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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 June, 2004, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Indian wolves are world's oldest
Himalayan wolf
DNA testing shows the wolves are around 800,000 years old
DNA tests on an endangered variety of Indian wolf suggest it might be the most ancient representative of the animals anywhere in the world.

Analysis of genetic material from one of the wolves shows that its lineage stems back around 800,000 years.

Currently, these Himalayan wolves are regarded as belonging to the species Canis lupus, with other grey wolves.

But scientists think they may be genetically different enough from other groups to comprise a separate species.

Researchers at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), in Dehradun, analysed DNA from one such wolf housed in a nature park in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh.

Conservation fight

By analysing DNA from the cell's "power units" called mitochondria, the scientists were able to put a time to the point at which the wolf lineage originated.

This was possible because mitochondrial DNA changes regularly over time, allowing the emergence of patterns in its sequence to be clocked.

"Until this finding, the peninsular wolf [found in the Indian plains] was the oldest in the world at 400,000 years. North American and Eurasian wolves are only 150,000 years old," AK Gulati, Himachal Pradesh wildlife chief, told the BBC.

The results of this study highlight the need for conservation of Indian wolf populations.

Himalayan wolf
The research highlights the need for conservation of the animals
The researchers compared over 700 DNA sequences of wolves and dogs from all over the world with Indian wolves and dogs.

Other tests on wolves from surrounding areas show that they all belong to a very ancient and genetically divergent Himalayan lineage.

The mitochondrial clock, which is based on the rate of changes observed in the DNA sequences, dates this lineage to about 800,000 years.

Julie, the female wolf whose DNA was analysed, was found 14 years ago in the high and dry Spiti valley bordering Tibet.

"We are approaching the WII to further study the species and prepare a project to ascertain the status of the Himalayan wolf so that a conservation breeding plan could be started," Mr Gulati said.

Hunting and loss of habitat have sharply reduced the Himalayan wolf population. According to one estimate, there could be as few as 350 left in the entire western Himalayan region.

Wildlife authorities have recently spotted 33 Himalayan wolves in the Spiti valley. But Julie is the only one is in captivity.

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