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Posts Tagged ‘red wolf’

red wolf

I’ve received a few inquiries in the past day or so about a report by a panel of scientists funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that states that the current evidence suggest that the red wolf is a species and therefore needs protection.

I’ve not seen a single study look into the real red wolf and Eastern wolf problem, which isn’t that they are hybrids. It’s that even if we were to have definitive evidence that they were not, the genetic difference among gray wolves, coyotes, and these canids is tiny.

Indeed, the full-genome comparisons have all found that these animals are hybrids, but they are not hybrids between two species that have been distinct for a million or even 500,000 years.

The best estimate of the divergence between coyotes and gray wolves is around 50,000 years ago, which only slightly earlier than when all extant coyotes diverged and when all extant gray wolves diverged. The difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is best described as a difference of subspecies, and if red wolves are hybrids, they are simply crosses between two subspecies. And if they are not, they are not that genetically different from coyotes, which would be their closest relative, to be suddenly afforded species status.

The best way to think of these animals is a single behaviorally and phenotypically diverse species, which is even more reflected in the domestic form.

Until red wolf advocates deal with the real problem of the recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes, I don’t think they have much of a case for their species status.

I have no problem with a coyotes being considered a divergent form of gray wolf. It is now accepted by most experts that domestic dogs are part of Canis lupus.   It’s not really such a stretch to think of coyotes as being part of this species as well.

What this says about conservation of the red wolf is a bit more complicated. I am not for eradicating red wolves from the face of the earth, but I wish we were more realistic what these animals were.  At the very least, introgression with Eastern coyotes should be accepted as a source for genetic diversity within red wolf populations and that crosses between red wolves and coyotes should be left alone in nature. Coyotes could be conferring on the quite inbred red wolves greater genetic diversity and perhaps useful alleles for dealing with life in a human-dominated landscape.

The red wolf was said to have derived from Canis edwardii, but it was then more appropriately placed as a descended of the Mosbach wolf.

But if the full-genome comparison study’s estimates hold, then we’re looking pretty silly here holding onto the red wolf as an ancient form of North American wolf.

If this calculation holds, the coyote also appears to have derived from the Eurasian gray wolf radiation, which means North America has lost all its original wolf-like canids that rose at the beginning of the Pleistocene.

That last survivor of that lineage was the dire wolf, which became extinct as the Pleistocene faded into the Holocene.

Indeed, it is better to think of red wolves as an Anthropocene form of wolf, one that is well-adapted to living in the humid subtropics and hunting white-tailed deer and raccoons.

So no I’ve not changed my mind on this question. My government, especially now, is often quite wrong.

And before you peg me as a person who is a science denier or opposed to environmental protection, just understand that I care about climate change and the protection of countless wild species.  I think this species is quite problematic and that there are good scientific reasons to be skeptical.

And I think my idea of Canis lupus being a phenotypically and behaviorally diverse species is much better fit with our understanding of the species as it exists in the Holarctic.

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loggerhead sea turtle hatching

Recently, I’ve been using this space to play around with the fuzziness of “species.” Hundreds of species concepts exist, and because different researchers have somewhat different perspectives, you will sometimes get real conflicts about whether something is a species or a mere subspecies.

In canids, we get caught up in species discussions that are about what really amounts to very little genetic variation. For example, red wolves, Eastern wolves, gray wolves, dogs, dingoes and coyotes are all lineages that have only radiated in the past 50,000 or so years.

By contrast Old World and North American red foxes, including the ones allegedly derived by those set out by English colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth, last shared a common ancestor 400,000 years ago.  This finding means that we probably should regard the red fox of North America as Vulpes fulva.

But 400,000 years of divergence is nothing compared to the 3 million years estimated for the Indo-Pacifica and Atlantic-Mediterranean populations of loggerhead sea turtle. There has been some gene flow between the populations. Matrilines have flipped around South Africa, once 250,000 years ago and an once 12,000 years ago.

So researchers who specialize in wolf-like canids are debating over very small genetic differences and relatively recent divergence times.  Red fox researchers are only just now realizing that there are likely two species in what was once thought to be a Holarctic species. And those specializing in loggerhead sea turtles don’t really care that their species has such a deep genetic difference.  The occasional gene flows between populations are enough for them to recognize only one species of loggerhead sea turtle.

