Posts Tagged ‘Eastern timber wolf’

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have long been skeptical of the classification of the red wolf as a distinct species.

Because this animal is rather large and hunts in packs and because it closely resembles the primitive pallipes wolf of the Middle East and India, I guessed that it was an early offshoot of the Canis lupus species.  I never bought into the oft-promoted theory that this wolf was a primitive wolf that represented an even more ancient origin that the Canis mosbachensis and Canis lupus lineage of the Old World.

This theory, promoted by Ron Nowak and popularized throughout the wildlife conservation world (including the US Fish and Wildlife Service), holds that the red wolf is a derivative of Canis edwardii, an early North American member of the genus Canis that was roughly similar to the red wolf in size and general distribution. Nowak performed any number of skull measurements to prove his thesis. Anyone familiar with dog and wolf anatomy knows are actually among the most variable features within a population. Everyone has seen litters of dogs in which littermates have  different head shapes. Even in purebred litters, one can see puppies that have quite a bit of variance in head-type. For this reason, many conformation breeders of so-called “head breeds” have a very hard time fixing a consistent head within their lines. This variance in head shape also occurs in wolves, which is one reason why the Goyet cave  “dog” is so disputed. Is its short muzzle the result of domestication or natural variance within a wolf population?

Another factor drove me to question the red wolf’s validity as a species. I greatly enjoyed Bruce Hampton’s The Great American Wolf, which is a history of man’s extermination of wolves on this continent. On page 166, Hampton provides an image of red wolf that was trapped in 1929 at Gillham, Arkansas. The wolf’s jaws were bound with wire. It was then tied up to a stake to meet its fate. Either the dogs were going to be set upon it, or it was going to be left tied up to die from dehydration. Unfortunately, this image is not available in the preview, but what struck me about it is that this wolf looked nothing like the creatures that are claimed to be red wolves now. The animal had smaller ears and a broader muzzle– much like one would expect in an Iranian wolf or Spanish wolf. It was nothing like a coyote.

The ones I’ve seen in zoos have all had very strong coyote features– large ears and a narrower muzzle– but those same features can also been seen in Indian wolves, which are thought to be among the most ancient of extant wolf lineages.  Although I had skepticism about the Canis edwardii theory, I was more willing to accept that the red wolf was somehow related to the Indian wolf, for both would be very similar to the old primitive Canis lupus wolves from which the entire Holarctic wolf species descends.

The original mtDNA studies performed by Dr.Robert Wayne of UCLA found that all the red wolves in his samples had coyote or “gray wolf” mtDNA sequences. The majority of had coyote mtDNA.  The wolves of Minnesota and Quebec also had coyote mtDNA, which Wayne contended came from hybridization with coyotes. This finding caused an uproar in wolf conservation circles. This particular finding came out just seven years after the first red wolves were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was investing heavily in ensuring that his population thrived and remained free from the taint of coyote blood. Even now, much the work in red wolf conservation is trapping coyotes in red wolf range. For some reason,  the released red wolves and the colonizing coyotes just loved each other.

Wayne was not popular in the red wolf conservation community. Nowak wrote a rebuttal to Wayne in which his biggest argument is that there never were any coyotes in the eastern part of North America. Then Wilson released several comparative studies of red wolves and those of Algonquin Park in Ontario. These Algonquin Park wolves were main study population of John and Mary Theberge.  These were smaller, more “coyote-like” wolves, that had come to specialize on hunting beavers in their native range. Because of their appearance and because they were thought to have coyote mtDNA, Paul Wilson’s team decided to compare microsatellites in the DNA of Algonquin wolves, red wolves, coyotes, and Western “gray” wolves. The Algonquin and red wolves were found to have a divergent lineage from either Western “gray” wolves and coyotes. Those findings appeared to vindicate Nowak’s morphological studies that showed the red wolf to be part of an ancient North American lineage of wolf that derived from Canis edwardii (or something wholly North American), not Canis mosbachensis or Canis lupus.

I thought the microsatellite finding was still unconvincing. Perhaps these wolves were derived from a very early offshoot of Canis mosbachensis or early Canis lupus that invaded North America before the main Holarctic wolf lineages had developed.

I was waiting for something more.

Well, something more has just been released. Robert Wayne’s team at UCLA has been working on wolf genomes. Last year, UCLA researchers found that the Middle Eastern wolf populations were a greater source for diversity in domestic dog genes than any other wolf population– which suggested that dogs were first domesticated in the Middle East. This finding very strongly contradicted a comparison of many, many dog and wolf mtDNA sequences by Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, Sweden, which found that dogs were first domesticated in East Asia. Greater diversity of lineages was found in that region, and it is accepted that one generally finds more diversity in mtDNA lineages at the point of origin. (This is how we figured out that modern humans first evolved in East Africa).

The UCLA study that contradicted Savolainen’s findings used a very sophisticated analysis technique to compare different parts of the genome. Using what are called SNP chips (“snip chips”) researchers are able to look at many different parts of the genome rather easily. This study used 48,000 different SNP chips, which is actually a far more in depth analysis than comparing the diversity of mtDNA lineages to determine heritage.  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only through the mother, and although it is quite resistant to mutation, using it for analysis does have its limitation. Wayne’s original studies on the red wolf used only mtDNA sequences, which is one reason why the microsatellite data could still suggest that red wolves were an ancient North American species.

