Posts Tagged ‘Mexican wolf’

northwestern wolf

A lot of attention is being paid to the initiative that will be on the Colorado ballot this year. The question is whether the state will reintroduce wolves to Colorado, and various interests are queuing up for a rancorous debate about whether the state should begin this process.

The neighboring state of Wyoming, though, has a decent wolf population, and one argument against the reintroduction measure is that the wolves will do the reintroduction on their own. They will simply walk down from Wyoming and enter Colorado on their own.

Well, yesterday, there was news that wolf tracks were spotted in the snow in the northwestern corner of Colorado. There have also been sightings. An elk carcass has also been found, and wolf howls have been heard. So it is very likely that some wolves are now roaming Colorado, and they may be establishing a pack.

However, this does not change the debate on the ballot question, because if it is passed, these wolves will likely be joined by others.

And, it makes something else more interesting. The ballot question is about gray wolves, but there were historically two subspecies of gray wolf that roamed Colorado.

The ones in Wyoming are Northwestern wolves, but Colorado was also the northern terminus for the Mexican gray wolf’s range. If this ballot question is approved, then a real discussion should be had about restoring Mexican gray wolves to parts of southwestern Colorado.

A huge debate exists about the wolf subspecies of North America, not just with the potentially coyote introgressed “species.”  A real debate exists about whether the Northwestern wolf is the same as the Southern Rocky Mountain wolf, which was also a fairly large wolf.  This also where you get these big debates about giant Canadian wolves with the anti-wolf opposition in much of the West.

What would happen is that you probably would have a gene flow between Northwestern wolves and Mexican gray wolves, and natural selection would favor those that had the adaptations to handle the local prey.

But this probably would cause lots of issues, because Mexican gray wolves are seen as such a unique subspecies that a whole line of them was euthanized for merely showing some dog-like characteristics.

So wolf taxonomy is always an issue with recovery, even if you leave out the domestic dog and coyote introgressions.


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It never ceases to amaze me about how poorly informed people are about the natural world.

Whenever someone runs into a wild animal that is hairless for some reason, the imagination starts running wild.  People start making claims that they’ve seen some sort of new species, perhaps an extraterrestrial or something from a secret government lab.

You often run into internet experts who swear that an animal can’t be merely a common animal with alopecia– “because it looks so different!”

Never mind that genetic studies clearly reveal the animal’s identity.  It must be something unique!

Most northern hemisphere mammals are pretty well-furred.

From a distance, we don’t normally see the animal’s musculature or physique. We don’t see how its ears fit into the skull.  We don’t see how the head is really shaped.  The fur hides that much.

When the fur is gone, all of these features are revealed, and they do make the animal look more bizarre.

My personal favorite of all these amazing new animals is the chupacabra.

Pretty much every chupacabra ever killed or described to science has turned out to be either a dog or a coyote.  In Puerto Rico, some might even be mongooses, which were introduced to control the rat population. On the  US mainland, some chupacabras have turned out to be raccoons.

But the vast majority of these chupacabras have turned out to be canids. Some have been red foxes, but they most usually have been coyotes or domestic dogs.

And when the animal’s skin can be tested for disease, it almost always turns out that Sarcoptes scabei is the culprit.  In short, these animals are hairless because of a severe case of sarcoptic mange.

The dead canid in the photo above is one two similarly afflicted individuals that were found in the vicinity of Cuero, Texas.

It was the second one to have its DNA analyzed. The first was found dead on a ranch in the vicinity of the town. DNA tests revealed that it was a coyote.

The second one was shot in roughly the same area, and it turned out to be a bit different. It had coyote mtDNA, but its y-chromosome was that of a Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi).  Y-chromosome tests merely trace paternal heritage, so it is very possible somewhere along the way, a Mexican wolf mated with a coyote somewhere in that region. The offspring then bred back into coyotes, and through each generation, the wolf component of their ancestry became diluted.  But the Mexican wolf y-chromosome remained, even though these animals are coyotes.

Now, that finding is much, much more interesting than all the crap that has been written about these particular chupacabras from Cuero. The woman who collected these samples runs a website that is full of denialism about what these animals actually are. I am particularly enjoying her claim that the tracks of these animals don’t look like those of coyotes, even though the track pictured looks exactly like the coyote track I photographed two years ago.

To me, it’s a much more amazing find to discover that Mexican wolves have contributed a few genes to the Texas coyote population.

It’s a much more amazing discovery than anything people can imagine about these animals being a unique species, which some have suggested should be called a “Texas blue dog.” (I thought that was a political term!)

This animal is yet another example of the wondrous species complex that exists between Canis lupus and Canis latrans.

Trying to turn these animals into unique species really isn’t that different from what people have tried to do with the red wolf and the so-called Eastern wolf species. Both have ancestry from both wolves and coyotes, but that does not make them unique species at all.

If the case for the Eastern wolf and red wolf as distinct species is that terrible, the case for the Texas blue dog is even worse off.  Its blue eye and so-called “pouches” aren’t going to make any difference.

