The Norwegian Wolf Is Extinct

Wolves living in Norway and Sweden today are actually Finnish wolves.

Norwegian wolf
Today's Norwegian-Swedish wolf descended from Finnish wolves.

Per-Harald Olsen, NTNU

The wolves that roam the border of Norway and Sweden today are really Finnish. The Norwegian wolf that lived in that area actually died out in the 1970s, new research finds.

Reportedly the largest genetic study of wolves in the world, the report analyzes the genetic composition of the Norwegian-Swedish wolf population in great detail. The study is the final part of a report on the wolf in Norway that the Norwegian parliament commissioned in 2016.

“The original Norwegian-Swedish wolves probably didn’t share their genetics with the wolves in Norway and Sweden today,” report first author Hans Stenøien, director of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology's (NTNU) University Museum, said in a statement.

There are some originally Norwegian-Swedish wolves found in zoos, but the wolves that roam wild aren’t closely related to them, he says.

History of the Wolf

The Norwegian wolf is believed to have lived in Norway and Sweden for about 12,000 years. They arrived when the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age.

But wolves have not historically been treated kindly by humankind. They’ve been aggressively hunted and have lost habitat because of agricultural and other land development. The population disappeared by around 1970.

About 10 years later, wolves reappeared in the area. Today more than 400 wolves live in the border area between Norway and Sweden.

Researchers aren’t sure where this population came from. There were rumors at one time that they were wolves from zoos that had been released into the wild.

But the new research examined the genetic makeup of 1,300 wolves and found that these newly appearing animals most likely come from wolves that migrated from Finland.

Genetic Differences and Inbreeding

Interestingly, the new wolves in Norway and Sweden that likely came from Finnish wolves are genetically diverse from the wolves that live in Finland now.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the Norwegian-Swedish wolves are a distinct population.

“We haven’t found any indications of special or unique genetic adaptations in Norwegian-Swedish wolves,” Stenøien says.

It’s more likely that the genetic differences are the result of inbreeding and the small size of the two wolf populations. Because the wolves come from so few animals, genetic defects can be passed on more easily between generations.

“This lack of variation makes wolves vulnerable to various diseases and hereditary conditions,” Stenøien says.

And that means that the wolf could disappear again in Norway—this time because of inbreeding instead of hunting and habitat loss.

Saving the Norwegian Wolf

Stenøien did not want to discuss how the study results should affect wolf management in Norway and Sweden. 

“It’s not our task to comment on anything other than the facts from this study,” he says.

Some scientists suggest that wolves from zoos could help their wild counterparts by strengthening the gene pool. This could lessen inbreeding and reintroduce some original genetic material to the current population.

Stenøien admits that bringing in zoo wolf genes “is probably possible, but it is certainly expensive, difficult and a lot of work.”

View Article Sources
  1. Stenøien, Hans K., et al. "Genetisk opphav til den norske-svenske

    ulvestammen (Canis lupus lupus)." NTNU, 2021.

  2. "The Norwegian Wolf is Extinct." Norwegian SciTech New.

  3. "Norway at a Glance." International Wolf Center.