Gray Wolves Survived Ice-Age Extinction by Adapting Their Diet

Gray Wolves Hunting in the Pleistocene

Gray wolves take down a horse on the mammoth-steppe habitat of Beringia during the late Pleistocene (around 25,000 years ago). Credit: Julius Csotonyi

Gray wolves are among the largest predators to have survived the extinction at the end of the last ice age around 11,700 years ago. Today, they can be found roaming Yukon’s boreal forest and tundra, with caribou and moose as their main sources of food.

A new study led by the Canadian Museum of Nature shows that wolves may have survived by adapting their diet over thousands of years — from a primary reliance on horses during the Pleistocene, to caribou and moose today. The results are published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

The research team, led by museum paleontologist Dr. Danielle Fraser and student Zoe Landry, analyzed evidence preserved in teeth and bones from skulls of both ancient (50,000 to 26,000 years ago) and modern gray wolves. All the specimens were collected in Yukon, a region that once supported the Beringia mammoth-steppe ecosystem, and are curated in the museum’s national collections as well as those of the Yukon government.

“We can study the change in diet by examining wear patterns on the teeth and chemical traces in the wolf bones,” says Landry, the lead author who completed the work as a Carleton University student under Fraser’s supervision. “These can tell us a lot about how the animal ate, and what the animal was eating throughout its life, up until about a few weeks before it died.”

Zoe Landry Gray Wolf Skull

Zoe Landry, lead author of the study, holds a 40,000-year-old gray wolf skull from the Yukon. It was among the specimens analyzed for the research project that determined the shift in diet over time of gray wolves. Credit: Danielle Fraser © Canadian Museum of Nature

Landry and Fraser relied on established models that can determine an animal’s eating behavior by examining microscopic wear patterns on its teeth. Scratch marks indicate the wolf would have been consuming flesh, while the presence of pits would suggest chewing and gnawing on bones, likely as a scavenger.

Analysis showed that scratch marks prevailed in both the ancient and modern wolf teeth, meaning that the wolves continued to survive as primary predators, hunting their prey.

What then were the gray wolves eating? The modern diet — caribou and moose — is well established. The diet of the ancient wolves was assessed by looking at the ratios of carbon and nitrogen isotopes extracted from collagen in the bones. Relative levels of the isotopes can be compared with established indicators for specific species. “The axiom, you are what you eat comes into play here,” says Landry.

Gray Wolf Skull

Closeup of a 40,000-year-old gray wolf skull. It was among the specimens analyzed for the research project that determined the shift in diet over time of gray wolves. Credit: Danielle Fraser © Canadian Museum of Nature

Results showed that horses, which went extinct during the Pleistocene, accounted for about half of the gray wolf diet. About 15% came from caribou and Dall’s sheep, with some mammoth mixed in. All this at a time when the ancient wolves would have co-existed with other large predators such as scimitar cats and short-faced bears. The eventual extinction of these predators could have created more opportunity for the wolves to transition to new prey species.

“This is really a story of ice age survival and adaptation, and the building up of a species towards the modern form in terms of ecological adaptation,” notes Dr. Grant Zazula, study co-author, and Government of Yukon paleontologist who is an expert on the ice-age animals that populated Beringia.

The findings have implications for conservation today. “The gray wolves showed flexibility in adapting to a changing climate and a shift in habitat from a steppe ecosystem to boreal forest,” explains Fraser. “And their survival is closely linked to the survival of prey species that they are able to eat.”

Given the reliance of modern gray wolves on caribou, the study’s authors suggest that the preservation of caribou populations will be an important factor in maintaining a healthy wolf population.

Reference: “Dietary reconstruction and evidence of prey shifting in Pleistocene and recent gray wolves (Canis lupus) from Yukon Territory” by Zoe Landry, Sora Kim, Robin B. Trayler, Marisa Gilbert, Grant Zazula, John Southon and Danielle Fraser, 20 March 2021, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.palaeo.2021.110368

This study was funded by an NSERC Discovery Grant awarded to Dr. Danielle Fraser. Isotope analysis was done by Dr. Sora Kim and Dr. Robin Trayler at the University of California, Merced. In all, the research team acquired data from 31 Pleistocene skulls as well as data from 17 modern skulls (most collected in the 1960s). All specimens are in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Government of Yukon.

4 Comments on "Gray Wolves Survived Ice-Age Extinction by Adapting Their Diet"

  1. Horses are extinct? Guess I’d better break the news to Rusty and Dusty. I assume it was an area extinction because we sure do have horses. This is why people deny climate change. You may know what you mean but if you say it poorly it does more harm than good.

  2. Sebastian Shaw | April 12, 2021 at 11:29 am | Reply

    You are right, it needs to be clarified where they went extinct. According to Scientific American, the first horses originated in North America and then spread to Asia and Europe. Both the broad-footed and stilt-legged horses of North America became extinct at the end of the last ice age and were re-introduced by colonizing Europeans later.

