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By Ann Gibbons
JENA, GERMANY—On the island of Honshū in Japan, farmers long appreciated a small gray wolf as a guardian of their crops because its howls warned them of raiders such as wild boars. In folklore, “the Honshū wolf” was seen as a spirit of the forest and honored with shrines. But when the wolves got rabies from dogs in the 19th century, farmers shot and poisoned them until the last wolf died in 1905.
Now, only a few stuffed Honshū wolves, like the one shown above, exist in museums. But they were indeed representatives of a wilder era, as graduate student Jonas Niemann of the University of Copenhagen found to his surprise. When he and his colleagues analyzed the genome of a Honshū wolf skeleton from the Natural History Museum in London, they found that this wolf appeared to be a relic of an ancient group of wolves that ranged across the Northern Hemisphere until 20,000 years ago.
The wolf’s DNA more closely resembled that of a long-extinct wolf that lived in Siberia more than 35,000 years ago than that of living Eurasian and American wolves, Niemann reported here on Friday at the International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology. Most ancient wolves went extinct when the ice sheets that covered the Northern Hemisphere began to melt more than 20,000 years ago and the large mammals the wolves hunted, such as mammoth, died off. But some of their DNA lived on in the Honshū wolf, which could offer a new window on the evolution of wolves as well as dogs, says paleogeneticist Mikkel Sinding of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk, who extracted the DNA.