Most wolves are various shades of gray. Some, who live in northern Alaska, or on Arctic islands, are shaggy and white. But then there are black wolves. Most black wolves live in North America. For instance, in Yellowstone Park, about half the wolves roaming that area are black or very dark. The picture below is a very
good illustration. But in Eurasia, they're either gray or "arctic white". How did that happen, you ask. You can get one explanation for this from the John Hawks weblog, which has a link to an article in the New York Times(which also has this picture) of a report showing that North American wolves seem to have gotten this gene for melanism -- because what it is -- from dogs! Yes, dogs. The report doesn't say exactly when "dog" genes made their way into wild "wolf" DNA, and the authors, as well as Dr. Hawks, seemed to think that this genetic characteristic got into North American wolves pretty early on -- like when the first people came over -- with their (most likely) wolflike dogs, from "Beringia" to the Americas. That was at least 12,000 years ago, ad probably a lot longer ago than that. I don't know whether I agree or disagree with this, but it raises some pretty interesting questions. There are melanistic coyotes, too, and they apparently got the gene from domestic dogs, too.
First of all, nowadays, many who study canids(dogs, wolves, coyotes, jackals), can't tell you, genetically where wolves end and dogs begin. In other words, dogs are basically domesticated wolves. This may be hard to believe if you are staring at a chihuahua, but genetically, it's true. And to make things even more complicated, all members of the genus Canis are apparently able to interbreed and produce perfectly fertile offspring, thank you very much. Where else do people get the notorious wolf hybrids some people love and a lot of other people can't stand? How else would it come to be, that in some parts of the North American continent, approximately 75% of all "wolves" have "coyote" gene sequences? So it's hardly surprising that under some circumstances, wolves and dogs might mate. That's probably how some of the "Husky" breeds got started. So it isn't too surprising that wolves and dogs exchanged genes, in this case, for coat color. They're all so closely related anyway, that wolves and coyotes, at least have nearly identical behaviors: their mating seasons and gestation periods are the same, they both form packs and raise young "collectively", they have "dispersers" and "abiders" among their members, both of them howl for various reasons. The principal difference between them appears to be size, and even this isn't absolute. There are some fairly large coyotes and some fairly "dainty" wolves. The same is even more true of domestic dogs and wolves.
So how does this relate to people, one might ask? Well, my own theory, arrived at in a totally unscientific way, is that all members of the genus Homo(we "modern" humans are Homo (sapiens) sapiens) were about as closely related to each other as wolves, dogs, coyotes, etc. and therefore were at least potentially able to interbreed. I don't know about Homo erectus(and hardly anybody else does, either), but since Neandertals have been the most closely studied, of all "non-modern" human groups, it seems that they and "modern" humans were at least as closely related to each other as wolves, coyotes, and dogs are. That doesn't necessarily mean they were, as the scientific parlance goes, "interfertile", but it's a reasonably good indicator that this was possible. And while the evidence in this regard is contradictory, and therefore, results in arguments between factions, I suspect that some of this went on, and I don't mean just a "one time happening". I suspect, as does Dr. Hawks, that there were times and places when these little groups of humans met. Each group might have considered the other to be rather "funny looking", and no doubt they sometimes tried to fight each other, rather than acted peaceably. It's the "human way", so to speak, to be both peaceable, at times, and aggressive at others, and I don't doubt Neandertals and "modern" humans did both.
However, when both groups in the same location were in "peaceable" mode, they might well have exchanged mates, in a variety of ways, and for a variety of reasons. Not all of these mate exchanges might have resulted in offspring who lived to have their own offspring, but it may well be that some did. If Erik Trinkaus is right(and he's a Neandertal expert), then the Lagar Velho child is such a child, and it came from such a "mixed" population. Such mixings might well have come from elsewhere, and might go a long way to explain why both Neandertals and "modern" humans have the FOXP2 gene, which is involved in speech. It also might go a way to explain why some Neandertals in some places, get more "gracile" toward the end of their existence. The Vindija fossil, from which Svante Pääbo and his molecular genetics team got the Neandertal genome they intend to publish next week, was apparently one of these. So it will be interesting, to say the least, to see what Pääbo and his team have to say about this, next week. In the meanwhile, we have these beautiful black wolves to ponder.