This Ancient Creature Was the First Known Wolf in Europe

A dog-like animal found in Italy has been revealed to be the earliest wolf ever discovered in Europe.

The findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports last month. The discovery highlights evolutionary information about where modern-day wolves come from and shows the importance of wolves to European ecology stretching back for hundreds of thousands of years.

"The most sensational result of our findings is that our study resolves at least one aspect of the still poorly understood evolutionary history of the wolf," co-author Raffaele Sardella of the Sapienza University of Rome's Earth Sciences Department told Newsweek via email.

"We now know that Canis lupus (the modern wolf) was already present in the European continent as far as 400,000 years ago. Before our study no precise data on the first occurrence of Canis lupus in the European fossil record was available," he said.

The researchers came to their conclusions by analyzing skull fragments of a large canid or dog-like animal that was found in Ponte Galeria near Rome decades ago.

They used a CT scanner, like those used in medical imaging, to build a 3-D model of what the entire skull would look like and realized that the fragments belonged to an ancient gray wolf. The scientists came to that conclusion due to its shape, which mirrored that of modern-day gray wolf skulls.

The skull fragments also contained volcanic material that dated to a volcano which erupted 406,500 years ago—an era known as the Middle Pleistocene, which confirmed its age.

Gray wolves are found across much of the northern hemisphere including the U.S. and likely arrived in Europe from Asia.

Scientists behind the research said that they likely evolved from a now extinct, smaller cousin of modern gray wolves called Canis mosbachensis that lived alongside wolves such as the ancient specimen found near Rome.

Their work showed the spread of gray wolves in Europe matched the great adaptability of the animals across many different landscapes seen today from Colorado to China, underlining the key role they play in various ecosystems.

"Predators play an important ecological role in all habitats, the wolf in particular due to its ecological plasticity (i.e. adaptability to live and survive in many different habitats) and efficient pack hunting abilities play a key part in maintaining the ecological equilibrium within environments containing the number of large ungulates (e.g. deer, boars and in the past large bovids as well as the now extinct aurochs) present in an area," Sardella said.

The authors of the paper also pointed out how evolutionary history can aid conservation efforts in various ways. One of them is showing the great adaptability of gray wolves to a changing climate.

"Knowledge on how this animal came to be, which climatic conditions favored its diffusion in Europe and in other continents is vital to understand how current climatic change may affect its distribution," Sardella said.

"The fossil record is the Earth's history book, by studying it we can better plan for future rewilding programs. For example, the Middle Pleistocene was characterized by an important global climatic event that contributed to shape modern European habitats and we now know that the wolf appeared in Europe right during this phase."

Stock image of gray wolf in Italy
Stock image of gray wolf in Italy. The animals have been key components of Europe's ecology for hundreds of thousands of years. maforke/Getty Images