A recent study reveals new information about the diet of the wolf pack in Turku region during the late 1800s

This wolf pack, which caused fear in the Turku region, deviated from historical comparison data in terms of its food sources. Notably, the proportion of human flesh in the wolf’s diet was minimal.
Täytetty susi jalustalla sisätiloissa.
The last wolf of the pack was shot in 1882 and is now preserved. According to oral tradition, the wolf was originally stuffed by photographer Reinberg, and one of its nicknames is indeed the “Reinberg wolf”. Photo: Jouni Tikkanen

Over a span of a couple of years, this wolf pack killed 22 children. Researchers from the University of Oulu investigated the composition of the wolf pack’s diet and the potential role of human flesh using modern research methods.

The last wolf from this particular pack was shot in early 1882. It was then preserved and is currently housed in a school in Turku. This preserved wolf has provided researchers with the opportunity to examine its diet and explore the possible contribution of human flesh to its overall nutrition.

For the study, hair samples were taken from the wolf’s fur. The stable carbon and nitrogen isotope composition of these samples was compared to those obtained from other contemporary wolves. Stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen provide insights into an animal’s position in the food chain. Humans occupy a high position in the food chain, and widespread consumption of human tissue would be reflected in the isotope ratios. A similar research approach was used in the famous study of the Tsavo man-eating lions.

The study suggests that the amount of human tissue in the wolves’ overall diet was likely minimal. No significant changes indicative of human flesh consumption were observed in the wolf pack’s diet. If the wolves did consume human flesh, the proportion of human tissue in their overall nutrition was so small that it may not have significantly altered the isotope ratios. According to the research findings, humans constituted a maximum of 10–15 percent of the wolves’ dietary needs.

“The differences from the comparison data may be explained by the fact that the wolves in the Turku region have had to resort to an unconventional diet due to the scarcity of their primary prey, the moose. This could have involved utilizing domestic animals from farms, which likely accustomed the wolves to human proximity," explains Associate Professor Juho-Antti Junno.

The studied wolf, based on historical sources, had last consumed human food approximately two months before its death. Researchers estimate that information about the wolf’s diet can be gleaned from the last four months of its life based on the speed of its hair growth. Human-derived nutrition was expected to manifest as differences between the root and tip portions of the wolf’s hair. Monthly isotope ratios were investigated by cutting the man-eating wolf’s hair into seven-centimeter segments for analysis.

"The results don't really support the possibility of child-eating, but it can't be completely ruled out. A genetic study is also being conducted on the same material to determine the relatives of the individuals studied and their origins. After all, they have on several occasions been claimed to be wolf dogs," says Professor Jouni Aspi, who has studied wolves for a long time.

A comparison dataset was collected from wolf pelts of wolves that lived in the late 1800s, housed in the Riihimäki Hunting Museum collection. Additionally, the isotope ratios of the fur from two other suspected human-flesh-consuming wolves were analyzed.

This collaborative research project involved several universities and museums, with the primary responsibility resting with the University of Oulu. Jouni Tikkanen, author of the book “Lauma” (“Pack”) published in 2019, was also part of the project. Originally, the book served as inspiration for the research endeavor.


Juho-Antti Junno, Tiina Väre, Jouni Tikkanen, Matti T. Heino, Markku Niskanen, Iiro Kakko, Johanna Honka,

Titta Kallio-Seppä, Laura Kvist, Jenni Harmoinen & Jouni Aspi: Stable isotope analyses of carbon and nitrogen in hair keratin of suspected man-eating wolves from 1880s | Scientific Reports (springer.com)

Last updated: 12.3.2024