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Museum / Museum Notes / The Newfoundland Wolf


Museum Notes - The Newfoundland Wolf

By John E. Maunder
Original edition, winter 1982; adapted, without cited references, and by permission, from The Osprey 13(2): 36-49, June 1982
Revised and corrected edition, Fall 1991
[Both originally published in printed form]


The vision of wolf packs roaming the shores of Red Indian Lake, or the outskirts of St. John's, may seem fanciful to modern-day residents of the Island of Newfoundland. Yet wolves did roam the country, for thousands of years - stalking the caribou, and living in balance with the creatures, and the peoples, of their remote island world.

Eventually, the Europeans came - and with them, it seems, Old World attitudes towards wolves. Some of the more well-to-do, hunted wolves for sport. Others hunted them for trophies - what more impressive creature to display as a parlour rug? But, to be fair, most people's attitudes towards wolves were simply practical. By all accounts, wolves were vicious and unpredictable killers. Livestock owners dreaded their coming, and many settlers feared for their lives when they ventured into the country.

It cannot be denied that Newfoundland Wolves, living near human habitation, did raid livestock pens at every opportunity, particularly when caribou were scarce. However, the settlers need not have worried about their own safety. To this day, in North America, there has not been a single, authenticated case of a person being killed by a healthy, unprovoked wolf. A few enlightened Newfoundland folk actually blamed the half-wild dogs of the settlers for much of the evil that was attributed to wolves. But, such claims did not seem to impress the general population. They too were trying to survive in the country, and intended to succeed. On September 14, 1839, the colonial government proclaimed a wolf bounty of five pounds sterling; a princely sum at the time.

By about 1930, the Newfoundland Wolf was extinct. A startling demise! What happened?

The standard explanation has long been that the Newfoundland Wolf was hunted or trapped out of existence; partly because of its fearsome reputation as a livestock killer, partly because of the bounty on its head, and partly just for sport. Indeed, wolf numbers did appear to decline, somewhat, towards the end of the last century. But, recent evidence indicates that the real cause of the wolf's demise may, actually, have been a fluke combination of SEVERAL factors. The main factor seems to have been the drastic decline of the Newfoundland caribou population, from perhaps 120,000 animals in 1915, to as few as 5000-6000 animals in 1925.

The Newfoundland Wolf was faced, all of a sudden, with a very critical food shortage. Its numbers declined rapidly. By 1925, there may have been as few as 20-30 animals on the whole island. Reproductive success was likely very low. Weakened by the stresses of simple survival, the last few stragglers probably succumbed, over time, to old-age and disease. Surprisingly, the wolf bounty seems to have had very little to do with the Newfoundland Wolf's demise. Even though the considerable total of 29 wolves was taken for bounty in the year 1861 (the highest ever), the yearly average, between 1839 and 1896, when the last bounty wolf was killed, was only 3.4 individuals. For a variety of reasons, the wolf bounty, begun in 1839, was not in effect from mid-1841 to mid-1843, from mid-1847 to mid-1858, and from mid-1863 to the beginning of 1872.

Despite a colourful history, very little is actually known about the Newfoundland Wolf. Much of the existing record was assembled by the late Dr. Leslie M. Tuck in two very informative articles, published in 1947 and 1979. This note attempts to consolidate the story of the Newfoundland Wolf and bring it up to date.

The first wolves to inhabit the Island of Newfoundland MAY have arrived over the sea-ice from Labrador, as the last Ice Age drew to a close, about 10,000 years ago. But, recent evidence seems to suggest that they arrived much earlier, and survived the Ice Age, along with the Newfoundland Caribou and a variety of other species, in ice-free "refugia" to the south of the glacial ice-sheet.

In 1968, archaeologists led by Dr. James A. Tuck of Memorial University, unearthed parts of two wolf skulls in the 4000 year old Maritime Archaic Indian burials at Port au Choix, on the Great Northern Peninsula. The specimens - both "upper jaws" or maxillae - are in the archaeology collections of the Newfoundland Museum. But, their existence does not, in itself, prove that wolves inhabited Newfoundland 4000 years ago. Close examination of the maxillae, in recent years, has suggested that at least one of them may have had a mainland origin.

