Falkland Islands wolf: Scientists solve 320-year-old mystery

An illustration of the Falkland Islands Wolf
Michael Rothman for Ace Coinage

The mystery of how the Falkland Islands wolf became the only land-based mammal on an isolated island was first brought up by British explorers in 1690. Scientist Charles Darwin then made the species conundrum prominent after his interaction with the tame wolves during his voyage on the HMS Beagle in 1834.

Three hundred and twenty years later, researchers at the University of Adelaide have finally solved the mystery. The scientists, who are part of the University's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), used tiny pieces of tissue from a skull that Darwin himself collected. They compared that with DNA that was found in a specimen that was being stored in the attic of the Otago Museum in New Zealand.

"The Eureka moment was finding evidence of submarine terraces off the coast of Argentina. They recorded the dramatically lowered sea levels during the Last Glacial Maximum (around 25-18,000 years ago)," said study leader Professor Alan Cooper in a statement. "At that time, there was a shallow and narrow (around 20km) strait between the islands and the mainland, allowing the Falkland Islands wolf to cross when the sea was frozen over, probably while pursuing marine prey like seals or penguins. Other small mammals like rats weren't able to cross the ice."

The previous hypothesis was that the closest relative to the Falklands Islands wolf was the maned wolf from South America, and that the island species made its way over in an unknown fashion, possibly a now removed land bridge.

This time around, researchers matched the DNA to an extinct species, Dusicyon avus, who lived in neighboring Argentina and Chile. The scientists proved that they were the closest relative to the island wolf.