DMU professor reveals unexpected wolf in continental U.S.

Last summer, Julie Meachen, Ph.D., found herself up close and personal with a pack of large, aggressive predators with bone-crushing jaws. It was a heart-racing experience, but in a good way: She and her research colleagues are the first to discover that Beringian wolves had once roamed mid-continental North America during the late Pleistocene era, the Ice Age.

Dr. Julie Meachen mapped the path Beringian wolves took from Alaska to the lower 48 states.
Dr. Julie Meachen mapped the path Beringian wolves took from Alaska to Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave.

Previously, scientists thought only dire and grey wolves existed in the lower 48 states, and that the now-extinct Beringian species were only in the Bering Strait region of Alaska and northern Canada. These new findings raise questions about mammal diversity, migration and extinction as the Earth’s climate changed.

Meachen, assistant professor of anatomy at Des Moines University; Trent Fry, a student in DMU’s master of anatomy program; and Alexandria Brannick, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington, co-authored an article on their research, “Extinct Beringian wolf morphotype found in the continental U.S. has implications for wolf migration and evolution,” published in April in Ecology and Evolution, a Wiley journal.

Their work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation awarded to Meachen last year.

The first site in the lower U.S. to yield evidence of the Beringian wolves is Natural Trap Cave at the base of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. This 85-foot-deep sinkhole was a deadly trap for prehistoric animals and is now a treasure trove for scientists, including Meachen, who spent the past two summers there conducting grant-supported research. The cave is located near the end of what was a corridor between two Pleistocene era glaciers, which makes it “an ideally placed late Pleistocene site to study the geographical movement of species from northern to middle North America before, during, and after the last glacial maximum,” the researchers state in the article.

Julie Meachen, Ph.D.
Julie Meachen, Ph.D.

The Natural Trap Cave wolf fossils Meachen and her collaborators examined had lurked in the collections of the Kansas Museum for the past 30 years. The researchers studied various species from both today and the past, from bighorn sheep and bison to mammoths and American lions. They didn’t expect to find the Beringian wolf, which is both morphologically and genetically different from the Ice Age dire wolves and living grey wolves.

Now that the Beringian wolf has been identified, Meachen and her research team will continue to study its morphology and conduct explorations to discover if this Alaskan native traveled elsewhere in the U.S. before its extinction at the end of the Ice Age. Next steps also include morphological analysis of other populations of North American Pleistocene grey wolves and genetic analyses of Natural Trap Cave wolves.

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