The first written mention of wolves on the Island, so far as can be found, was made in 1578 in two articles by Anthonie Parkhurst who commented: "I had almost forgot to speak of the plenty of wolves ..." Captain Edward Haies, a member of Sir Humphrey Gilbert's expedition of 1583, also mentioned wolves. From that time onward, a great many Newfoundland letters and journals contained at least minor references to the species, so great seems to have been the fascination with wolves in the early days.

Captain William Colston wrote, in his journal, recorded at John Guy's colony at Cupids, in 1612, that the colony's dogs had killed a wolf. John Guy, himself, wrote that his exploring party had been approached by a Beothuk Indian waving a "wolfskinne" flag, at Bull Arm, Trinity Bay, in November of the same year.

Captain Richard Whitbourne reported encountering wolves "three several times" in and around the fishing station at Trepassey, in 1615. The wolves were apparently quite friendly with his mastiff dog, and he appeared to speculate on their potential for domestication. It seems likely that these remarkably friendly "wolves" were actually feral dogs; an abundant "species" at the time. A marginal note in Samuel Purchas' 1625 edition of Whitbourne's accounts gives a rather different picture, of a wolf being viciously killed by the mastiff and greyhound of a Mr. Guies.

While some writers, like Whitbourne, seemed comfortable in the presence of wolves (if that is what they were), others took the dark side of the wolf myth to heart and trembled at the very thought of these traditionally much-feared creatures. Such is reflected in an extraordinary letter written by "N.H. a Gentleman living at Ferryland" in 1622. It tells of an experience during a hunting trip when: "In the night, the Wolves being near, did something affright us with howlings, but did not hurt us: for we had dogs, fire, and sword to welcome them."

Throughout the 18th century, travellers continued to remark upon wolves whenever they encountered them. Lieutenant John Cartwright made mention of wolves in an account of a trip up the Exploits River in search of Beothuks in 1768; and Aaron Thomas related that his guide, Thomas Murphy, encountered a pack near Windsor Lake, in the St. John's area, in 1776.

A little later, E. Slade, writing in the Liverpool Mercury, related how the apparent appearance of a pack of wolves, at a critical moment, nearly foiled what was to become the infamous capture of the Beothuk Indian woman, "Mary March", at Red Indian Lake, in March of 1819. Shots supposedly fired at the wolves by John Peyton's men were said to have warned the nearby Indian encampment in time for most of the Beothuks (who were being sought for raiding Peyton's establishment at the Mouth of Exploits) to flee into the woods. Peyton, himself, eventually managed to catch up with Mary March, the slowest of the party.

It is interesting to note that three years later, William Epps Cormack saw many wolf tracks, but only one actual wolf, during his epic walk across Newfoundland.

The species appears to have remained quite plentiful through the early 1800's. The missionary Edward Wix reported twelve wolves in one company on the west side of Placentia Bay in 1836.

Writers continued to chronicle the problem of "marauding" wolves. The Reverend William Wilson, for example, wrote that they were troublesome and had killed several sheep and cattle near Trinity in the winter of 1834. In fact, wolves had fallen into such ill-repute by 1839 that the government passed "An Act to encourage the Killing of Wolves in this Colony.", which began:

"Whereas much injury has arisen to the Inhabitants from the Depredations of Wolves in this Island; and it is expedient to encourage the destruction of the said Animals: -"

By way of encouragement, a bounty of five pounds sterling was to be paid for each wolf destroyed. Geologist J.B. Jukes noted, in 1840, that wolves were playing havoc with livestock in the Colinet area, and he seemed to generally support the new bounty.

