ScienceNot Exactly Rocket Science

The Origin of the Friendly Wolf that Confused Darwin

When Western sailors started landing on the Falkland Islands, off the curling tip of South America, they were greeted by a bizarrely tame dog-like creature. It roamed wild across the islands, but would frequently swim out to meet the approaching boats while wagging its tail. Although some called it a fox, it became more commonly […]

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Credit: Michael Rothman.

When Western sailors started landing on the Falkland Islands, off the curling tip of South America, they were greeted by a bizarrely tame dog-like creature. It roamed wild across the islands, but would frequently swim out to meet the approaching boats while wagging its tail. Although some called it a fox, it became more commonly known as the Falkland Islands wolf. Its scientific name: Dusicyon australis, the foolish dog of the south.

The name was apt. The wolf’s fearlessness made it extremely easy to kill. People lured it in with meat, and either clubbed or knifed it. By 1880, it was extinct, but not before a young, twenty-something naturalist called Charles Darwin managed to see one for himself in 1834.

Darwin saw the Falkland Islands wolf not as easy meat, but as a strange biological puzzle. What was such a large predator doing on this tiny set of islands, some 460 kilometres away from the South American mainland? Deepening the puzzle, South America is a land dominated by rodents, but none of them had made it to the Falklands. In fact, the wolf was the only mammal there. Where had it come from? And why had nothing else furry followed it?

Some said that early South Americans must have partly domesticated the wolf and brought it over on their boats—hence its unfortunate tameness. Others said that the wolf sauntered across prehistoric land bridges, or rafted over on chunks of ice. “It struck me as an outstanding mystery in natural history,”...

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