Warrah

Dessin Renard

Warrah—The Falkland Island fox, or warrah, was the only large land mammal on the windswept archipelago in the South Atlantic. (Phil Miller)

Scientific name: Dusicyon australis Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Carnivora

Family: Canidae

When did it become extinct? The last known warrah was killed in 1876. Where did it live? This carnivore was known only from the Falkland Islands.

Remote and treeless, the Falkland Islands is a small archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean. Ravaged by incessant winds and terrible winter storms, these islands are a very harsh environment. Although the Falklands are a welcome refuge for marine animals such as penguins, seals, and sea lions, very few land animals have managed to make a living on this stark, oceanic outpost. The only mammals known from the Falkland Islands are a small species of mouse and a mysterious dog, the warrah, which also goes by the names of "Falkland Island fox" and "Antarctic wolf."

Whether the animal was a fox or a wolf is a bone of contention among mammal experts. Contemporary accounts of the living animal as well as stuffed skins show that this carnivore had both wolf and fox characteristics. An adult warrah was about twice as big as a red fox (1.6 m long), with a large, wolfish head, but because of its short legs, it was only about 60 cm tall at the shoulder. Its tail, unlike that of a wolf, was thickly furred, and like a fox, it excavated dens in the sandy soil of the coastal dunes. Apart from mice, the land of the Falkland Islands supports precious little prey that sustained the warrah, but it is possible that insect larvae and pupae featured prominently in its diet. Although the interior of the Falkland Islands is rather impoverished when it comes to carnivore food, the coast is a bounteous source of nourishment at certain times of the year. The islands are used by numerous marine animals, including seals, sea lions, penguins, and a variety of flying seabirds. When these animals were raising their young, times must have been good for the warrah, and it probably made off with eggs, nestlings, adult birds, and even young pinnipeds. To reach these good supplies of food, the warrah traveled along well-worn paths that must have been made by generations of the animals accessing their feeding grounds via the shortest possible route. Although the southern spring and summer was a time of abundance for the warrah, the autumn and winter were probably very tough, and some accounts from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries report that the living animals looked starved and very thin.

Regardless of its wintertime depravations, the warrah, in the absence of competition, appears to have been a successful species that was quite numerous on the two main islands of the Falklands group. This monopoly came to an end with the arrival of humans. Initially, visitors to the Falkland Islands were afraid of the warrah as it would wade into the water to meet an approaching boat. This was not an act of aggression, but an act of curiosity. The warrah had probably never seen humans and had therefore never learned to be afraid of them, an unfortunate fact that contributed to the extinction of this interesting dog.

Although the Falkland Islands are a harsh place, certain breeds of hardy sheep were well suited to the conditions, and they were introduced to the islands as a way of laying the foundations for the first human colonies on the islands. The sheep thrived on the islands, and as humanity tightened its grip on the Falklands, the warrah was seen as a menace that had to be exterminated. Like all dogs, the warrah was an opportunistic feeder, and it undoubtedly fed on the introduced sheep and lambs that nibbled the Falkland Island grass, but islanders, in their ignorance, believed the warrah was a vampire that killed sheep and lambs to suck their blood, only resorting to meat eating in times of desperation. Horrific myths can be very compelling, especially on a group of small islands where news travels fast and where livelihoods are at stake. In an attempt to quell the populace, the colonial government of the Falkland Islands ordered a bounty on the warrah, and fur hunters soon moved in to collect handsome rewards for delivering the pelts of dead animals.

The Falkland Islands, with a land area roughly the size of Connecticut, could never have supported huge numbers of warrah. Even before the human invasion, the warrah population was probably no more than a few thousand individuals, and it is therefore no surprise to learn that hunting quickly led to the extermination of this animal. Because the warrah was so very tame, hunting was a breeze, and all the hunter needed was a piece of meat and a knife. He held out the piece of meat to tempt the animal and stabbed it with the knife when it came within range. Other hunters used rifles or poison, but regardless of which particular method was used to kill the warrah, it was exceedingly rare by the 1860s.

Amazingly, a live warrah found itself in London Zoo in 1868 after being transported on a ship with a menagerie of other exotic animals, most of which perished during the journey. This warrah, far from home, survived for several years in the zoo, but it was one of the last of its species. Back in the South Atlantic, the onslaught of the sheep farmers and the hunters was too much for the poor warrah, and in 1876, the last known animal was killed at Shallow Bay in the Hill Cove Canyon.

♦ The origins of the warrah are a mystery. Did it evolve on the Falkland Islands, surviving as a relic from the time before the last glaciation, when the islands were forested and home to a number of other land animals? Were the ancestors of the warrah brought to the islands by South American Indians as pets? Did the ancestors of the warrah walk to the Falkland Islands thousands of years ago when sea levels were much lower? Unfortunately, the answers to these questions died with the warrah, and the one-time presence of this canine in the South Atlantic remains a tantalizing zoological mystery.

♦ Charles Darwin saw the warrah during his time on the Beagle, and it was clear to him that the species would not survive for very long in the face of human persecution. In actual fact, the warrah was exterminated in Darwin's own lifetime.

♦ It was once a widely held myth that wolves sucked the blood of their prey, a belief that led to their persecution wherever they were found.

Further Reading: Alderton, D. Foxes, Wolves, and Wild Dogs of the World. Poole, UK: Blandford Press, 1994; Nowak, R. Walker s Carnivores of the World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

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  • Arthur
    How did the warrah become extinct?
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    How does the warrah looked like?
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