Richard Bonnycastle, writing in 1842, described an episode involving a particularly fearsome wolf. If seems, that after destroying considerable livestock in the St. John's area, and losing a leg in a trap, this remarkable creature eluded pursuers all winter; during which time, it travelled eighty rugged kilometres over the country, attacking livestock all the while. It was finally cornered at Turk's Gut, Brigus, where it was gunned down by three local men. The apparent ferocity with which it was dispatched is a good indication of the level of the settler's hatred and fear of wolves. The remains of the "Turk's Gut Wolf" were stuffed for Magistrate Pinsent of Brigus, but the present whereabouts of the skin is unknown.

In 1865, Newfoundland trapper J.M. Nelson, collecting for Louis Agassiz, sent two complete skeletons and two additional skulls of the Newfoundland Wolf to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. These specimens still exist, and the skeletons are the only complete ones known.

Wolves were becoming increasingly rare on the Avalon Peninsula by the 1870's, but their reputation continued as strong as ever. An incident said to have occurred on the Southside of St. John's in May 1874 serves to illustrate the extreme emotions that wolves still elicited at that time. The North Star and St. John's, Newfoundland, News reported that "a number of people, indiscriminantly [sic] armed with guns, pitchforks, &tc." apparently chased a wolf "for some time" in the area. In 1872, the government re-confirmed the wolf bounty, and set it at twelve dollars.

The winter of 1888-1889 seems to have been a good season for encountering wolves on the west coast of the Island. The Reverend Charles W. Hollands wrote that unusually large numbers of both caribou and wolves had been seen along the coast between Cow Head and Flowers Cove. He noted that: "Tracks of 25, 20 and 14 wolves have been seen in several places, chiefly in St. John's Bay on Doctor's Hills."; but that: "The highest number of wolves seen alive was five."

In 1896, the Reverend Dr. Elwood Worcester shot a white Newfoundland Wolf north of Grand Lake. He later presented the skin to the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, where it joined the skeletal material acquired earlier from J.M. Nelson. Reverend Worcester's rug lacked feet and a tail, but for many years was the only skin of a Newfoundland Wolf known to exist.

By the turn of the 20th century, wolves had begun to decline in Newfoundland. However, sentiments towards them appear to have remained unchanged. An article in the Evening Telegram of St. John's on March 30, 1906, reported a pack of wolves seen by a telegraph lineman in the Topsails. The article suggested that: "The government would do well to have these ferocious animals destroyed."

But, opinions such as the following, make one wonder how often people blamed wolves automatically for almost any grisly deed. Captain W.R. Kennedy wrote: "Wolves are not, in my opinion, so numerous as many suppose ..."; and went on to say:

"I do not believe they do half as much harm as they are credited with, and certainly not as much as the packs of half-wild, half- starved curs which infest the country. If government were to give a reward for every one of these brutes which was shot, it would be more to the purpose. They are without a doubt the curse of the country; no farmer can keep either sheep or cattle for fear of them. The settlers keep them for hauling lumber ... These brutal dogs are not fed, but they are left to get their own living."

To support his contention that there were large numbers of these dogs on the loose, Kennedy recorded that one person whose entire stock of animals was killed by the brutes, managed to kill 92 of them in short order!

William Ernest Whiteway, son of the perennial Newfoundland Prime Minister, Sir William Whiteway, shot a Newfoundland Wolf in the fall of 1894 (not in the fall of 1911, as was once thought) in the Gaff Topsails. The skin was made into a wall-rug by taxidermist William H. Ewing of St. John's. In 1951, L.M. Tuck learned of the Whiteway wolf skin. When it became apparent that the skin might be sold outside the Province, he purchased it on behalf of the Newfoundland Natural History Society. The intent of the Society was to present the skin to the newly reopened Newfoundland Museum at such time as it developed the facilities to care for it. In 1958, the skin was sent by Tuck (who had been appointed "Keeper of the Skin") to the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa, for safekeeping. At the request of the Newfoundland Museum, it was eventually made into a taxidermied mount at the National Museum (Figure 1). The specimen (which is the only complete skin of a Newfoundland Wolf known) is now part of the natural history collections of the Newfoundland Museum - a donation of the Newfoundland Natural History Society. The skull, which was removed when the taxidermy was done, is the fifth known skull of a Newfoundland Wolf.

