Perhaps, one day in the not-too-distant future, someone will deduce a meaning from the disorderly jumble of scientific findings from the Anthropocene epoch, in that paradoxical corner of science where romanticism meets empirical evidence.
The recent discovery in the Russian federal republic of Sakha — northeastern Siberia to you and me — of the severed head of a Pleistocene-era wolf, believed to be some 40,000 years old, is an attention grabber, in no small part because this early ancestor of Canis lupus — the tundra wolf, close cousin of the timber and grey wolf — was found in more-or-less intact condition. That’s a first, by any measure.
The wolf was aged between two- and four-years-old when it died, back in the age of the earliest cave paintings, in the Upper Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age. The wolf’s rich, mammoth-like fur and sharp fangs were found to be in surprisingly good condition, considering the passage of time.
As the ice shrinks owing to global heating, more Pleistocene-era finds are being discovered all the time,
from woolly mammoth tusks to, now, the remains of one of present-day wolves’ earliest predator ancestors.
The Pleistocene wolf’s head is 40cm long, roughly half the length of many adult modern-day wolves, which range in length from 105-160cm.
The find was announced in Tokyo at an exhibition organized by Russian and Japanese scientists. Dr. Naoki Suzuki, a professor of palaeontology and medicine at Tokyo’s Jikei University School of Medicine, has dated the remains as being 40,000 years or older. Scientists with the Swedish Museum of Natural History will now examine the Pleistocene predator’s DNA for further clues of its evolutionary biology.
Why does any of this matter? Quite apart from the romanticism and feel-good factor of finding a near-perfectly preserved specimen of one of wolves’ earliest ancestors, scientists hope to understand how species respond to environmental change, including the evolution of parasites, cancer research and the evolution of antibiotic resistance. How can we help save endangered species, and will we one day need that knowledge to save our own species? Human minds need to know.