The ancient gray wolves that once roamed the icy expanses of Alaska represented a specialized form that apparently died out along with other big animals at the end of the Pleistocene, many thousands of years ago, researchers report online on June 21st in the journal Current Biology, a publication of Cell Press. The extinct Alaskan wolves had robust bodies, strong jaws, and massive canine teeth for killing prey larger than themselves and regularly consuming large bones, according to the researchers.
Our results are surprising as the unique attributes of Alaskan Pleistocene wolves had not been previously recognized and show that wolves suffered an extinction at the end of the Pleistocene, said Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the University of California, Los Angeles. If not for their persistence in the Old World, we might not have wolves in North America today. Regardless, the living gray wolf differs dramatically from that which roamed Alaska just 12,000 years ago.
The gray wolf is one of the few large predators that survived the mass extinction of the late Pleistocene. Nevertheless, wolves disappeared from northern North America at that time.
To further explore the identity of Alaskas ancient wolves in the new study, the researchers collected skeletal remains of the animals from Pleistocene permafrost deposits of eastern Beringia and examined their chemical composition and genetic makeup.
Remarkably, they discovered that the late-Pleistocene wolves were distinct from existing wolves, both genetically and in terms of their physical characteristics. None of the ancient wolves were a genetic match for any modern wolves, they report. Moreover, the animals skull shape and tooth wear, as well as a chemical analysis of their bones, all suggest that eastern Beringian wolves were specialized hunters and scavengers of extinct megafauna.