Falklands Wolf Mystery Solved

The mystery of the Falklands wolf, which baffled Charles Darwin during his famous 1830s voyage on the Beagle, has finally been solved, according to a new study in Nature Communications, published by a team from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Lead researchers Jeremy J Austina and Julien Soubriera said the origin of the mysterious (and now extinct) wolf has been a puzzle since the species was discovered in the 17th century. The remote islands are 300 miles away from the Argentine mainland of South America. The Falklands wolf was the only land mammal on the islands, and nobody could quite figure out how it got there.

According to Gray Wolf Conservation, the Falklands Island wolf is the first wolf to go extinct in human history. However, Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory, had the opportunity to observe the animals in the wild in 1833. He also brought back a few to study in London, where they survived for “a few years.” Nonetheless, he was unable to figure out how they could have made the voyage to the remote islands under their own steam. Three hundred miles is just a little too far for any wolf to swim.

A few years ago, UCLA scientists working under a National Science Foundation grant had offered another clue. According to Stuart Wolpert reporting for the US News, many people speculated that the wolves must have floated to the Falklands along with humans on rafts. UCLA Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology’s Graham Slater tested the age of DNA samples collected by Darwin and other scientists to see if that could have been possible.

Slater concluded that the Falklands wolf is not closely related to other wolves and that it was already geographically isolated from the South American mainland wolves by 70,000 years ago. Since humans didn’t arrive until much later, they couldn’t have carried the wolf to the Falklands.

In other words, his study actually told us how the wolf didn’t get there, not how it did. The UCLA team speculated that the Falklands wolf must have got there by floating on icebergs, the same solution that Darwin offered himself.

The Adelaide team said in today’s publication that the answer came from geology as well as from DNA studies:

“Submarine terraces, formed on the Argentine coastal shelf by low sea-stands during this period, suggest that the [Falklands wolf] colonized via a narrow, shallow marine strait, potentially while it was frozen over.”

That’s a fancy way of saying they’ve discovered that the water levels were shallow enough to freeze over during the time that the species colonized the islands. In other words, the Falklands wolf just walked.