The Falkland Islands Wolf
The Falkland Islands are located in the southern Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles east of South America. The only land mammal native to these islands, the Falkland Islands wolf (also called the "warrah" or "Antarctic wolf"), is now extinct. Everything was fine for this animal until 1690. The islands were uninhabited when a ship captained by Englishman John Strong made the first recorded landing on the Falklands. His crew captured a wolf and attempted to take it back to England. Unfortunately, when the ship's guns were fired, the animal panicked and jumped overboard.
It was about another 75 years before humans settled the islands. Prior to this, the Falkland Islands wolf had no natural enemies. As is common with animals such as this that have never encountered humans, they had no fear. There are no trees on the windswept, barren, islands, so they literally had nowhere to hide once humans arrived, and they became extinct around 1870.
Origin of the Falkland Islands Wolf
The origin of the Falkland Islands wolf has been a mystery since at least Darwin's time. It is the island's only land mammal. Its closest living relative is the maned wolf, found in South America. Both the maned wolf and the Falkland Islands wolf are not true wolves, and are actually more closely related to foxes.
Alan Cooper of Australia's University of Adelaide specializes in extracting and analyzing DNA from ancient remains. He decided to analyze the Falkland Islands wolf to see if he could shed some light on this mystery. He was able to obtain a small amount of genetic material from a skull at the Natural History Museum in London, and a few other known specimens.
DNA mutations occur at a fairly steady rate, so scientists can estimate when two species diverged by the difference in their DNA. Cooper's analysis showed the maned wolf and Falkland Islands wolf lines split 6.7 million years ago. This was a bit of a surprise, since most scientists figured the Falkland Islands wolf migrated from the mainland during the Ice Age, when sea levels were lower and the distance would have been shorter.
Cooper then compared the Falkland Islands wolf to a similar species from South America called dusicyon avus. This animal became extinct in pre-Columbian times and is known only through the fossil record. He found that these two species separated about 16,000 years ago. That puts it in the Ice Age, when lower seal levels would have reduced the distance between the Falklands to around 15 miles. The remaining stretch of water would have been shallow, so it would have likely frozen over at times. It is thought that Falkland Islands wolves might have migrated to the islands while hunting seals or other prey on the ice.
Darwin's Visit to the Falklands
In 1834 Charles Darwin visited the Falkland Islands while on his famous voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. He found the presence of the wolf very odd. In his writings he states:
"As far as I am aware, there is no other instance in any part of the world, of so small a mass of broken land, distant from a continent, possessing so large a quadruped peculiar to itself."
For comparison, in both New Zealand and the Hawaiian Islands the only native mammals are bats.
Darwin also foresaw the bleak future for the Falkland Islands wolf. It was clear to him that the animal was in deep trouble:
"Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth."
The causes of the Falkland Island wolf's extinction are numerous. They include:
- They were completely tame and had no fear of humans. It was possible to kill one by enticing it with a piece of meat in one hand and stabbing it with a knife in the other.
- They were hunted for their fur.
- When settlers started raising sheep, they saw the wolf as a threat to their flocks and poisoned them.
- Since the Falkland Islands are treeless, there was nowhere for it to hide.
The exact extinction date for the Falkland Islands wolf is not known, but thought to be in the 1870. A few live animals were taken to English zoos, but they lived only a few years. There was no serious attempt to begin a captive breeding program.