Evolution

08
Mar

The Friendly Wolf that Confused Darwin

Ed Yong, writing at Not Exactly Rocket Science:

In 1996, Cooper travelled to London’s Natural History Museum to check out one of only six specimens of Falkland Islands wolf that were known at the time. Darwin collected the animal himself, and his handwriting graces the label (although it’s unclear whether he actually clubbed it over the head himself, as some stories claim).

Darwin was meticulous and the skull had been thoroughly cleaned—great for museums, bad for geneticists. Cooper needed organic material that still contained DNA. He suggested to Paula Jenkins, the museum’s curator of mammals, that he could pull out a tooth, cut off part of its root, and put it back in. “Her countenance was not one that suggested this was going to happen,” says Cooper, delicately.

But Darwin had missed a spot. As Cooper turned the skull around, he noticed a tiny sinus on its face—an opening, and one that clearly had something in it. He reached in with some tweezers and pulled out a little piece of nerve and blood vessel. It was just 3 millimetres long and 1 millimetre wide. But it was enough. It was raw tissue, loaded with DNA. “I thought: This is definitely going to work,” says Cooper.

A great profile of a researcher’s quest to document extinct oddities through their DNA.