Little was known about the evolutionary history of the Japanese wolf, a small subspecies of the gray wolf that was once endemic to the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. New DNA research is changing that.

Worshiped for centuries as a divine messenger and protector of farmland, the creature is thought to have gone extinct as Japan marched toward industrialization in the 19th century. The last known specimen of the Japanese wolf was found in 1905.

A new study sheds light on one of the biggest mysteries surrounding the enigmatic beast, suggesting that the animal evolved out of a genetic admixture of ancient, giant Pleistocene wolves and the continental wolf lineages that arrived in Japan tens of thousands of years ago.