The last known bounty for a Newfoundland Wolf was paid in 1896. Interestingly, the government re-affirmed the twelve dollar bounty in 1916; a rather futile and unwise gesture, since, at the time, the wolf was on the very brink of extinction. It is impossible to say for sure when the very last wolf died. The Reverend John H. Moss wrote that the last known wolf in the Daniel's Harbour area was killed about 1920. Ernest Thomson Seton quoted a letter from Gower Rabbitts, Secretary of the Newfoundland Game and Inland Fisheries Board, to the effect that two wolves were seen near St. George's in 1921, and two more crossed Birchy Lake in the winter of 1922-1923. Scattered, unconfirmed reports of wolves continued into the early 1930's. But, it is probably safe to say that very few wolves survived after 1925. Remarkably, the "Killing of Wolves Act" (or wolf bounty act) was not repealed until 1963.

Why was the Newfoundland Wolf distinguished as a separate subspecies? The original determination was made by two Harvard University zoologists, Glover M. Allen and Thomas Barbour in a 1937 paper. They examined the specimens then at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and compared them with wolf specimens from many other areas, including Labrador. They concluded that the Newfoundland Wolf, which they scientifically named Canis lupus beothucus, in honour of the extinct Beothuk Indians, was recognizably different from all other wolves.

There is a big difference between deciding that something is different, and being able to describe these differences scientifically. Allen and Barbour looked first at the teeth, and found that the shape of the slicing teeth (carnassials) in the upper jaw was consistently different in Newfoundland specimens (Figure 2). As well, there was a larger gap (diastema) between the carnassial tooth and the immediately preceding third molar tooth than is found in other wolves. A third difference was the comparative lengths of some of the snout bones (Figure 3). The Newfoundland Museum specimen, which Allen and Barbour did not see, seems to fit their original description extremely well.

Can we actually distinguish a subspecies on the basis of such a small stock of evidence? The total of all Newfoundland Wolf specimens now stands at only two skeletons, three additional skulls, and two skins (one incomplete, and of unusual colour). Perhaps not with certainty. The whole question of whether the Newfoundland Wolf is actually a distinct subspecies really boils down to informed opinion. But, the essence of the matter, is that Newfoundland once had its own resident population of wolves, and that now they are gone.

No one really knows how many wolves lived in Newfoundland. Bonnycastle remarked in 1842 that "the country is well furnished with wolves, ..." There were frequent reports of the animals from nearly all over the Island until the beginning of this century. Wildlife scientists recognize that caribou was the staple diet of the Newfoundland Wolf. Credible estimates of maximal caribou populations on the Island in years past, vary from 100,000 to 120,000. Using the scientific approximation that a herd of 150 caribou is required to support an individual wolf over a period of time, it might be suggested that wolf populations on the Island may have sometimes reached 650-800 animals. However, during the times when wolves competed with Beothuk Indians, and other aboriginal groups, for caribou, the actual number of wolves probably never exceeded 450. It is hard to say for sure.

It does seem a terrible shame that Island Newfoundlanders, in all likelihood, will never again hear the mournful, eerie howl of the wolf echoing through the hills, and never again thrill at a glimpse of one of these magnificent, and much-maligned creatures, ghosting, with eyes aglow, through the trees at dusk. Only lately are we realizing the true nature of these intelligent, and essentially gentle animals. Perhaps wolves in other parts will be luckier than ours.

Figure 1. The mounted "Whiteway Wolf Skin", now in the Newfoundland Museum. (Ned Pratt Photo)

Figure 2. In the Newfoundland Wolf, the inner tooth face of the upper carnassials is indented adjacent to the main cusp [A], rather than ahead of it [B].

Figure 3. In the Newfoundland Wolf, the nasal bones of the skull [B] are 2.5 times longer than the ascending arms of the premaxilla bones [A], rather than twice as long.

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