Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Falkland Islands wolf

Have you ever heard of the Falkland Islands wolf? (The image above is from a 1773 engraving.) I hadn't.

Apparently, it was a large predator discovered on the Falkland Islands when explorers first landed there, but the Falklands are so isolated they had no other native land mammal - not even rodents. So it was quite the mystery.

These canines ate seabirds, and they were completely unafraid of people. So, of course, they didn't last long. It's really a fascinating, if rather depressing, story.

From New Scientist:
With no natural enemies, the wolves were unafraid of humans. The crew of the Welfare easily captured one and kept it aboard for months until it jumped overboard in the South Seas, reportedly startled by the firing of a cannon. ...

Because of their fearlessness the wolves were regarded as vermin. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin wrote: "They have been observed to enter a tent, and actually pull some meat from beneath the head of a sleeping seaman. The Gauchos also have frequently in the evening killed them, by holding out a piece of meat in one hand, and in the other a knife ready to stick them."

Darwin seemed to be the only person who understood the implications of this bloody relationship. "Within a very few years after these islands shall have become regularly settled, in all probability this fox will be classed with the dodo," he wrote. He himself contributed to the wolf's decline by bringing four specimens back to England.

During this era of exploration, the discovery of a new canid species was not in itself remarkable. They had turned up almost everywhere else, from the Arctic to the Sahara. But the Falklands were different. Isolated and remote, they belonged to ocean-going species such as penguins, albatrosses and seals. Until colonists arrived there were no land mammals whatsoever – except for the wolf.

The anomaly was not lost on Darwin. "As far as I am aware," he wrote, "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."

According to this article, modern DNA testing indicates that the Falkland Islands wolf was closely related to an extinct fox-like animal which lived in South America. At the height of the last ice age, about 16,000 years ago, the oceans were lower, so there was just a narrow strait between the mainland and the Falkland Islands.

Apparently, most biologists think the ancestors of this wolf walked across when the strait was frozen over. Twenty kilometers of ice wouldn't be much for them, but would be a pretty effective barrier for rodents and other small animals. And there would be plenty of seabirds for food, even then.

This seems to be a pretty good explanation of the puzzle, if not guaranteed. But we can't expect guarantees in cases like this, can we? I still think it's fascinating.

But it's kind of depressing, too, that a harmless animal, completely unafraid of human beings, would be slaughtered like this. I was going to say "for no reason," and yeah, those sailors were killing them just for sport. But sheep ranchers wouldn't like to have any predators around, and I suppose their fur had some value.

But it is depressing that they'd slaughter all of them, completely unconcerned about destroying such a unique and interesting species.


Gregg Garthright said...

Being a "Dog Guy", I especially hate the idea of killing them - the idea of holding a piece of meat in one hand, and a knife in the other is repugnant.

I can live with hunting, if there's some element of fairness. I really hate shooting wolves from airplanes.

Around here, many people routinely shoot coyotes whenever the opportunity arises. I have to admire the ability of coyotes to survive, even when universally hated. I suppose I'd feel differently if they were killing my pets, chickens, or whatever, but I can't see shooting them myself.

WCG said...

Yeah, Gregg, the idea of killing an animal like this for no reason, something which has absolutely no fear of you, because it's never known danger,... that's just disgusting. And when it's so much like a dog, that certainly feels worse, even if that isn't really more (or less) disgusting.