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Evolution: The mystery of the Falkland Islands wolf

Nature Communications

March 6, 2013

The now extinct Falkland Islands wolf could have colonised the islands by crossing the frozen sea during the Last Glacial Maximum according to research published in Nature Communications. The origin of this enigmatic species has remained a mystery since the description of the group by European explorers in the 17th Century.

The Falkland Islands wolf is the only endemic mammal to the Falkland Islands. Its existence puzzled Darwin, as the animal was the only global example of a large mammal naturally occurring on a small set of islands. The Falkland Islands wolf became extinct in the 19th century following human hunting and the absence of living specimens made the study of its origin particularly challenging.

Alan Cooper and colleagues obtained ancient genetic data from sub-fossil remains of an extinct mainland South American relative, and compared it with genetic data obtained from museum specimens of the Falkland Islands wolf. The data suggests that the Falkland Islands wolf did not become isolated from its sister mainland species until approximately 16,000 years ago, corresponding with the last glacial phase. Lower sea level during the glacial phase shortened the distance between American’s Southern Cone and the Falkland Islands. This, combined with submarine terraces formed during this period, created a shallow marine strait. As this strait was potentially frozen for extended periods, the authors conclude suggests that it might have facilitated the colonization of the island by the wolves.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms2570

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