Himalayan Wolf Uniquely Adapted to High Altitude Life

dog life coverIn my recent book DOG LIFE, I enjoyed writing about the forebears of our dogs, the wolf. The book includes several sections with information about the wolf through evolution and history.

You’ll find three wolf species (Gray Wolf, Red Wolf, and Ethiopian Wolf) plus thirty-two subspecies of the present-day wolf recorded worldwide. Some may reach 31 inches (77.5cm) at the shoulders, 4.5 feet (1.5m) in length (not including the tail), and weigh as much as 175 pounds (79kg).

I included the Himalayan wolf sub-species in my book. So while I rarely write about anything other than domestic pets, imagine my delight to receive a press release from The University of Oxford with surprising details that have resulted from their Himalayan wolves project.

The Himalayan wolf in its trans-Himalayan habitat on 5000m above sea level in far north-western Nepal.(Credit Geraldine Werhahn)

New Insight Into Himalayan Wolves

The Himalayan wolf, one of the most ancient types, evolved before the modern gray wolf found in North America and Eurasia. Until recently, scientists considered the Himalayan wolf as just another gray wolf.

But the harsh life of Asian high altitudes has prompted the Himalayan wolves to evolve in unique ways. Now research published today in the Journal of Biogeography can change all that.

The Himalayan wolf, a top carnivore in some of the last intact large wilderness areas, remains vital to keep these ecosystems balanced. After studying many different genetic markers, scientists now understand this wolf’s unique adaptation to cope with high altitude.

Six-Year Study Reveals Astonishing Results

Researchers hope the information will help develop long-term conservation plans for both the wolves and their ecosystem. The study used wolf scat sampling for genetic and genomic research, to study diet, and learn about prey selection including the targeting of livestock.

Himalayan wolf pack sizes are smaller (five animals) than typical gray wolf packs. And when grazing livestock competes with normal wild prey, wolves left with no other choice instead kill livestock. Finding solutions to protect wild prey populations becomes part of the goal.

Dr. Geraldine Werhahn of WildCRU, Department of Zoology, called the outcome the research “absolutely astonishing.” Little was known when the study began in 2014. She says when research began, we believed this wolf only lived in the Himalayas. But they found these wolves in the entire high altitude regions of Asia that comprise the habitats of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. “Much still remains to be revealed about their ecology, behavior and population size. But the time to protect them is now!”

Next Steps for Himalayan Wolves

Owners of livestock naturally seek to protect their animals, and killing wolves–and selling body parts as trophies–feeds into the illegal wildlife trade. Thankfully, local people want to be closely involved in conservation work. Community conservation groups have proven successful in Himalayan areas. Protective fencing, as well as use of Tibetan Mastiff dogs, has proven useful, as described in the video, below (courtesy of Geraldine Werhahn’s YouTube page).

Researchers propose using the gathered data as a basis to give the Himalayan wolf formal taxonomic recognition. That paves the way to assign it an IUCN conservation status. They also plan to conduct further research into the behavioral and ecological aspects of these wolves.

What do you think? The United States has its own wolf populations and conservation efforts. I’m intrigued to learn of conservation efforts around the world, especially of our canine friend’s ancestor and distant brother-beneath-the-fur.


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