Newfoundland Wolf: This Random Island

Grey Wolf, Retron, public domain

Wolf at the door; thrown to the wolves; big bad wolf... 

You don't have to look further than our idioms and fairy tales to know people don't spare many kind thoughts for wolves. After you get past Akela and Raksha, they're generally painted as villains. Once upon a time, the island of Newfoundland had a healthy resident population of unique wolves but their bad, and undeserved, reputation with European settlers was likely a contributing factor in their demise.

Newfoundland wolf skull, public domain.

Newfoundland has a long history with wolves. Two wolf skulls were unearthed in the 4000 year-old Maritime Archaic Indian burial site at Port aux Choix, though there is some uncertainty as to whether these skulls were actually from a population of  Newfoundland wolves.  Recent analysis suggests they may have, somehow, come from a mainland population. Jumping ahead some 3500 years, Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s crew reported seeing wolves,  and wolves were described at the Cupids settlement by Mr. Guye of Bristow (aka John Guy). In fact, wolves were routinely seen across the island until the population dwindled about 90 years ago.  Given that they lived among us so recently it’s surprising how few specimens of the Newfoundland wolf remain (
2 skeletons, 3 skulls, and 2 skins)

Based on the existing evidence, it seems the Newfoundland wolf was a distinct subspecies of the grey wolf. It was described as a slender-skulled, medium-sized animal with a (generally) white pelt. The shape of the wolf’s ‘slicing teeth’ is one of the factors that led it to be recognized as a distinct subspecies. It also had unique tooth spacing, and it’s snout shape differed from its mainland counterparts. It is known in biological circles as Canis lupus beothucus. It’s Latin name was, of course, given to honour the Beothuk people who shared the island with the wolves. 

Did you know?
Labrador’s has its own subspecies of grey wolf. Canis lupus labradorius, or the Labrador wolf, ranges in colour from a grizzly grey to almost white and is thought to be a close relative of the Newfoundland wolf.

Grey wolf, public domain
According to a story printed in the Liverpool Mercury (related on The Rooms website in an article by John E. Maunder), the Newfoundland wolf played a role in the life of one particularly famous Beothuk — Demasduit. In March of 1819 John Peyton and a group of armed men went up the Exploits River in search of the Beothuk. When they were near the Beothuk campsite they encountered a pack of wolves. They fired on the pack, alerting the Beothuk to their presence. The Beothuk fled. Peyton eventually caught up to Demasduit. She was captured and eventually taken to Twillingate where she was renamed Mary March.

The Newfoundland wolf was not beloved by early settlers. It was blamed for the death of livestock. It's likely wolves did kill livestock from time to time but so did the numerous wild dogs throughout the colonies. Eventually, in September 1839, the Colonial Government proclaimed ‘An Act to encourage the Killing of Wolves in the Colony.’ A bounty of 5 pounds sterling was offered per animal. By 1872 the bounty was $12.  The last known wolf killed was in 1911 but scattered sighting continued into the 1930s. Ensuring the job was well and truly done, 
the 'wolf killing act' was not repealed until 1963.

Was the bounty completely responsible for the disappearance of the wolf?  Maybe not, but it certainly didn't help.  Biological systems are subject to many pressures beyond predation.  On an island as vast as Newfoundland, with such a sparse population, I wonder whether wolf hunters could have been successful in eliminating the species completely by themselves.  Reportedly, caribou numbers declined rapidly at about the same time.  It could be that access to food played a role as well.

Come Near At Your Peril, Canadian Wolf
How much were wolves reviled?  When Newfoundlanders contemplated confederation with Canada in 1869 the Anti-Confederation Song was born.  The song suggested the terms of union weren't to be trusted, and that Canada was a wolf:

Men, hurrah for our own native isle, Newfoundland
Not a stranger shall hold one inch of its strand;
Her face turns to Britain, her back to the Gulf,
Come near at your peril, Canadian Wolf!

That was the end of the line for Canis lupus beothucus but not the end of the wolf/wild canid story in Newfoundland. 

From time to time people claim to see a wolf on the island and, every so often, there is incontrovertible proof that they did. In 2012 CBC published a story of a wolf shot on the Bonavista Peninsula. It’s not certain how the wolf made it to the area but it likely came from Labrador on sea ice. When the government re-examined their data, they were able to confirm 4 grey wolves on the island between between 2008 and 2017. If wolves are making to the island on sea ice, given enough time, it is somewhere between possible and probable that they will establish a population, much as coyotes did, but there is little evidence to support that having happened yet.

Coyotes: A Brand New Pack
In 1987, a coyote pup was hit by a car near Deer Lake. That was the first confirmed coyote on the island of Newfoundland. By the 1990s there had been coyote sightings through much of the island. Coyotes are extremely adaptable and have been very good at expanding their range. Theyare smaller than wolves, typically weighing between 25 and 40lbs. They have excellent hearing and vision and can run at speeds of up to 60kph. Coyotes are naturally afraid of people but are fast learners and can become used to life in close proximity to humans.

Much as there was fear of the Newfoundland wolf, there is fear of our resident coyotes. Like all wildlife, coyotes need to be respected, I mean, they can take care of themselves but if we behave appropriately, we can get along as good neighbours. The provincial government even offers some suggestions on how we can make that happen, you can check that out here.

Speaking of coyotes, the coyote is playing an interesting role in Newfoundland’s wolf story. Coyote-wolf hybrids (aka coy-wolf) are becoming increasingly common on the island. By 2017 the provincial government was able to confirm 11 grey wolf - eastern coyote hybrids
 here. Typically these crosses are larger than the coyotes usually seen on the island.  Beyond the physical, their behaviour is described as somewhere between that of a wolf and coyote, especially in the social realm where they are seen as forming more cooperative social groups than typically coyotes. 

So while the Newfoundland wolf is extinct, Newfoundland’s wolf story is far from over.

A Final Note?

Hark what's that noise out by the porch door?  Granny, it's a coyote. 

According to The American Natural History (1904) by William T. Hornaday the cry of the coyote is half howl and half bark whereas the grey wolf's call is a prolonged, steady howl corresponding with a B-flat below middle C. 

The coy-wolf call has been described as starting as a howl then transitioning to a yip.      

I’m a curious guy. I always want to know more about the world and my
place in it. ‘This Random Island’ pieces are an attempt to answer some of those random questions that pop into my head about Newfoundland (my home). I’m no expert on any of the topics, but I do research and I’ll never knowingly lead you astray.

If you’d like more Newfoundland trivia, check out my Twitter (@NfldFactory) and Instagram (@productofnfld).


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