Florida Through Native Eyes

500,000 year-old wolf (C. armbrusteri)maxilla, southern Florida

Now part of Florida Museum of Natural History collection

Sense of community felt across species and epochs

A half million years ago along the edge of a South Florida river, an old wolf took in its last breath. The crafty canine was lucky to live long enough to know how useless it would be with worn-down teeth and a worn-out body. The fact that it lived so long (perhaps 6 or more years) might also offer a clue about the pack it associated with. Had it been protected as a senior? Did ancient wolves care for their elderly? Did they do so 500,000 years ago with this Florida old-timer?

In 2004, I stumbled onto the upper jaw (maxilla) with well-worn teeth in an FDOT retention pond on the outskirts of modern day LaBelle. The maxilla had been buried about 10 feet underground in what, 500,000 years ago, was a shallow river. The closest river from the site today is about a half mile north, known as the Caloosahatchee. Since no humans were alive in Florida when this site was part of an ancient river, I have taken the liberty of naming it, Sukihatchee. When my wife Marisa was growing up, her father had lovingly called her Suki. “Hatchee” is waterway in the Seminole language.

According to Dr. Richard Hulbert, Collections Manager for the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville and editor/co-author of “The Fossil Vertebrates of Florida” (UPF), the jaw belonged to Canis armbrusteri, an early to mid-Pleistocene relative to today's living gray wolf. Although the modern gray wolf, C. lupus, has likely never lived in Florida, C. armbrusteri and C. dirus have been well-documented here. C. armbrusteri has also been found in Arizona, California and Kansas. C. armbrusteri may be similar to gray wolves but it is regarded as a distinct species.

The Pliocene European wolf, C. falconeri is the ancestor of the gray wolf in the Old World, and C. armbrusteri represents its first appearance in North America in the Pleistocene epoch around 1.8 million years ago.

Captive red wolf, Homossassa Springs State Park

The red wolf lineage may relate more closely to coyotes than gray wolves, although Hulbert writes that the relationship is still being investigated.

A study led by University of Minnesota researcher Dan MacNulty and published in the September 23, 2009 issue of “Ecology Letters” reports that wolves are in their hunting prime at the ages of 2 and 3, but then their skills deteriorate steadily. The average life expectancy is 6. As the “old dogs” lose their physical peak, the study suggests that young adults in the pack take on more of the hunting chores and share their kills. MacNulty refers to this process as a lupine version of social security.

A coyote on Hwy. 31 near Arcadia made a fatal mistake in judging the speed of a car

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