This problem gets more interesting when we start talking about “living fossil species.” Take this article on Futurity.org, which is entitled “Evolution Hasn’t Revamped Alligators in 8 Million Years.” This article discusses the findings of some paleontologists at the University of Florida, who have found 8-million-year-old alligator fossils in North America, and they are remarkably similar to the ones we have today.

One of the researchers is quoted in the article says,”We were surprised to find fossil alligators from this deep in time that actually belong to the living species, rather than an extinct one.”

I would be just a hair more careful in my language. Although one can certainly see that these ancient alligators looked and probably behaved very much like the current species, 8 million years is a long time. I doubt that current alligators and those from that time could even interbreed if they encountered each other today. From a biological species perspective, it makes little sense to call them the same species, but from a paleontological perspective, it makes more sense, simply because paleontology is more interested in morphology and ecology over the entire time a population has existed.

So yes, “species” is a nebulous concept, and that is a good thing.  It makes some legal aspects with conservation difficult, because we have an Endangered Species Act that is about a hard and fast definition of a taxonomic entity.  In reality, the whole nebulous side makes for interesting levels of inquiry. If the Neo-Darwinian synthesis correctly describes the origin of biodiversity, then we would expect these discussions and debates to be commonplace.

They certainly are quite common in taxonomy and systematics. They probably always will be. Part of what defines a species are the biases of the classifier, which can often be contradictory.

For example, I have no problem with the new taxonomy of wildcats that posits the European wildcat into a different species than the Near Eastern/North African species. However, I disagree with the position of the domestic cat, which derives fro the Near Eastern/North African species, as its own unique species.

That bias may come from the simple fact that I am more familiar with domestic dog taxonomy, and I have come to accept that domestic dogs are best classified as a divergent form of gray wolf. If the domestic cat derived from its wild ancestor much more recently than the dog derived from its wild ancestor, why would it make any sense to classify the domestic cat as its own species?

So in zoology, we have all these different perspectives on how to classify species. Specialists in sea turtles are able to tolerate a genetically quite divergent species, while experts in wolf-like canids will debate over much more recently divergent lineages. These researchers really don’t talk to each about their ideas.  Indeed, the only time loggerhead sea turtle researchers worry about what specialists on the wolf-like canid side are doing is when they need to figure out how to stop coyotes from destroying the turtles’ nests. But they don’t need to know the complexity of the systematics to find an answer.

However, it is amazing how different specialists come to tolerate variation within one species. That nebulous nature of the various species concepts makes for some interesting variations on what specialists accept as normal.

Specialists often have very different ideas in mind, depending upon what they are used to, and I find it beautiful, even if it a bit confusing at times.

 

 

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We spend a lot of time debating about how wolves became dogs. A huge debate exists in the archaeological and paleontological literature about how one can determine whether the remains of a canid represent a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form between wolves and dogs. This debate is why the oldest dog remains are dated to around 14,000 years ago and come from the Bonn-Oberkassel site. Anything older than that, a big debate exists among experts about what can be used to define a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form.

But this debate does not exist solely in relatively recent transition between wolves and dogs. The entire evolution of Canis lupus is a hotly contested and often contradictory, depending upon which source one reads and whether one is looking a source that relies upon paleontological and morphological analysis or one that looks at the molecular evolution of the species.

It is well-accepted in European paleontology that Canis lupus evolved from Canis mosbachensis. Mark Derr paid particular attention to this evolution in his How the Dog Became the Dog. He posits that the extinction of the large hunting dog, Xenocyon lycaonoides, created an ecological niche that could be filled by the Mosbach wolf evolving into the gray wolf.

Yes, the Mosbach wolf was smaller than the modern gray wolf. Individuals from Northwestern Europe were mostly about the size of a modern Indian wolf or a “red wolf.” Indeed, the similarities between some of these mosbachensis wolves and red wolves are the best evidence for a unique red wolf species, for one can argue that red wolves are just a relict form of the Mosbach wolf that held on in Eastern North America. Of course, the genetic data do not agree with this assertion, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

My reading is that the Mosbach wolf gave rise to Canis lupus in Eurasia between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The coyote, though often posited as a primitive Canis, is actually derived from a divergent form of Canis lupus that got marooned in the American Southwest some 50,000 years ago and evolved to fit a jackal-like niche on a continent already dominated by dire wolves.

