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Posts Tagged ‘Sicilian wolf’

Sicily once had a coyote-sized wolf

sicilian wolf

Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus) at left and the newly described Sicilian wolf (Canis lupus cristaldi).

The Mediterranean islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica are quite interesting from a natural history perspective.  Insular endemics have occurred on these islands throughout their history, and over the years, one species has captured my imagination, the so-called Sardinian dhole, which was found on both Sardinia and Corsica.  I’ve been trying to trace down exactly what this species was for quite some time, but so much is contentious about this animal that I’ve left it alone, still awaiting that paper that will elucidate it in all its glory

But recently, I’ve become aware of something more tangible: an insular dwarf form of gray wolf that was found in the island of Sicily.  This wolf existed well into the twentieth century, and we have many specimens of them from which we can make measurements and take DNA samples.

In 2018, a paper was published that described the Sicilian wolf’s morphology and contained some initial mitochondrial DNA analysis. The wolf is described as standing on average 21 inches (54.6 cm) at the shoulder, which is about the same height as a coyote.

sicilian wolf taxidermy

These small wolves ranged throughout Sicily and were persecuted as lamb killers. The last documented taking of a wolf on Sicily was in 1924, but reports of hunters killing wolves persisted until 1938.  Sightings were reported from 1960s into the 1970s, but since then, the reports of the Sicilian wolf have largely gone dry. The subspecies is almost certainly extinct.

Analysis of the mitochondrial DNA from two museum specimens revealed that these wolves had a slightly different signature from the mainland Italian wolf. The authors attribute to the Sicilian wolf’s evolution in isolation, which likely started between 20,000 and 21,500 years ago, when the last known land bridge connecting Sicily and mainland Italy was around.

In about 20,000 years or so, insular dwarfism selection pressures produced a small wolf on Sicily in much the same way we might understand how an earlier Pleistocene radiation of wolves into North America could have created another form of small gray wolf that we call coyotes.

The coyote didn’t evolve its smaller size to fit the ecological needs of living on an island. It had to evolve its smaller size to fit a more generalist niche than try to compete as an apex predator on a continent already dominated by dire wolves.

So we have this sort of evolution of coyote-like wolves in parallel in the Old World, which is entirely within our understanding of the gray wolf as a phenotypically and behaviorally plastic species that has had great success adapting to new ecosystems throughout Eurasia and North America.

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