One of the most interesting things I’ve come across as I’ve examined historical accounts of wildlife is the amount of taxonomic splitting that was accepted at the time.
In the old days, naturalists and explorers would either travel to remote locations or receive specimens from those locations, and they very often did everything to bend the evidence to conclude that whatever specimen they had either observed or had examined was somehow a unique species.
The animal we call the “brown bear” (Ursus arctos) comprises several suggested species of that era. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that one could see texts referring to the grizzly subspecies as Ursus horribilis. We now recognize that the brown bear is species with a Holarctic distribution. Its various subspecies are now recognized as a very diverse single species, one that once ranged over almost all of Europe and Asia and the western half of North America from Mexico to Alaska.
As it was with bears, so it is with wolves.
As I noted in my post about the initial recognition of the red wolf, Audubon and Bachman did not regard the reddish colored wolves of Texas as a distinct species. They recognized that they were nothing more than a color phase of the endemic wolf subspecies that was found in Texas. (The current creature called a “red wolf” is actually what happened to remnant wolf population from Texas and Louisiana that became absorbed by an increasing coyote population through very recent interbreeding. The animal is now almost entirely of coyote ancestry.)
Audubon and Bachman were in the minority among naturalists of that era.
In his Fauna Boreali-Americana (1829), the Scottish naval surgeon describes several wolf subspecies that are based on nothing more than the coat color. Today, we do not classify wolves just upon their coat color. Certain subspecies are most often white in color, while others contain melanistic, gray agouti and red agouti colors.
Among Richardson’s color-based subspecies are the white wolf (Canis lupus albus), “the dusky wolf” (C.l. nubilus), and the North American black wolf (Canis lupus ater), which he defines as something distinct from the Euorpean black wolf (Canis lycaon, a name that has recently been proposed for wolves from Eastern Canada that are a mixture of wolf and coyote ancestry.)
The best of the color-based subspecies is the “pied wolf” (C.l. stricte):
Wolves having black colours instead of gray, distributed in large patches on the sides, are sometimes seen in the fur countries, associated with the Common Gray Wolves. On the banks of the Mackenzie, I saw five young wolves leaping and tumbling over each other, with all the playfulness of the puppies of the domestic dog, and it is not improbable that they were all of one litter. One of them was pied, another entirely black, and the rest shewed the common gray colours. I was unable to procure a specimen of the Pied Wolf (pg. 68).
Richardson’s description wasn’t that helpful, so I had to look somewhere else to find a good description of a pied wolf.
I found in Audubon and Bachman’s Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 2 (1851). On the section about the “White American Wolf,” two white wolves are described. One is listed as being completely white except for a black tip on the tail. The other is described as follows:
Light grey on the sides legss and tail; a dark brown stripe on the back, through which many white hairs protrude, giving it the appearance of being spotted with brown and white. This variety resembles the young Wolf noticed by Richardson, (p. 68) which he denominates the pied Wolf (pg. 157).
This color phase might be a juvenile wolf that will eventually turn white as it matured. Arctic wolves don’t turn fully white until they are about two or three, and many juveniles have a muddy appearance with some noticeable banding along the back. Even fully mature wolves can have this banding.
It also might be a description of what appears to be the transitional phase between the white and gray morphs. Black wolves apparently originated from dogs that crossbred with wolves, but white ones evolved without any contribution from domestic species. White wolves have classically been described to arctic and subarctic regions, but the white ones were also relatively common on the Great Plains, which is where Audubon describes them as being native. White color certainly would be of an advantage in arctic and subarctic landscapes, where the wolves could at least attempt to ambush their prey, but the reason for this color on the Great Plains is a bit more difficult to explain.
Perhaps it’s just that the wolves that colonized the Great Plains were derived from ancestors that were originally native to the arctic. The genetic evidence does suggest that this might be the case, and the new subspecies that have been described from it make this a definite possibility.
Considering how weak the evidence for the unique species status of the red wolf, it is somewhat amazing that overly imaginative conservationists from the late twentieth century didn’t try to contrive more species out of these color morphs.