How Did Wolves Get to the Falklands? (P.S. They Weren’t Wolves)

The only endemic mammal on the Falkland Islands had been a canine thought to be a wolf. Did it walk over the ice, or sail with prehistoric humans?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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South American foxes. Did their ancestors cross an ice bridge to the Falkland Islands some 16,000 years ago?
South American foxes. Did their ancestors cross an ice bridge to the Falkland Islands some 16,000 years ago?Credit: Gabriel Barrera Maffioletti
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

How exactly did wolves, foxes or whatever that canine was reach the Falkland Islands, a frigid archipelago lying 480 kilometers (about 300 miles) east of Patagonia in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?

We know what happened to them. They anecdotally had no fear of humankind and went extinct in 1876, just a couple of hundred years after their discovery by Europeans. They were killed by modern settlers for their fur and ostensibly to protect sheep, another invasive species to the islands. But how the canines got there in the first place is a puzzle.

In 2021, a paper argued that humans reached the Falklands in prehistory and likely brought the canines with them, possibly as dearly beloved pets or mobile foot warmers.

On Friday, a comment published in Science Advances rolled that back a tad. The paper agreed that maybe dogs did sail over with doting humans, but stressed a snag in the theory.

The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean.Credit: Chris Pearson

Ice bridge. Or canoe

Let’s start with who they are. The Falkland wolf was also known as the warrah, the Falkland fox or the Falkland dog, or even the Antarctic wolf. All existing canids – from the giant gray wolf to the teacup Chihuahua to the fennec fox – are relatives. But genetic analysis suggests the Falkland canine wasn’t a wolf but descended from foxes, and may have split off the fox tree as much as 31,000 years ago, going by molecular clock analysis.

Whoever begat it, there are three basic possibilities for the arrival of the animal in this remote realm.

One is that the warrah’s ancestors walked over an ice bridge from South America during the Last Glacial Maximum when sea levels were significantly lower and winter ice more extensive. A 2013 paper in Nature postulated that very thing: that the “Falkland wolf” split from a mainland South American fox and crossed an ice bridge roughly 16,000 years ago.

Then, as sea levels rose, they were stuck there. There is no proof that an ice bridge actually existed at any time between the mainland and the Falklands, one must point out.

A satellite image of the Falkland Islands. Credit: NASA

A second possibility is that the ancestral animals rafted over (unintentionally) on mats of vegetation, which is how monkeys are postulated by some to have reached the New World from Africa many, many millions of years ago.

A third theory is that they were brought over by prehistoric human settlers with whom they were friendly or at least had a relationship of mutual convenience. This is the theory to which the 2021 paper tends, while proving that people were there well before the Europeans.

It bears adding that the Falkland environment is not conducive to fossilization and preservation, which constrains identification of the earliest canines on the islands – not to mention the earliest people.

The oldest proven doggie relic is a tooth dated to about 3,400 years ago, which is not indicative of their date of arrival. Nor is it clear when people arrived or if they had semi-domestic, aka semi-wild, wolves-foxes-whatever on board the canoe. But they may have.

An illustration of a wolf. Much easier to identify than the "Falklands wolf." Credit: Image courtesy of BHL

Sign of the seal

It has been established that wolves do not make good pets, and foxes don’t either. Dogs make good pets. But there is a continuum and if this was a type of fox, it might have been the amiable sort.

Little is known about the warrah, such as what it ate if not fed by humans, if there was such a time that it existed without human companionship. Under the circumstances, the thinking is that its natural diet included birds, baby pinnipeds and probably bugs too, because there was nothing else. Endemic rodents, there were none – which in and of itself indicates that there never was an ice bridge between the mainland and the Falkland archipelago (though, as said, the preservation conditions on the islands are terrible; maybe there were a host of mainland mammals that are now gone and whose remains are gone too).

In support of the human agency thesis, the 2021 paper argued that isotopic analysis indicates the canines ate a lot of pinnipeds, namely seals, that they were unlikely to have been able to hunt on the grounds that they were rather small and the seals are rather enormous.

A pack of wolves at a zoo. Definitely not in the Falkland Islands.Credit: BERND WEISSBROD / DPA

Possibly they confined their canidly attentions to pinniped pups – aka baby seals. But the new paper, by T.J. Clark at the University of Washington and colleagues, argues that the previous paper omitted to note that when the poor doggos were being persecuted by European settlers, their diet didn’t change. This means that evidence that they ate seals is evidence of nothing except that they ate seals.

Yes, the 2021 paper did demonstrate that humans had reached the Falkland Islands in prehistory. Kit Hamley and colleagues reported multiple lines of evidence, including an abrupt spike in prehistoric fire activity evident in charcoal signals; a single tool made of local stone; and telltale garbage – “deposits of mixed marine vertebrates” (sea lions, seals, penguins).

Which the dogs had been eating too, which may indicate a commensal relationship with humans. Or that they hunted baby seals or scavenged pinniped cadavers. The 2021 paper tended toward the cuddly hypothesis that prehistoric humans brought the animal by canoe.

Cuddling with foxes

In favor of the human agency theory, the 2021 paper draws a potential parallel with the prehistoric Yámana people of icy Tierra del Fuego – a different remote South American archipelago at the tip of the continent.

Penguins on the Falkland Islands. At least we know how these flightless aquatic birds arrived.

The Yámana had a wolf-fox-dog of their own too. And sadly there is another common factor: it too is also extinct.

The Fuegian animal also descended from foxes, not wolves. Reportedly their cooperation did not extend to hunting, and interaction between them and the people was based on convenient cohabitation: the animals were ambulatory bed-warmers, appreciated for their body heat in that freezing environment.

But the Fuegians anecdotally cherished their semi-domesticated fox friends (or whatever they were) and took them everywhere with them, including on boat trips.

In short, the Fuegian canine was not eaten and was loved. Frankly, they sound a lot like cats. And like cats, it seems the Fuegian fox self-domesticated, until being extirpated.

Windswept penguins (there is no other kind) on the Falkland Islands.Credit: Ben Tubby

Why has there been so much confusion over whether the creature of the Falklands and Tierra del Fuego is fox, wolf or dog? The confusion over the antecedents of the long-gone Falkland canine isn’t weird when one considers how much argument there has been over the ancestry of domesticated dogs: descended from wolf; didn’t descend from wolf.

Nowadays we don’t need to argue over anatomical minutiae. We have genetic analysis and the dog we know, love and tend to overfeed has been determined to have descended from the gray wolf. Dogs were the first animal we domesticated, at some point in time, and in contrast with the beloved but reportedly recalcitrant canine of Tierra del Fuego, they were more than walking heaters and were helpful in hunting.

So, returning to the story of the prehistoric Falklands, in the (vague) neighborhood of Tierra del Fuego, it is highly plausible as Hamley and colleagues suggest that prehistoric sailors introduced the warrah to the isolated islands after all, before Europeans arrived.

The absence of any other mainland mammals supports that theory, though as said preservation in the acidic ground of the Falklands is sub-ideal. The purpose of the 2022 comment is to add: There is no proof, and if a key argument is seal meals, the case is not closed.

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