Coyotes can have blue eyes.

This one, I believe, was killed in New Mexico, where the coyotes are either free or almost entirely free of dog ancestry:

They actually can get bluer than this one. Coyotes may have a mutation that causes blue eyes that is entirely different from what causes blue eyes in domestic dogs. No one has performed any analysis to determine why coyotes, even those from populations that have not been known to cross with dogs, like the ones in the Southwest, sometimes have blue eyes.

As for the pouches, those are actually cysts called hygromas that develop when an animal spends so much time sitting on its haunches scratching its neck.  Which is exactly what we’d expect from an animal suffering from a severe case of sarcoptic mange.

Of course, Texas isn’t a place where knowledge about zoology should be expected. This is, after all, the state that attempted to  introduce creationist textbooks into the class room.

I’m not saying everyone in Texas is an idiot, but any state that would elect this guy governor has a large number of citizens who have issues with critical thinking.

The discovery of a coyote with a Mexican wolf y-chromosome is an amazing discovery. If we’ve found one coyote with this ancestry, there are likely many of them.

There are lots of questions to ask about these coyotes.  When did the y-chromosome enter the population? How widespread are coyotes with this ancestry?  These questions are very much worth asking.

After all, the Mexican wolf is the most critically endangered subspecies of wolf in North America, and although its former range included Texas, the exact limits of its historical range are not clear. There is some evidence that it occurred as far north as Colorado, and its range in Texas may have been more extensive than we currently estimate.

But we can’t ask that question when we’re trying to turn these animals into paranormal bloodsuckers.

I know that chupacabras get the headlines.

But we’ve actually found something quite interesting here.

The truth is actually much more amazing than anything our imaginations could contrive.

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From the LA Unleashed Blog:

Mexican researchers said Wednesday they have identified jawbones found in the pre-Hispanic ruins of Teotihuacan as those of wolf-dogs that were apparently crossbred as a symbol of the city’s warriors.

The National Institute of Anthropology and History said the jawbones were found during excavations in 2004 and are the first physical evidence of what appears to be intentional crossbreeding in ancient Mexican cultures.

The jawbones were found in a warrior’s burial at a Teotihuacan pyramid. Anthropological studies performed at Mexico’s National Autonomous University indicate the animal was a wolf-dog.

“In oral traditions and old chronicles, dog-like animals appear with symbols of power or divinity,” said institute spokesman Francisco De Anda. “But we did not have skeletal evidence … this is the first time we have proof.”

Wolf- or dog-like creatures appear in paintings at Teotihuacan, but had long been thought to be depictions of coyotes, which also inhabit the region. But archaeologists are now reevaluating that interpretation.

Several jawbones were made into a sort of decorative garment found on the warrior’s skeleton at the 2,000-year-old site north of Mexico City.

The wolf-dog apparently served as a symbol of strength and power.

Dogs and wolves are very similar genetically, and there has been evidence of ancient remains that may show natural crossbreeding.

But archaeologist Raul Valadez said the animal was the result of intentional selection. While the inhabitants of Teotihuacan had dogs, wolves and coyotes, they almost exclusively used wolf-dog bones in the ceremonial arrangement.

Of the bones found, eight were wolf-dog, three were dogs and two were crosses of coyotes and wolf-dogs.

These wolves would have likely been Canis lupus baileyi, which is now extinct in the wild in Mexico. They were actually known to hybridize with domestic dogs as the subspecies became rare in the wild. A whole line of these wolves that was kept at Carlsbad Caverns was euthanized under the suspicion that they were “contaminated” with dog blood. However, it was later found that these wolves had no evidence of dog hybridization in their MtDNA sequences.

This is yet another example of a gene flow between wild and domestic populations of Canis lupus, although the exact wild nature of these wolves is certainly in question. It is possible that these wolves lived in a state of semi-domestication. Historically, it hasn’t been very hard to habituate wolves to people, and it wouldn’t be very hard to breed an habituated wolf to a dog.

Or maybe they were urban wolves, like this one in Romania. Because there is no evidence of these people persecuting the wolves, they would have had more reason to hang around the city and have opportunities to breed with dogs.

The people of Teotihuacan were fairly good animal keepers. There is evidence that they were adept at keeping pumas and jaguars in captivity, so it would not be all that strange that they kept both wolves and coyotes in this manner.

Throughout their long history, dogs have retained some of their genetic diversity through wild blood. Now that wolves have been pushed very far from human societies,and dogs have undergone extensive selective breeding, these differences seem much more extreme than they once were.

But through much of that history, dog and wolf have bred with each other–sometimes intentionally, as seems to be the case here, and sometimes accidentally, as is likely the case with the evolution of black wolves in North America.

These ancient Mexicans worshiped the dog and the wolf. The hybrid was likely much like the character they lauded in the warrior. The warrior was civilized in his manner during times of peace and as savage as a wild animal in times of war. That dichotomy was celebrated when these hybrids were used for these ceremonial arrangements.

