A fearsome über-wolf that once roamed the snowy plains of Alaska may hold warning for the fate of large carnivores today, its discoverers say. The creature's massive jaws and powerful hulking frame made the wolf a force to be reckoned with, yet molecular and physical evidence indicate that the animal's specialized features doomed it to extinction around 12,000 years ago.
A team of paleontologists led by Blaire Van Valkenburgh of the University of California, Los Angeles, unearthed fossilized bones of the creature that had been preserved in the Alaskan permafrost. The fossil wolves had shorter snouts, broader skulls, and bigger teeth than modern North American wolves, the team reports online 21 June in Current Biology. These features indicate that the ancient wolf was a "hypercarnivore" able to tear apart and consume large prey, such as mammoth, bison, and horses. Genetic analysis revealed that the wolf was not an ancestor of today's wolves.
But the qualities that made the ancient wolf an expert hunter of large game also appear to have done it in. A combination of human hunting and climate change in the late Pleistocene epoch are believed to have decimated large mammals, eliminating the wolf's food supply. "The wolves followed shortly, because they weren't able to adapt quickly enough," says lead author Jennifer Leonard of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The gray wolves we see today were able to feed on prey of varying sizes, she says, allowing them to adjust to changes in their environment.
But humans and climate change may pose a renewed threat to wolves in the near future, Van Valkenburgh warns. "Conservation is something we must think about," she says. "Because of global warming, we may still lose specialized forms that are unable to adjust to the changes in climate and environment." Paleozoologist Lars Werdelin of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm says the study opens the door for the discovery of many more species never known to exist. "This is just the beginning," he says.