Last but not beast: the fall of the Alpine wolves told by historical DNA

  • Christophe Dufresnes
  • Christian Miquel
  • Pierre Taberlet
  • Luca FumagalliEmail author
Short Communication


The sociopolitical acceptance necessary for the conservation of controversial species requires scientific knowledge that disentangles empirical facts from myth and misinformation. An epitome of such, the gray wolf (Canis lupus) had been eradicated from most of Western Europe by the early twentieth century. However, a few mysteriously re-appeared in the Alps throughout the twentieth century, leading to systematic hunts encouraged by popular folklore and massive waves of panic. These historical events are reminiscent of the hostile context now surrounding the recolonization of the wolf across former ranges. Through historical DNA sequencing of five rare museum specimens shot post-WWII, we tell the true story of these mystery beasts. The oldest ones (1947–1954) were just the very last survivors of an endemic, extremely resilient wolf population, thought to be extinct decades earlier, while recent ones (1978–1990) most likely originated from captivity. This parable reminds that today more than ever, scientific evidence is necessary to conduct an objective societal debate over the management and conservation of controversial species.


Canis lupus Controversial species Human-wildlife conflicts Museum samples Regional extinction 



We thank the Naturhistorisches Museum Bern (P Lüps), the Bündner Naturmuseum, Chur (JP Müller), the Naturmuseum, Olten (P Flückiger), the Musée de la Nature du Valais, Sion (JC Praz) and the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, Lyon (J Clary, M Philippe), which provided the historical samples for this study. We also thank R Arlettaz, A Moser, R Waterhouse, the info fauna-Centre Suisse de Cartographie de la Faune (CSCF, Neuchâtel, Switzerland).


This study has been supported by the University of Lausanne.


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Copyright information

© Mammal Research Institute, Polish Academy of Sciences, Białowieża, Poland 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Christophe Dufresnes
    • 1
    • 2
  • Christian Miquel
    • 3
  • Pierre Taberlet
    • 3
  • Luca Fumagalli
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Laboratory for Conservation Biology, Department of Ecology and Evolution, Biophore BuildingUniversity of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Animal & Plant SciencesUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK
  3. 3.Laboratoire d’Écologie Alpine (LECA)Grenoble Cedex 9France

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