Rare wolf not in other wolf’s clothing

Tūhura Otago Museum honorary curator Dr Rosi Crane  and museum natural science curator Kane...
Tūhura Otago Museum honorary curator Dr Rosi Crane and museum natural science curator Kane Fleury with the museum’s rare specimen of a Falkland Islands wolf. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
A very rare taxidermied specimen of a Falkland Islands wolf, held by Tūhura Otago Museum, has just become a smidgen less rare.

The wolf on display was thought to be the mounted skin from a skeleton held by the Natural History Museum in London.

However, research has found the skin is not from the skeleton in London.

Tūhura Otago Museum natural science curator Kane Fleury said X-rays showed the Otago specimen still had its own skull and most of its bones, making it a separate and unique specimen in its own right.

That meant there were now 13 individual specimens around the world, instead of 12, he said.

"It’s pretty rare — there’s not many specimens of these wolves in museums around the world, despite that they’re extinct."

The Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis), also known as the "warrah", was endemic to the Falkland Islands and was the apex terrestrial predator of the island.

It was hunted to extinction in about 1876, and is the first canid known to have been exterminated in historical times.

Mr Fleury said initially it was believed Otago’s wolf and the one in London were the same individual, because previous genetic testing showed they were very similar.

"But that similarity could have been caused by the DNA breaking down over time.

"So this work of tracking down the history of its arrival here in Dunedin, and the X-rays prove without a doubt, that this is a unique individual."

He co-led the research with Tūhura Otago Museum honorary curator Dr Rosi Crane, University of Otago zoologist Associate Prof Nic Rawlence and museum natural science curator Emma Burns.

The research also sheds light on the worldwide journey of Otago’s specimen and how it came to be at the museum.

It was accessioned in 1875, and likely arrived in one of two consignments from London.

Historical records and X-ray data prove the specimen was prepared by Otago Museum taxidermist Edwin Jennings (1835-1910).

"This research showcases the value of combining modern imaging techniques with historical documentation to uncover the stories behind museum specimens," Mr Fleury said.

"It’s a testament to the rich heritage preserved within museum collections.

"This discovery also highlights the importance of supporting regional museums to facilitate access to researchers and the many potential discoveries that can be made in museum collections."

The wolf was discovered among other specimens at the museum by Prof Rawlence while he was sampling moa bones for his PhD nearly 20 years ago.

At the time, he was very excited because it potentially represented a previously unknown specimen, and he took a sample for ancient DNA analysis, Prof Rawlence said.

"The specimen at Tūhura Otago Museum not only provides a rare glimpse into the past biodiversity of the Falkland Islands, but also enriches our understanding of the historical context and taxidermy practices of the 19th century.

"Discoveries aren’t just made in the field, but also in museums," Prof Rawlence said.

"Specimens collected decades to hundreds of years ago can often come to light and result in new scientific advances," he said.

The Falkland Islands wolf specimen remains on display at Tūhura Otago Museum in the Animal Attic, offering visitors a unique opportunity to connect with this rare specimen from a fascinating chapter of natural history.