Posts Tagged ‘black wolves’

Photo by Fabbri Renato.  

This image comes from this paper by Claudia Greco that shows that melanism in Italian wolves originated through crossbreeding with domestic dogs.

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All black wolves that have been examined in modern times have been found to be dominant blacks. The dominant black mutation first originated in domestic dogs and was transmitted through crossbreeding between wolves and dogs. However, there is at least one record of a wolf that was carrying recessive black.

Recessive black is most commonly found in German and Belgian shepherds. It can also be found in pulik, Samoyeds, schipperkes. Shetland sheepdogs, and the so-called “American Eskimo dog,” which is actually an American variant of the German spitz.

It’s one of two ways that a dog can be solid black, but it’s far less common than dominant black.

The mutation that causes dominant black originated either in dogs or the wolf population that became dogs, because the mutation is older in domestic dog populations than in wolves. This black coloration wasthen transmitted to Italian and New World wolves through cross-breeding with domestic dogs.  All wolves that have been examined in North America thus far have turned out to be dominant blacks, as have those in Italy.

However, there was at least one case of a wolf carrying recessive black in the literature.

The Soviet zoologist and dog expert N.A. Iljin carried out several experiments crossing various dogs with wolves. In 1941, he reported on the progeny of a male wolf that was bred to a female mongrel sheepdog.  In the first litter, there were black and “zonar gray” (wild wolf gray puppies). If the dog in question were a dominant black, then the entire litter would have been black, but getting gray puppies suggested a very different conclusion.

After breeding from the offspring for several generations, Iljin discovered that the black was being inherited as a recessive allele, which means the dog in question was a recessive black– and the wolf was a carrier!

Now, results of Iljin’s study have been used to show that wolves carried recessive black from the beginning.

However, since the time of Iljin’s work, no one has found a recessive black wolf.  The team of geneticists at UCLA have found only dominant black in wolves.

So it’s possible that this wolf was not actually “pure,” and at some point, one of its ancestors was a recessive black dog. I would not be surprised if someone had crossed a recessive black German shepherd into captive Russian wolves at some point. Iljin himself was very much into breeding German shepherds to wolves, and his studies on wolf and German shepherd morphology are pretty much classic literature for those interested in wolves and dogs.

So maybe recessive black did exist in certain Old World wolves from the beginning, but it’s just not been confirmed in the genetic literature in the same way that dominant black has.

I don’t know of another species besides Canis lupus that has two separate genetic variants for melanism. Coyotes have inherited dominant black from breeding with either dogs or wolves, and golden jackals and Ethiopian wolves could also inherit both types of melanism through similar hybridization.

So it’s very interesting that we have this one case of a wolf carrying recessive black, but we need more information to see where this color came from.

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Black coyotes and wolves get their black coloration from a gene that first originated in domestic dogs or (most likely) “camp wolves.

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Black wolves got their black color from dogs.

Black wolves got their black color from dogs.

At some point in the last 10,000 years, a black dog mated with a normal colored wolf in North America, and a whole new coloration was introduced to the wolves. Gregory Barsh, a geneticist at Stanford University, has traced the gene in wolves back to the k black mutation. This mutation comes from dogs, not wolves.

This black color has also been found in Italian wolves, which have been known to interbreed with dogs– a lot. In fact, Italian wolves are so interbred with dogs, that some Italian wolves have hind dewclaws, which exist only in dogs. In fact, the presence of these hind dewclaws is used to identify wolves that have dog in them.

Black color, according to Barsh,  is inherited from a dominant gene. This is the exact same genetic inheritance relationship we have with most black dogs. A black lab’s color is dominant to the yellow’s.  However, Barsh points out that black German shepherds inherit their color through a recessive gene to the more typical color, but this recessive black color also occurs in Tervuren and Malinois that have Tevuren in them. Because all Belgian shepherd dogs in the FCI are recognized by phenotype and not breeding, recessive black Tervs become Groenendael (Belgian sheepdogs) in the registry, while black Malinois aren’t recognized at all.

Black wolves are almost entirely linked to the North American continent. They are most common in forest regions. This area is where we have historical records of large numbers of Native Americans living with large numbers of domestic dogs. And some of them had to be black.

Interesting, black wolves were thought to be associated with the Southeastern races of wolf. In fact, the so-called red wolf was once called Canis niger (black dog) because there were so many black wolves in Florida.

Wolf and dog interbreeding had to have been more common in the past. I’ve read accounts of the early American West  that suggest that wolves were very often sharing their kills with dogs and coyotes, animals that modern wolves now kill if they run into them.  In Italy, dogs and wolves don’t have a lot of prey to hunt, so they both rely on garbage dumps to feed themselves. Congregating around the same food source, the dogs and wolves are also interbreeding.

It is because of this interbreeding and the continuous development of dogs from wolves over a very long period of time that dog and wolf genetics are quite difficult to tell apart. In terms of behavior and phenotype, one can easily distinguish between the two, but the genes tell the story of a close common ancestry. In fact, that is why dogs and wolves are often considered the same species.

Today, interbreeding is not that common, especially in North America. North American wolves are far more likely to kill a dog rather than breed with one. The Italian wolves are in much smaller numbers, and the typical wolf has only so many mates it can choose from in the wolf population. It  makes sense that Italian wolves would mate with dogs.

This finding is quite parismonious with what we already know about the high levels of interrelatedness with wolves and dogs. I regard them as the same species, but with important differences, just as there are important differences between Arabian wolves and Arctic wolves.

Black coyotes also exist, mainly in the Eastern subspecies. This makes sense, although I’m much more willing to believe that in coyotes, the coloration came from interbreeding with wolves as they worked their way north into Canada and then moved south into the Eastern US. Barsh found that the black coyotes ultimately got their black gene from dogs, too, but my guess is it is indirectly inherited through cross-breeding with black wolves.

Black coyote.

Black coyote.

Mark Derr also has an article in the NY Times. And yes, we really need to think about this term species.

National Geographic has also picked up the story.

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