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Wolves may have been cooperating for more than a million years

Wolves may have been cooperating for more than a million years

Wolf cooperation

Just like humans, it is easier for wolves to survive when they all work together.

This is especially true if one gets injured. An injured wolf may be unable to hunt on its own. It might rely on the rest of its family — called a pack — to hunt and share. If the pack is successful, the injured wolf could join them for a meal, providing nourishment while its wound heals.

Wolves may have been cooperating like this for a long time. Evidence comes from the fossil bones of an ancient wolf that lived about 1.3 million years ago in what is now China. The bones show that the wolf had an infection in its teeth that may have come from chewing on bones.

The wolf also had a broken leg that healed. The wolf’s shin had been busted into three pieces, but somehow the animal survived because the bone healed and mended.

Scientists have seen similar evidence of healing in an ancient wolf that once roamed North America, called the dire wolf. They lived in our area about 55,000 to 11,000 years ago. Fossils of this big relative of dogs are found in California’s La Brea tar pits.

"It is incredible to see these dental infections and fractured (leg) from this early Chinese wolf — and find similar injuries in our dire wolves at Rancho La Brea," said Dr. Mairin Balisi, National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, and co-author of the study involving the Chinese fossil. "Museum collections are valuable for many reasons. In this case, they've enabled us to observe shared behavior across species, across continents, across time."

Tourists to Yellowstone National Park may see the cooperative behavior of modern wolves. The park’s gray wolves hunt in packs, just like their ancient ancestors, making it easier for them to bring down bigger animals like elk, deer and bison. It is dangerous work for the wolves, who may be kicked or poked by their prey’s antlers or horns which can cause serious injuries.

Even today an injured wolf’s survival may depend on the generosity of its pack. 

— Brett French,


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