The Mosbach wolf disappeared from the fossil record around 300,000 years ago, but there is always a debate as to the possibility that it held on longer. The red wolf and Indian wolf are certainly possibilities for its continued existence today, but as we’ve looked at more wolf genomes both of those don’t come out so distinctive. Every study that I’ve seen that uses Indian wolf genomes finds that they are divergent Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a cross between wolves that are of that coyote type and relict Southeastern gray wolves from a later invasion of the continent. I do think there is pretty good historical data that some smaller wolves that we would define as coyotes lived in the Eastern states at the time of contact, particularly the small brown wolf of Pennsylvania mentioned by Shoemaker and the small “wolues” of Jamestown mentioned by John Smith. My guess is that no one really took stock of what they were killing when they killed off the wolves of Eastern states. It is very possible that coyote-like wolves were killed off in great numbers along with the big ones, and later on, coyotes from the plains came East, crossing with wolves and even relict original Eastern coyotes to form the modern Eastern coyote. The red wolf and the larger Eastern coyote are thus recreations of the Mosbach wolf that have happened in modern times.

In Europe, one potential late surviving Mosbach wolf was thought to have been found in Apulia, Italy, at the Grotta Romanelli site. Wolf remains have been found in the cave that date to between 40,000 and 69,000 years ago and they were often described as belonging to a late surviving Mosbach wolf. A recent morphological analysis revealed that these remains were of a peculiar form of Canis lupus that lived in that part of Southern Italy, and they were not of any kind of Mosbach wolf.

However, the Mosbach wolf is particularly intriguing. Occasionally, it has been posited as a direct ancestor of the domestic dog, but because we don’t have an overlap between the signs of the earliest dog domestication and the existence of Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record, one should be very careful in making such an assertion.

This same caveat should be placed when one sees Canis variabilis posited as dog ancestor. For one thing, there is no such thing as Canis variabilis. Instead, all the specimens listed as this species that come from the Zhoukoudian site in China have now been reassigned to Canis mosbachensis. This reassignment posits them as Canis mosbachensis variabilis, so whenever one encounters that “Canis variabilis” in a paper, just remember that they are discussing a particular East Asian form of the Mosbach wolf.

From my own speculative meta-analysis, it seems that the Mosbach wolf is ancestral to the entire wolf/dog/coyote species complex, which may include the African golden wolf, and the Eurasian golden jackal. A genome comparison study that included dogs, wolves, and one Israeli Eurasian golden jackal found that the divergence between the golden jackal and the dog and wolf species happened just before the anatomically modern Canis lupus replaced Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record. The Eurasian golden jackal could potentially be derived from a diminutive form of Canis mosbachensis that moved toward a more generalist scavenger form.

We also have some evidence of small Mosbach wolves in Europe that could have potentially gone in the direction of the golden jackal. This specimen was found not far from the Grotta Romanelli wolf that were found to be anatomically modern and not Mosbach wolves. It was found at the Contrada Monticelli site in Apulia. It was unusual in that it was quite a bit smaller than the Mosbach wolves found in other parts of Europe, and the authors found that Mosbach wolves were as morphologically variable as modern wolves are.

In North Africa, we also have a recent discovery of a canid that was much like the Mosbach wolf. The authors thought it was a bit different from the Eurasian form, and they decided to call this species Canis othmanii. This African wolf-like canid was found at a site in Tunisia and dates to the Middle Pleistocene, and it could potentially be the basal gray wolf that hybridized with the Ethiopian wolf to make the African golden wolf. More work needs to be done on this specimen, for it very well could wind up like Canis variabilis, a regionally distinct form of the Mosbach wolf.

The really fuzzy part about Canis mosbachensis isn’t that it is the ancestor of the gray wolf. The educated speculations I make about its relationship to the golden jackal and the golden wolf could be debated, and we need lots more data to figure out if I am right or not.

The really fuzzy part is what came before the Mosbach wolf. Most scholars think that Etruscan wolf (Canis etruscus), which makes an appearance in the fossil record around 2 million years ago, is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. For years, there was a debate about whether the Mosbach wolf was a chrono-subspecies of the Etruscan wolf or a chrono-subspecies of the gray wolf. All these suggestions would be technically true, simply because we could regard the Etruscan wolf-Mosbach wolf-gray wolf as a species that lasted and evolved over this time period.

