Norwegian Wolves Are Extinct, With No Genetic Trace Left Behind

The Norwegian wolf, which is believed to have roamed Norway and Sweden for around 12,000 years, is now extinct.

That is according to scientists who have spent years studying the genetics of the wolves that now inhabit the region.

After examining the genetic make-up of approximately 1,300 wolves, the team has concluded the wolves now inhabiting Norway and Sweden originally hail from Finland. And this population has no genetic remnants from the wolves that came before.

Wolves are found across North America and Eurasia, with over 30 known subspecies. While their global population is now stable, in the 20th century many populations—especially those in the U.S.—were pushed to the brink of extinction.

Wolves arrived in Norway and Sweden at the end of the last ice age, when glaciers retreated, exposing the landscapes beneath. This population vanished, however, around 1970 as a result of hunting and agricultural conflicts with humans.

However, around a decade later wolves reemerged and there are now around 400 roaming the borders of these two countries.

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A wolf that inhabits Norway and Sweden. Researchers discovered the current population came from Finland. Per-Harald Olsen, NTNU

Where this population came from and how it became established was unclear, although some suggested they were wolves from zoos that were released into the wild.

Hans Stenøien, director of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum, and colleagues set about solving the mystery. "We've carried out the largest genetic study of wolves in the world," he said in a statement.

Their results form part of a large report into the wolf population commissioned by the Norwegian government in 2016. Their findings, based on the genetic analysis of 1,300 wolves, shows the wolves in Norway and Sweden migrated from somewhere in Finland.

The team also found that the new wolf population in Norway and Sweden is in trouble. They found the new population is genetically different to those living in Finland today, but that these differences are the result of the population being small, leading to inbreeding.

"This lack of variation makes wolves vulnerable to various diseases and hereditary conditions," Stenøien said. Eventually, this could lead wolves to disappear from Norway and Sweden again.

The team also discovered the new population of wolves in Norway and Sweden are the least dog-like of any wolf species on Earth. Wolves and dogs are so genetically similar they can produce offspring together. This population, however, had virtually no traces of dog in their genes.

There are still a handful of wolves from the original Norway/Sweden population living in zoos. It is suggested these animals could be introduced to the current population to increase genetic variation.

Stenøien said that while this is technically feasible, it would be "expensive, difficult and a lot of work."