Hunt for Lobo Part II

Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature
Wolf skulls, Canadian Museum of Nature

Untangling the Past

When Seton arrived in New Mexico in 1893, decades of hunting had decimated the previously abundant wildlife. Wolves had hunted animals from bison to pronghorn antelope. But by then predators preyed upon cattle, the only large animals remaining. Lobo and company prowled the ranch country along the Corrumpa watershed.

This intermittent creek (“Currumpaw” in Seton’s spelling), arises from the east slopes of two prominent peaks, Sierra Grande and Capulin Volcano. It runs north of  Clayton, New Mexico and on towards the Oklahoma border. The resident wolves declined by six due to Seton’s efforts, all taken in inhumane leg traps. Two of their skulls ended up in the Vertebrate Collection of the specimen storage facility at the Canadian Museum of Nature (Collections des Vertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature) in Ottawa.

I saw them in a high ceiling, dimly lit, quiet hall. Few visitors make it into this secure facility. And almost none visit the New Mexico wolves. I stopped by on my way to Baffin Island in 2009, assisting a plant ecology expedition.  Dr. Kamal Khidas, Chief Collections Manager, kindly brought out the two skulls, long ago informally named “Lobo” and “Blanca” by someone familiar with the story.

Laid out on a heavy wood table, they gleamed startling white against a black cloth background. They retained Seton’s original specimen tags on which was written a catalog number, date of kill, and other notes. I compared these tags to Seton’s original field notes. Sometimes Seton specified the manner of death, i.e., by gun or by strangulation. I show them below in numerical order.

#653 December 13, 1893, male, 100 lbs. (maybe shot in trap)

#655 December 25, 1893, male, 87 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature; pelt at Philmont or Canadian Museum of Nature)

#662 December 29, 1893, female, 75 lbs. (shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#672 January 25, 1894, female, 80 lbs. (shot in trap? strangled?) “Blanca”

#675 January 29, 1894, female, 60 lbs. (maybe shot in trap) (skull at Canadian Museum of Nature)

#677 January 31, 1894, male, 78 lbs. (died of injuries after release from trap) “Lobo” (skull gifted to Caroline Fitz Randolph in 1894 or 1895, not located)

Meanwhile, in New Mexico

I assumed the correct tags were still connected to the current specimens. I’ll return to the Canadian skulls in a moment, but first to the collection of the National Scouting Museum—Seton Memorial Library at Philmont Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico.

In 1965, Julia Seton, Ernest’s widow, promised a donation of Seton-related material to the Boy Scouts of America. This collection was eventually housed at Philmont. Included was a wolf pelt identified as “Lobo” when it was displayed in the Castle at Seton Village. But a few years ago, when Philmont museum staff opened the case, and invited me to take a look, we noticed two things. First, the tag on this pelt was for specimen # 655. Lobo’s number was #677. Second, the appearance in the famous photograph of the wolf identified by Seton as being Lobo, is not the same as the pelt in the Philmont collection.

That is, if the photograph taken by Seton really shows Lobo, then the Philmont pelt is that of a different wolf, maybe #655 as it is marked. Or, the photograph, identified by Seton as Lobo, is actually of a different wolf. But since Julie (and presumably Seton) passed off #655 as being #677…well, we can’t know anything for certain.

Back to the Canadian specimens

Seton specimen #662, Canadian Museum of Nature #3726

Written on tag #662:

Species: Texas Gray Wolf
Locality: New Mexico, Union County, Currumpaw River, about 35 mi. N.W.  of Clayton, N.M.
December 29, (1887: Crossed out) 1893
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Blanca. Canis lupus monstrabilis. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in Union Co. New Mexico on December 29, 1887”

(I didn’t get the information copied from this one, but the number 662 was attached. Skull showed no bullet hole. Blanca’s specimen number was #672, so presumably this one is not Blanca.)

Seton Specimen #665  Canadian Museum of Nature #1875

Written on tag #655:

Species: Canis lupus nubilus Say, Plains Gray Wolf

Locality: United States: New Mexico
Date: 1893  Sex: Female adult
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton
Second National Museum of Canada tag on #655:
Species: Texas Gray Wolf, Canis Lupus monstrabilis Goldman
Locality: U.S.A., Clayton County
Date: 1893?
Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton

“Lobo. Canis lupus nubilus. Collected by Ernest Thompson Seton in New Mexico in 1883.  Loaned by J.H. Fleming. From old mounted specimen dismounted in February 1942.)

(This skull has a bullet hole; there is a pelt associated with this number. The 1883 date above is a typo.)

But here we encounter a new problem. Both the Canadian Museum of Nature and the National Scouting Museum have pelt’s identified as #665! At least one, and perhaps both of these identifications are incorrect. Also, notice that the Canadian Museum of Nature’s “Lobo” and “Blanca” are identified as belonging to different sub-species.

DNA

In an email to me dated September 3, 2009, Dr. Khidas shared with me the “Genetic Analysis of Canadian Museum of Nature Samples.” This was conducted by Professor Robert Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles, dated October 8, 2007, on the two New Mexico wolf specimens.

For specimen #662 the researchers took their DNA sample from a tooth. For #665 they used foot skin from the pelt. Both specimens had the same “mitochondrial control region haplotype” or DNA sequence. This is “a unique sequence not previously detected in extant or historic Canis lupus. This “haplotype is in the same clade as historic Canis lupus nubilus haplotypes” observed also from Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska, the “interior continental U.S. gray wolves.”

Neither of these specimens, if they are indeed from different animals, conform to the genetic profile of monstrabilis. The ranges of both intersected in northeast New Mexico.

Don’t confuse either of them with the Mexican Gray Wolf Canis lupus baileyi, the still extant subspecies living in southwest New Mexico.

We are unlikely to untangle all these mysteries, historical puzzles mainly of interest to a few experts. Further DNA analysis and a closer look at textual evidence could help.

Of greater concern is preserving the wolves still living. Or will Canis lupus baileyi follow nubilus and monstrabilis into the forever oblivion of extinction?

(An exhibition, Lobo, the King of Currumpaw, accompanied by a graphic novel of the same name, is currently showing at the Seton Gallery of the Academy for the Love of Learning.)