can build nests. The large, spreading branches provide squirrels an elevated place to sit and eat while able to keep a watchful eye out for predators. Songbirds often use branches for nest building. The high amount of wildlife activity inevitably attracts ground dwelling predators, like snakes and foxes, which usually are successful despite the attempts of prey to detect their presence. Wolf trees also make great nesting locations for raptors, which make use of both the large branching structure as well as the abundance of wildlife activity. If you have a wolf tree in your woodlot, you may consider keeping it around for animal’s sake. 

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