It’s an exciting time in my house: it’s time for Eurovision 2022!!!
For those of you who don’t know, Eurovision is a European song contest. Each country picks an artist to represent them in the contest. Each song must be made in the past year, be under 3 minutes long, and be performed live. After 2 days of semi-finals, it’s time for the finals: a 4-hour long music extravaganza. Some of the songs are good, some are bad, and some are just really fun to watch. The production value is always over the top. You know, flamethrowers and people coming down from the ceiling. That kind of stuff. I absolutely love watching it.
Eurovision this year is being held in Turin, Italy. So, I would like to introduce you all to an unofficial Italian national symbol: the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus).
- Before we talk about Italian wolves specifically, we need to discuss speciation. Speciation is the formation of new species over the course of evolution. This typically happens through geographic isolation, especially when the species in question reproduces sexually. Populations of a species will literally get isolated from each other by some sort of physical barrier, like a desert or a river. Whatever this physical barrier is, its large enough that the once similar and connected populations can no longer interact. Each population then adapts to their own environment and, eventually, the populations will be so different that they will no longer be able to breed with each other. This inability to breed means that they can now be classified as different species. Geographic isolation is thought to have been what happened with Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands: multiple volcanic eruptions separated populations that then evolved into distinct species.
- Okay, going back to the Italian wolves: these wolves are currently in the first part of speciation. They are a subspecies of the gray wolf. This means that while they can still breed with other gray wolf subspecies, the Italian wolf has physical and genetic differences from other “types” of grey wolves. First recorded in 1921 by the zoologist Guiseppe Altobello, these differences are subtle. In fact, Altobello’s classification of Italian wolves being different from typical European wolves was rejected by others and only recently reaffirmed by the paleontologist R. M. Nowak in 2002. More recent DNA analyses have further supported the claim that Italian wolves are indeed a separate subspecies.
- The differences
- So what are the differences between Italian wolves and other gray wolf subspecies? Let’s start with the physical: Italian wolves have a distinct skull morphology, or structure. They have a rounder skull than other gray wolves, as well as smaller teeth. The Italian wolf is also special genetically – they have a unique mutation in their mitochondrial DNA that is not found in any other gray wolf population. Italian wolves have additional mitochondrial and DNA mutations that make them unique genetically; in fact, they are the only remaining wolf subspecies in Europe that still has a certain mutation found in ancient wolves.
- Pack life
- Like other wolves, Italian wolves live in packs. However, these packs tend to be smaller than the packs of other subspecies. Why? Well, Italian wolves feed mainly on more medium-sized prey (wild boar, chamois, roe deer, etc.). There aren’t any really large herbivores to eat, so it’s hard to hunt enough meat to consistently feed a larger pack. Instead, Italian wolf packs generally consist of around four individuals: the reproducing alpha pair and a few subadults that will leave when they reach adulthood. However, large herbivores have been introduced in some areas of the Italian wolf territory; here, packs can get as large as seven individuals.
- Making a comeback
- The numbers of Italian wolves took a huge hit during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The reason? Hunters. It’s a classic story: wolves kill livestock, so people decided to just kill all the wolves. Luckily, they didn’t quite kill all the Italian wolves, although it was a close call. A census in 1973 placed the number of Italian wolves at between 100 and 110 individuals. But the Italian wolf was also given legal protection from hunting around this time (1971), and the population began to bounce back. By the late 1990s, there was an estimated 400 – 500 individuals, and their numbers have continued to grow. Of course, they are still in danger: whenever humans and animals live close to each other, animals are at risk for human pressures like shooting and car accidents. But there is reason to be hopeful that the Italian wolf population will continue to grow!
- Why a national symbol?
- The importance of wolves in Italy can be traced to Roman times. As the myth goes, the newborn twins Romulus and Remus were left on the bank of the river Tiber to die. Of course, they didn’t die: multiple characters helped them survive, one of whom was a she-wolf. This wolf nursed Romulus and Remus until they were rescued by a shepherd. Romulus would later found the city of Rome, and the wolf became a symbol of the Romans (and later, the Italians).
Unfortunately, we probably won’t see any real Italian wolves at Eurovision – live animals are forbidden from being a part of the performances. Still, wolves are cool, and now you know a little more about the unofficial animal of Italy.