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Gone But Not Forgotten: Falkland Islands wolf


Illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912)

Illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans (1842–1912)

A distant relative to the South American maned wolf, this canid endemic to the Falklands archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean showed no fear of man and ultimately perished at his hands. 

Until recently it remained a mystery how the Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis), the Falklands’ only native land mammal, came to inhabit the islands. They were never part of the mainland (the Patagonian coast is 500km away) and no other oceanic island as remote as the Falklands has a native canid. It now appears they skated across an ice bridge, which goes some way to explaining how no other mammals made it here, given the difficulty of traversing ice as opposed to land. ‘The eureka moment was finding evidence of submarine terraces off the coast of Argentina,’ says study leader Professor Alan Cooper. ‘They recorded the dramatically lowered sea levels during the last Glacial Maximum (around 25-18,000 years ago). 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.’ 

There has often been debate about whether the wolves on each island are the same species. East Falkland wolves stood about 60cm high at the shoulders, and had brownish-grey fur with black ears, a paler under body and a distinct white tail-tip. Those on West Falkland were almost inperceptably smaller, redder and darker, with finer fur. Despite much conjecture these two wolves have come to be seen as subspecies: Dusicyon australis australis and Dusicyon australis darwinii. 

The wolf was first discovered in 1690 by English mariner Captain John Strong, who tried to take one home with him but it became frightened and jumped overboard when the ship fired its cannons. Others were more successful and a few did make it back to the UK but only survived a few weeks in captivity.

Persecution by Argentinean settlers in the first decades of the 19th century and fur traders from the United States soon after soon took its toll and by 1840 the species was already extinct on East Falkland and numbers were dwindling rapidly on West Falkland. Any hope of a recovery in numbers was dashed when Scottish settlers started sheep farming on the islands and began poisoning what they perceived to be a threat to their herds (they even accused them of being vampires in a bid to justify their erradication). When Charles Dawin visited the islands in 1833 he phrophesised that these incredibly tame creatures would join the dodo in becoming extinct ‘within a very few years’. The last Falkland Islands wolf has believed to be killed in 1876 at Shallow Bay in the Hill Cove Canyon, West Falkland, when Dawin’s prophesy was fulfilled and the species was declared extinct.