Well, on May 12, UCLA released the findings of a similar genome-wide study on wolves from Eurasia and North America, red wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs.   It used roughly 48,000 SNP chips to examine 48,000 loci in the genomes of these creatures.

This is where red wolves fit:

Red wolves are genetically coyotes. Like many populations of coyote, these coyotes do have some wolf ancestry. In fact, many coyotes have both wolf and dog ancestry, with only the Western population remaining “pure.”

This study also found that coyotes likely lived in the Eastern parts of North America at varying times. There are wolves with definite coyote mtDNA that predate Columbus that have been found in places like New York and Quebec. Indeed, the researchers final conclusion is that there was a massive “hybrid zone” between wolves and coyotes in North America– the largest hybrid zone ever documented in a terrestrial vertebrate species. For millennia, wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes– as have dogs and wolves and dogs and coyotes.

The Great Lakes wolves, which were said to be the same species as the red wolf, were found to have quite a bit of coyote ancestry, but it was nowhere near as much as the red wolf.  The Algonquin wolf was about 40 percent coyote, which was the highest concentration coyote ancestry in the Great Lakes wolf population, while the red wolf was 75-80 percent coyote and only 25-20 percent wolf. That is just a bit higher wolf ancestry than many coyote populations. One might actually call the Algonquin wolf a “stable hybrid,” but it may have coyote ancestry that traces back before Columbus. Which means it is a subspecies of Canis lupus with coyote ancestry with a unique ecological niche– which means that one could argue for its continued preservation.

Not so with with the red wolf.

This study strongly suggests that the red wolf is not a distinct species at all. In fact, it’s probably  not even a member of a species that is endangered anywhere.

That finding is not going to go over very well at all. I have noticed that this study has not been widely publicized in the media.

I think it is possible that there was a southeastern wolf population that was closely related to the Great Lakes wolf subspecies. This animal became extinct and was absorbed into the growing coyote population. Perhaps this southeastern wolf already had some coyote ancestry from many generations before, but as it disappeared, it was forced to mate with coyotes to survive. It exists now only as that 20-25% heritage that is in so-called “red wolf.”

It is very likely that the red wolf as it exists now simply came from a population admixed coyotes with wolf ancestry in Texas and Louisiana. Some of these mixed coyotes retained some wolf features. These coyotes with wolf features were the ones that were trapped, deemed an endangered species, and then were released into Eastern North Carolina, where the US Fish and Wildlife service has tried to keep this breed pure under the assumption that it is a species of rare wolf from an ancient North American lineage.

As for the pack hunting aspect of this “red wolf,” coyotes can learn to form packs and evolve larger size, even if they have only traces of wolf ancestry. That is certainly the case with the Eastern coyote, which is now evolving into a kind of wolf-coyote that hunts deer. And that would explain why red wolves would form packs and hunt deer and raccoons in North Carolina. Pack-hunting is not exclusively the purview of wolves. Coyotes can do it, too.

This study is the most advanced analysis of the red wolf’s genetics that has yet been performed.  These results have not trickled down into the popular conscience yet.

But once they do, it is going to be very hard to argue for the continued preservation of the red wolf in Eastern North Carolina or anywhere else it has been released. A big coyote with wolf ancestry that hunts deer is not an endangered species at all. We have them in West Virginia, but no one would call them an endangered species or some ancient wolf lineage. People want bounties on that coyote here.

But the US Fish and Wildlife Service and many, many scientists have put countless hours into red wolf. Lots of  money has been spent.

How are these new facts going to be received?

It is no longer the red wolf.  It is the creature formerly known as the red wolf.

That finding is an affront to the conscience of so many people.

And I don’t know how we can justify preserving this form of deer-hunting coyote when we already have another much more healthy population of deer-hunting coyote that continues to establish itself in the East.

These questions have yet to be answered.

But the debate surely will start soon. The US federal government is looking for programs to cut, and funding for red wolf reintroduction and management looks like its been dealt a pretty crushing blow.

I don’t see any how any other genetic studies can cast doubt onto what UCLA’s researchers have found.

Oh well.

There are plenty of other more worthy endangered species– including the Mexican wolf subspecies and the Island fox– that need some attention. Perhaps these animals could benefit from some of the funding and man-hours that have been allocated to red wolves.

That is one positive for which we can all hope.

The truth is not going to be received, but at least it’s the truth.


H/T to Dave at Little Heelers for passing this onto me. He had me look at it for what it said about the genetics of Italian and Spanish wolves (for some reason). But the findings on the red wolf were a much bigger deal!


Update: To be fair, Nowak did eventually drop the Canis edwardii theory in 2002 and adopted the mosbachensis theory, which is very similar to what I thought these wolves were.

However, we were both wrong in assuming that modern red wolves were either derivatives of edwardii or mosbachensis. The only mosbachensis in the red wolf is the 20-25 percent of “gray wolf” in its ancestry. Some authorities count the mosbachensis wolf as Canis lupus mosbachensis, an extinct early subspecies of the “gray wolf.”

Edwardii was likely an early wolf-like coyote or wolf-like Canis related to the coyote.

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