Wolves come in many colors. The black ones, as we know, have their origin in domestic dogs, which crossed with wild wolves. The revelation intrigued me when it came out in early 2009, and I am always thinking of what color might mean when it comes to the evolution of wolves and dogs.
I have noticed that there are many photos of wolves from Finland that have an unusual color. Most European wolves (Canis lupus lupus) are dark gray sable, the classic “wolf color,” but in Finland, there seem to be more than a few wolves that appear to be golden in color. The wolves have varying amounts of sabling on their pelts, and some are what we would call “clear sables” if they were domestic dogs, as we can see the photos of “Susi,” the famous Swedish wolf that came from Finland or Russia.
It is possible that this coloration also has its origin in domestic dogs. There are rumors that the Russians turned out wolfdogs on the Finnish border, but there are always rumors about Russians and their deeds.
Of course, the Finns have always owned dogs of this color, and it is now known that some of these hunting and herding spitz breeds are derived from wolf and dog crosses. It is possible that the gene flow has worked both ways between these spitzes and Finnish wolves. Indeed, it is probably quite likely.
However, there is another possibility that is also worth considering. In late 2013, Olaf Thalmann and Robert Wayne published a paper that compared samples of ancient mitochondrial DNA from the remains wolves, dogs, and possible transitional forms between wolves and dogs from Europe were compared to modern dogs and wolves. In this analysis, samples from dingoes and basenjis were included in order to get samples from dog populations that had long been isolated from the main dog population. All modern dogs, including dingoes, are very close to these ancient European wolves in terms of their mitochondrial ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA alone can lead people astray when tracing evolution and ancestry, but the fact that dingoes were closest to these European canids really does point to a strong possibility that dogs were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers at some point between 18,800–32,100 years ago.
It is also interesting to me that almost all dingoes and many, many pariah and primitive dogs are red or yellow sables like these wolves. I wonder if these yellow Finnish wolves represent a sort of throwback to the ancestral European wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs. Perhaps the majority of the ancient European wolves were golden in color.
Yellow wolves do occur in the Middle East, China, and South Asia, and China and the Middle East have been suggested to be places where dog domestication first happened. However, none of these wolves have been linked to dogs through ancient DNA samples in the same way the ancient wolves of Europe have been.
Of course, the questions about the yellow wolves of Finland could be answered in much the same way the questions about the origins of the black wolves of North America were.
But there is something to these golden wolves that does need some exploration.
Maybe they are the result of dog and wolf gene flow. Maybe they are just a local unique mutation.
Or maybe they are a flash of gold that tells us a bit about the past.
DNA nalysis on ancient remains has already revealed that dappled and black horses were in the wild Pleistocene horse populations, but no similar studies have been performed on the remains of ancient wolves or dogs.
Maybe there really is something to these yellow Finnish wolves that just a pretty coat.