Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Falklands Wolf? The Enigma of the Warrah

In their isolation off South America's Atlantic coast, the Falkland Islands have always been difficult to reach - so difficult, in fact, that they may have been one of the few places in the world that Europeans truly discovered, as there was no native population when Europeans first saw them in the 16th century. Even after their permanent colonization by the British in the 19th century, there was only regular sail and steamship service until the 1970s, when regular flights commenced from the Argentine city of Comodoro Rivadavia. Today there are several monthly flights from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, and one per week from the Chilean city of Punta Arenas.

The scarcity of communications, and the small permanent population (only about 2,500 today), have meant that a cornucopia of wildlife, such as elephant seals, sea lions, and penguins has survived in prodigious numbers here. They’re part of the reason that tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers visit every southern summer, and increasing numbers of land-based travelers make their way to the islands for longer stays.

Interestingly, for an archipelago that now boasts hundreds of thousands of sheep and smaller numbers of cattle and horses, plus a few odd introductions such as guanacos and foxes, the Falklands had only one species of land mammal when Europeans first set foot here: the warrah, or “Falklands wolf.” In fact, the introduction of sheep doomed the warrah, which woolgrowers shot to extinction by the 1870s.

Nobody knows exactly where the warrah came from. There had long been speculation that, like the Australian dingo, it was a hybrid of domestic dog and wild canid that came from South America, but no one has ever explained satisfactorily how it got to the islands. Conceivably, if improbably, it could have come with Fuegian natives from the South American continent, but their canoes were very precarious craft to cross several hundred miles of the open South Atlantic. Some such canoes have, though, been found on Falklands shores in the past.

All that speculation, though, has been overturned by DNA analysis of four museum specimens, which has determined that the warrah specimens share a common ancestor dating back some 70,000 years. It closest living relative is the South American maned wolf, but that connection is far more remote. In any event, the warrah reached the islands long before humans did.

The big question is how. Geologically, the Falklands appear to have been a rotated microplate that, before the breakup of Gondwanaland, were linked to eastern South Africa. They have never been connected to the South American continent and, even when sea level fell during the Pleistocene there would have been no land bridge. Sea level fell only about 45 meters (150 feet) at its maximum, and it would have taken a drop of 180 meters (nearly 600 feet) to unite the islands with the mainland. For the foreseeable future, then, the warrah will continue to be a mystery.

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