For centuries if not for millenia wolves and men were sworn enemies. In Central and Western Europe man mercyless hunted Canis lupus (scientific name for the ancestor of our domestic dogs) and finally wiped out the grey predators in many regions of the densely populated countries like Germany and France. In Great Britain it was already wiped out in the Middles Ages. Only in remote areas of Western and Central Europe (Spain) isolated populations remained.
Sengrim and Litte Red Riding Hood - the wolf as evil and sneaky beast in European tales. (19th-century-postcard, public domain, wikimedia commons)
In the Alps the wolves became extinct already in the 19th century although there were (and still are) huge wilderness regions in the high mountains of Central Europe. But the hunting was so efficient that even a smart animal like the wolf did not survive.
Evil and sneaky - wolf in fairy tales and myths
In the fairy tales of peoples world wide the wolf often is portrayed as a sneaky and man eating beast. Hunters and farmers considered him as rival for the game and as threat to domestic animals. In Italy however, south of the Alpes, some hundred animals of the italian subspecies (Canis lupus italicus) managed to escape the constant chase in southern parts of the country and became by-and by so leery and cautious that they simply avoided the contact with man. Since some decades the Italian wolves - a medium sized form of the European wolf - are protected by law. Now they start to disperse over their ancient habitat.
In the last years they crossed Nothern Italy and started to recolonize the western Alps in Italy, France and Switzerland. Genetic findings suggest, that they begin to interbreed with animals from a small population that survived in the central-southern Apennines. This gives hope that the new populations can overcome the problem of a genetic bottle neck which often results from a small founder population. With the wolves also recolonizing Germany and Austria from the North part (wolves stemming from Eastern European populations) it seems possible that in the near future both population mix. This additonally minimizes the problem of inbreeding.
Climate change abetting spread of Italian wolves?
Interestingly the new wolf population which now exists in the Alps is formed by a subspecies which in the past was adapted to warmer climates in the Mediterranean region. It is very likely that the extinct population which settled in the Alps before in the past was more alike the Central and Nothern European subspecies suggesting that maybe already climate change abets the new spread of Italian wolves in the Alps.
Nevertheless for zoologists and wolf friends in Europe a dream becomes true: Canis lupus - sengrim of the tales - is back home and with him returned a piece of nature and nativeness to Europe. Welcome back home!
- Fabbri E, Miquel C, Lucchini V, Santini A, Caniglia R, Duchamp C, Weber JM, Lequette B, Marucco F, Boitani L, Fumagalli L, Taberlet P, Randi E.: From the Apennines to the Alps: colonization genetics of the naturally expanding Italian wolf (Canis lupus) population. Mol Ecol. 2007 Apr;16(8):1661-71.
- http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italienischer_Wolf The Italian wolf
- http://members.tripod.com/~hitzenhammer/alpen.html The Return of the wolves
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