Perhaps one could find evidence ancient North American dogs were actually hybrids. It was suggested that the domestic dogs kept by various peoples of the Southeast were nothing more than tamed red wolves. Black red wolves were very common, which is why they had the archaic scientific name Canis niger.

However, all the studies I’ve seen suggest that New World domestic dogs from both the Pre-Columbian and modern era have predominantly or entirely Old World ancestry.

More work needs to be performed in examining the genetics of these New World dogs.

I suspect that some “dogs” from South America might actually be domesticated versions of South American wild dogs, as was the case with the Perro Yagan, the domesticated culpeo of Tierra del Fuego.

The intentional hybridization of Mexican wolves and domestic dogs at Teotihuacan shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We have evidence of wolf hybridization in the origin of certain Finnish and Scandinavian breeds. To find archeological evidence of hybridization in Mexico is just more evidence that dogs and wolves do not represent distinct species.

They represent the beautiful and wondrous diversity that is the species we call Canis lupus. From two-pound chihuahuas that fit nicely in handbags to giant bone crushing wolves that lived in Alaska during the Pleistocene, this species has had the ability to occur in some many different shapes and sizes.

The people of Teotihuacan were probably a little amazed when their domestic bitches bred wolves and produced puppies. Such a crossbreeding from such different looking animals would have been fascinating– almost to the point that it would have required a divine explanation.

And once that explanation would have been put in place, it wouldn’t have been very long before some priesthood would come up with a need to use them for ceremonial purposes.


According to Art Daily, some of the remains are from dog-coyote hybrids and to crosses with wolfdogs and coyotes, so intentional wolf and dog crosses were not the only Canis hybrids these people were creating for this purpose.

I strongly disagree with the suggestion in the Art Daily piece that pumas (cougars) are more easily domesticated than wolves.  We have no domesticated cougars, but we have hundreds of millions of domestic dogs throughout the world. Not all wolves become status seeking machines in captive situations. Adolph Murie had one named Wags that was basically a golden retriever in wolf form.

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Minnesota is known for its successful wolf recovery program.

But the native subspecies of Canis lupus is the Great Plains wolf (C.l. nubilus.)

It is a big game hunting wolf, and it is very well adapted to the severe continental climate of the Western Great Lakes.

It is not the best place in the world for the Mexican subspecies of C. lupus. The Mexican wolf (C. l. baileyi) evolved into the southwestern US  and Mexico. Neither of those places is quite like Minnesota in the winter time.

But there are Mexican wolves in Minnesota. At Forest Lake, a wolf research facility and zoological park called the Wildlife Science Center is working to conserve this subspecies. Currently, only about 150 Mexican wolves exist, and the Wildlife Science Center is working on finding ways to better increase its numbers.

The Mexican wolf is perhaps the smallest subspecies of wolf in North America. It is a golden retriever sized wolf that could easily be mistaken for a large coyote, which can also be found in Minnesota.

This resemblance to a coyote  is not trivial, especially for one particular Mexican wolf.

As I mentioned before, the Wildlife Science Center has Mexican wolves, and it had three bitch wolves in a single enclosure. Earlier this week some hooligans broke into the facility and did a Born Free with those three wolves.

Wolves tend to be nervous animals, and one of the wolves refused to leave the enclosure. Another was found within the grounds of the facility.

And one still remains on the lam (or it is lamb?)

Now, this particular wolf has never lived in the wild. The area where this wolf was released is not in the core wolf habitat in Minnesota, and what’s worse, she looks like a coyote.

Wolves may be protected in Minnesota. Coyotes are not.

It is feared that someone might mistake this rare wolf for a coyote and shoot her.

A wolf that has spent its whole life in a pen isn’t going to know about the dangers of roads. It is even more likely that this wolf will be hit by a car.

It is hoped that this errant wolf will return to her enclosure. Road-killed deer has been placed in the pen to bring her back.

Let’s hope she does come back. Most Mexican wolves are in captivity, and their genetic diversity is quite low. This is particularly true when it was decided that a major line of these wolves were wolf-dog hybrids. This line had been kept at a facility near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Although it is not clear whether these wolves were actually hybrids or that their doggish appearance came through generations of captive breeding and being fed a domesticated animal diet, it was decided to euthanize every wolf in the line.

Every wolf in this subspecies is valuable. I don’t know why anyone would have released these wolves.  It may have been misinformed animal rights enthusiasts. Or it may have been anti-wolf extremists. Turn a wolf loose, and then the facility that keeps them gets a bad reputation.

Let’s just hope this wolf makes it back before something bad happens.


The Wildlife Science Center has been featured on television. I distinctly remember two episodes of Animal Planet’s Growing Up series were based upon animals that were being raised at the facility. It has also been featured on the History Channel’s MonsterQuest program.

Here is an example of some of the research that is performed at the center:


UPDATE: Good news. The wolf has been recaptured.

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