Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Living on the edge: reconstructing the genetic history of the Finnish wolf population

Eeva Jansson, Jenni Harmoinen, Minna Ruokonen and Jouni Aspi*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, University of Oulu, P.O. Box 3000, FIN-90014 Oulu, Finland

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:64  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-64

Published: 28 March 2014



Many western European carnivore populations became almost or completely eradicated during the last ~200 years, but are now recovering. Extirpation of wolves started in Finland in the 19th century, and for more than 150 years the population size of wolves has remained small. To investigate historical patterns of genetic variation, we extracted DNA from 114 wolf samples collected in zoological museums over the last ~150 years. Fifteen microsatellite loci were used to look at genotypic variation in this historical sample. Additionally, we amplified a 430 bp sequence of mtDNA control region from the same samples. Contemporary wolf samples (N = 298) obtained after the population recovery in the mid-1990s, were used as a reference.


Our analyses of mtDNA revealed reduced variation in the mtDNA control region through the loss of historical haplotypes observed prior to wolf declines. Heterozygosity at autosomal microsatellite loci did not decrease significantly. However, almost 20% of microsatellite alleles were unique to wolves collected before the 1960s. The genetic composition of the population changed gradually with the largest changes occurring prior to 1920. Half of the oldest historical samples formed a distinguishable genetic cluster not detected in the modern-day Finnish or Russian samples, and might therefore represent northern genetic variation lost from today’s gene pool. Point estimates of Ne were small (13.2 and 20.5) suggesting population fragmentation. Evidence of a genetic population bottleneck was also detected.


Our genetic analyses confirm changes in the genetic composition of the Finnish wolf population through time, despite the geographic interconnectivity to a much larger population in Russia. Our results emphasize the need for restoration of the historical connectivity between the present wolf populations to secure long-term viability. This might be challenging, however, because the management policies between Western and Eastern Europe often differ greatly. Additionally, wolf conservation is still a rather controversial issue, and anthropogenic pressure towards wolves remains strong.

Canis lupus; Museum samples; Bottleneck; Genetic drift; Effective population size; Temporal genetic data