  3. Sekar Vedaraman | April 13, 2021 at 6:33 am | Reply


    Survival of Species and cahange in Diet of Grey Wolvees in order to survive is interesting.Wolves are carnivores and hunt in packs. Their diet too had to adapt to changing requirements for survival overa certain timeframe. This is applicable to the Human Species facing its first real existenntial crisis.

    The Human Spcies too faces such a existential crisis —as it faces its most serious threat of extinction is distinctly possible, from a lifeless Virus with between 28,000 t0 30,000 Nucleotides accompaned by a spike protien and a carbohydrate.

    The Virus has entered our eosystem from another ecosystem, where it was co-existing peaceably.

    It could only have gained entry in the zeroth infected human through one of the Eight/Nine known gates which are known to exist in the human anatomy. It is by gaining entry through these gates — that harmfull bacteria, pathogens and viruses once they have gained entry can cause Diseseas. These eight/nine known gates are : the following (1) Two Nostrils (2) Two Ears (3) Two eyes (4) One anus through which we excrete waste material after digesting food which we consume the mouth.

    In version 1.0 the male of the species there are eight Gates. In Version 2.0 (WOMEN) there is an additional gate, the vagina through which infection could occur. So Women have nine gates.

    We need energy for survival. We get the same from food sources, which we consume using our mouth, and digest the same to get the necessary nutrients and energy to keep us healthy and illness free.

    However, when we consume the flesh of other creatures, wheather raw or cooked , the possibility and risk increases that harmful bacteria , pathogens or Viruses may enter our Ecosystem and thrive in the same, and have a field day, as the Covid-19 Virus seems to be having. If the Human System and Bodies defense mechanism and immune systems are in good shape, the heathy individuals immune system tries to expel the invading virus forecfully vide a sneeze..

    So the Zeroth Individual sneeze expelled the viruses forcefully and it found its way to other friendly hosts in the Human Species , who replicated the samme exponentially , leading to the situation where we have the whole world is on its knees. This was the Sneeze heard around the world.

    Global Travel which has become routine in the highly interconnected globe where trade and wealth creation is the norm and routine, coupled with many carriers who are/were asymptomatic (do not show the signs that they are Carriers of the Virus) and are merrily spreading the same.

    On a planetary scale , the problem is not being handled from a systemic perspective but piecemeal and haphazard attempts to address the same are not leading to great success.

    In Simple terms the Systemic Solution demands the following: ( 1) Prevention and minimisation of Spread (2) Containment and quarantine of the infected (3) Treatment of the affected persons

    There is a new Joker in the Pack. Mutatnts (almost 6000 plus) and with the potential for increasing. We don’t know teir innfectvity rate nor its virulence as many have yet to be mapped genetically and vaccines available tested against the same to determine their ability to neutralise the same.

    All these have to be handled systemetically.

    Now that the problem has become global in nature, we need global solutions. If these solutions and methodologies are replicable and reusable for other pandemics (which will appear more frequently as we appear to have opened pandoras box) thatwould be great. Else, we will have to repeat the creation of new methodologies every time a new pandemic appears.

    What does a global solution imply. Requirements for a Global Solution:
    (1) Testing and detection rapidly Cheap , effective and easy to administer and accurate (preferably 100%).
    (2) Ramping up facilities for treatment of infected , depending on viral load and level of infection.
    (3) Supply chain management of all Treatment requirements to minimise mortality
    (4) Speeding up prevention of infection by putting vaccination drive underway on steroids on a 24 X 7 X 3 (Shifts) basis and optimisation of vaccines available to minimise discarding the same due to expiry.

    Now you are wondering how this is all related to the Grey Wolf and its change in Diet.

    I suspect that if ever we had been able to trace back the start of the Virus entry into the Zeroth Infected person, we could have understood how it was able to transition from the Bat species to Humans. The only way and most likely way is vide the mouth and food consumed with the infection, which found a friendly host, where it could increase and multiply. The rapid spread of Covid-19i n the Animal Food Chain ( Meat Manuafcturing and packing PLants in USA) in USA clearly indcates that the Spread was given a great boost in the population of the origimnating Countres and also te countres to which it spread.

    If the grey Wolf had to adjust its carnivrous diet over a thousand ear time frame and survive the climate change as humans disappeared , the human speces may also need to change its diet to avoid infection by many viruses waiting in the wings if we continue to consume the flesh of animals. Not just Wild animals , but possibly the antibiotic and steroid pumped domesticated animals we consume as food. God only knows what the long term harmful conseqences of such a diet is likely to be. I suspect the root cause of such diseaesas are most such illnesses, and originate from the foods we consume, which rots in the stomach. Also, to keep these domesticated animals ilness free, they are pumped fulll of antibiotics, which enters the human ecosystem unintended.
    As far as timeframes are concerned , as every cell in the human body is replaced over a seven year period , it may be the appropriate timeframe to change the human diet, to a more healthy diet.

    The secret to good health is a clean and healthy stomach and nutritious and heathy diet.
    Insghts from the changed diet of the Grey Wolf. But on a much shorter timescale.

    The views expressed above are personal and not binding on anyone.

  4. Please do not blame the original team on the misinformation in this article. The writers at this site are ignorant to the nth degree. Never read such a bunch of biased end of the world journalism.

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