One of the great enigmas in the world of canid zoology is the case of Hagenbeck’s wolf.
Hagenbeck’s wolf is a proposed species based upon one pelt.
The pelt came from an animal dealer in Argentina, who sold it to Lorenz Hagenbeck in 1926. Hagenbeck claimed there were four such skins, but he purchased only one. The dealer claimed they came from a wild dog that lived in Andes.
It was sent to Germany and wound up in the museums of Munich. In 1940, a zoologist named Ingo Krumbiegel examined the pelt. The pelt’s color was black and fur was much longer than other canids from the region. He assumed that it belonged to a undescribed montane species of maned wolf.
Krumbiegel ignored the pelt until 1947, when it began looking at again. In that year, he learned from Lorenz Hagenbeck that there were three other pelts just like it. That got Krumbiegel thinking. He had received from the Andes. He had thought the skull belonged to a maned wolf, but it was much larger than any maned wolf he’d ever examined or read about.
He thought that maybe this skull came from the same species as the one with the black pelt. It measured over 30 centimeters in length, while the typical maned wolf skull is only 25 inches in length
Krumbiegel began to reconstruct the animal from the skin. The “mane” on the neck of the pelt was 8 inches long. He noticed the legs were a lot shorter than the typical maned wolf, which is creature of open woodland and grassland habitats and uses its long legs to help it see, hear, and smell over the tall grass. He drew sketches of what he imagined this montane maned wolf looked like.
Krumbiegel thought the animal was unique enough that it deserved its own genus. He initially gave it the name Oreocyon hagenbecki or “Hagenbeck’s mountain dog,” but on learning that Oreocyon had been used before, he changed it to Dasycyon hagenbecki–“Hagenbeck’s thick (furred) dog.”
That proposed name has been the one that has been floating around cryptozoology circles ever since. Bernard Heuvelmans, the dean of cryptozoologists, thought that if Hagenbeck’s wolf really was that similar to the maned wolf, then it might be more properly classified as part of Chrysocyon.
The big maned wolf skull was lost during the war, so Krumbiegel was unable to make additional measurements of it.
In 2000, there was an attempt to do a DNA test on the pelt, but the researchers were unable to get uncontaminated DNA from it. The pelt had been chemically treated, making recovery of DNA from it quite difficult.
The most likely explanation is that this pelt belonged to a domestic dog. Perhaps there was a population of domestic dogs that went feral in the Andes. They were prick-eared and black-coated, and they were thought of as “wild dogs.”
But they were actually feral.
It has been suggested that the large skull that Krumbiegel examined belonged to a German shepherd and that he extrapolated all of this analysis off a skull belonging to a domestic dog.
I’m a bit skeptical of that suggestion. Krumbiegel lived in Nazi Germany, where German shepherds were celebrated dogs and heavily studied. He surely would have known the difference between a German shepherd or wolf skull and that belonging to a South American wild dog.
No one has tried to extract DNA from the anomalous pelt since 2000. It’s generally been ignored. We do have better techniques for DNA extraction now, so maybe it is worth another go.
Maybe this animal really is a montane maned wolf or some other undescribed canid. Maned wolves do rarely come in black on occasion, and this could be suggestive of a relationship.
Perhaps it was a descendant of the improperly classified Canis gezi. Maybe it was a closer relative of the extinct Falkland Islands wolf than the maned wolf, which is currently listed as its closest relative.
The truth is we really don’t know, but if we were to find out that it was something that spectacular, the question ultimately would be whether this animal still exists.
Maybe it was among the last of its species.
Or maybe it was just a feral dog.
That’s the enigma.
And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much of a priority.
But wouldn’t you like to know?