BGS blogs

Hungry like a wolf: new insights from old bones housed in the BGS museum collections

BGS scientists are studying the diets of ancient British wolves and how they adapted to changing environments.

Fossil jaw of Canis lupus (Linnaeus, 1758) collected from Ilford, Essex and donated by Dr Richard Payne Cotton in 1878 (BGS.GSM95739). BGS © UKRI.

Studying the diet of an animal that roams the Earth today is relatively straightforward. Their eating habits can be easily tracked and their food sources monitored using their faecal matter (‘scat’). But how do you study the diet of animals that have been dead for thousands of years? The NERC/UKRI-funded project ‘Hungry like a wolf’, carried out by BGS together with Royal Holloway University London, aims to do exactly that: study the diets of wolves that lived in Britain during the last 250 000 years.

Investigating ancient animals’ diets

The project adopts the adage ‘we are what we eat’. The type of diets an animal consumes are imprinted on the wear and tear on their teeth and the stable isotope signature in their body tissues. For animals that are no longer alive, studying these signatures in fossil bones and teeth provides a window into the animal’s diet and consequently into how their diets have changed over time with fluctuating climatic and ecological conditions. The project aims to understand how wolves have adapted to changing environments by comparing the diet of past (10 000 to 250 000 years) and present wolves, along with other predators and prey from different locations across Europe.  

Information icon

Examples of subfossil bone material selected from the BGS collections for subsampling. BGS © UKRI.

Top ice age predators

Although they were the first animals to be domesticated by humans, wolves were well-established members of the Pleistocene (ice age) carnivore community in Europe. As one of the top predators, wolves keep the populations of their prey in check and, as a knock-on effect, affect the biodiversity of other predators in the area as well as other animal and plant species further down the food chain by limiting over-predation and over-browsing on vegetation. Wolves are therefore considered the most influential large predator in the northern Eurasia region.  

Project aims

Unfortunately, many surviving populations of these charismatic animals are today endangered because of human persecution and environmental change. Serious concerns exist as to the viability of European wolf populations under different scenarios of environmental and climate change. It is therefore essential to understand how wolves have adapted to changing circumstances in the past, so that current and future conservation policy can be appropriately tailored.

The project is being carried out by Dr Angela Lamb and Dr Diksha Bista at BGS, together with Prof Danielle Schreve, Dr Fabienne Pigière and Dr Amanda Burtt (Royal Holloway University London). It will involve museum collections from across the UK.

The collections housed here at BGS were some of the first to be analysed. These collections comprise Quaternary (up to 2.58 million years ago) subfossil bone material that has been held in the museum since the late 1800s. Specimens were collected from Ilford by Richard Payne Cotton and donated in 1877, whilst those from Crayford are from the collection of Frederick Spurrell, donated in 1894.

Speech marks icon

Although the material was collected over 150 years ago, advancing research technologies allow us to uncover new information that can enhance our understanding of past environments and ecosystems. Even though the subsampling involves removing a small amount of material from the selected bones, the insights gained from the analysis can add significantly to the understanding of the fossils held in the collection since the Victorian era.

Louise Neep, BGS Museum Curator.

Laboratory analysis

In the laboratory, collagen will be extracted from the bones and analysed for nitrogen (N), carbon (C) and sulfur (S) isotopes. Recent technical developments within the Stable Isotope Facility now allow the measurement of these isotopes on a significantly smaller amount of collagen (10 times smaller). This advance means much less sample needs to be removed from the fossils, thus preserving the integrity of precious museum specimens. 

Information icon

Dr Fabienne Pigière sampling the fossil material. BGS © UKRI.


We’d like to thank Paul Shepherd (collections manager) and Simon Harris (conservator) for their support with the project.

About the authors

Diksha Bista
Dr Diksha Bista

Stable isotope research assistant

BGS Keyworth
Find out more

Angela Lamb
Dr Angela Lamb

Research scientist

BGS Keyworth
Find out more

Louise Neep

Curating technician

BGS Keyworth
Find out more

Was this page helpful?

  • How can we make this section better?*

  • Please select a reason*

  • How can we make this section better?*