Bone-Crushing Wolves Roamed Alaska During Ice Age

June 21, 2007

Gray wolves that roamed Alaska during the last ice age were built to tackle prey much larger than themselves and devour them completely—bones and all—a new study says.

The ancient wolves had short snouts, strong jaws, and massive canine teeth unlike those on any wolves today.

But these Alaskan wolves died out along with mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and other big animals at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 10,000 years ago.

The finding is based on an analysis of skull and tooth bones collected decades ago from the permafrost and stored today at museums in the U.S. and Canada.

The wolves were specially adapted to a highly competitive life on the vast, icy Alaskan expanses, according to the study, which examined bone shape and DNA and chemical signatures in the bones.

"Certainly, competition would favor those adaptations," said study co-author Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

She noted that the ancient wolves in Alaska didn't have to compete with larger relatives called dire wolves. This allowed the Alaskan gray wolves to fill a niche unavailable to gray wolf populations farther south.

"If there are advantages, as there generally are, to being stronger, then evolution will proceed in that direction," she said.

The study was published online today in the journal Current Biology.

Big Biters

The ancient Alaskan wolves' short snouts, broad skulls, and large teeth "indicate a specialization for big bite forces," Van Valkenburgh added.

Many of the teeth were also worn down and fractured. This shows that the wolves were eating a lot of bones for nutrition as the animals competed for access to limited prey.

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