However, a bit of a debate now exists as to whether the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. An extensive morphological analysis of Etruscan wolf remains and those of another Canis species called Canis arnensis, which compared both to the modern black-backed jackal, the gray wolf, the golden jackal, and the golden wolf, found that our previous delineation between arnensis as being jackal-like and etruscus as being wolf-like were over-simplifications. Some characters of arnensis are much more like modern gray wolves than etruscus is, and it is possible that arnesis gave rise to the Mosbach wolf. Still, the bulk of scholarship thinks that the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf.

However, because the Mosbach wolf was not included in the analysis, it might be difficult to make such a conclusion. However, maybe the Etruscan wolf or something like it is the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf. The ancestral Ethiopian wolf must have had an extensive range in Northern Africa for it to have hybridized with Canis mosbachensis, Canis othmanii, or a basal modern gray wolf to form the African golden wolf.

I have focused most of this post on the origins of gray wolves in the Old World, but the first Canis species to evolve were found in North America. Canis lepophagus first appeared in the fossil record 5 million years ago. It was very similar to a coyote or a Canis arnensis of the Old World. This is the part of the story where the molecular data has largely shaken up what we used to believe about coyotes. Lepophagus is thought to have evolved into the larger Edward’s wolf (Canis edwardii), which is sometimes called Canis priscolatrans. These animals might have been the same species or very closely related to the Etruscan wolf. The modern coyote is thought to have derived from edwardii/priscolatrans/estrucus 1 million years ago, but genome-wide comparisons put the existence of most recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes at less than 51,000 years ago.

The dire wolf derived from Armbruster’s wolf (Canis armbrusteri). Armbruster’s wolf derived from Canis edwardii/priscolatrans/etruscus 1.8 million years ago. The dire wolf then evolved from that species 125,000 years ago, which means the dire wolf’s most recent common ancestor with modern wolves and the coyote may have been as far back as 2 or even 3 million years ago.

This analysis is still being worked out. The molecular data is constantly throwing wrenches into the machinery of paleontology, especially the paleontology of canids. The most successful extant canid lineage are full of parallel evolution and phenotypic plasticity, and in this way, it has become quite a challenge to sort out the evolutionary history of these species. At various times, large wolf-like forms have evolved as have smaller coyote or jackal-like forms.

The story of Canis starts with a coyote-like lepophagus, but right now, its likely niche is adopted by the modern coyote, which also very similar to it. But the molecular data suggest that the coyote evolved to adopt this similar niche from a larger Eurasian gray wolf and that it did not directly descend from lepophagus over 5 million years in only North America. Instead, it evolved into wolves that wandered into Eurasia, becoming the Mosbach wolf and then anatomically modern gray wolf. Some of these wolves wandered back into North America and became generalist scavengers in the land of the dire wolf.

Very similar stories likely are lost to us, but we must understand that the history of wolves is not just about getting bigger and developing pack-hunting behavior. That is one part of the story, but another part is about evolving to fit niches, which sometimes means evolving a smaller size and more generalist diet.

Some of my ideas here are very speculative, but I think they are nested in my reading of the available literature. Do not assume that I have the final story of how these creatures evolved, but just understand that the molecular side is so rarely considered in paleontology literature that it is almost like we’re reading evolutionary history of two different lineages.

More work must be done to formulate a synthesis between these two disciplines. Otherwise, there will be continued conflict, and the one using an older methodology and often working with much more incomplete data-set will fall by the wayside. And that is not the one using full genomes.

If we know what problems exist using morphological studies on extant and recently extinct canids, it is very likely that we’re missing important data on many extinct species, one for which there is no DNA to test.

Still, paleontology has much to tell us about the way early wolves lived. It can tell us much about how the ecosystems were and why wolves evolved in the way they did. But its methodologies often miss relationships between extant forms and miss the tendency toward parallel evolution.

I tried for about two years to watch Joe Rogan’s interview with Dan Flores, who wrote a book on coyotes that I think is quite full of misunderstandings about canid taxonomy. When Rogan questioned him about the papers that show a recent origin for the red wolf, Flores pretty much just dismissed those papers because they didn’t look at fossil.

That’s not how it works. Within canids, we know that parallel evolution is a big thing, and it is very possible that coyote-like and red wolf-like canids have evolved more than once on this continent. Indeed, a careful reading of the paleontology and molecular data strongly suggests that this is the case.

In fact, it has always been the case with these wolf-like canids. Big ones evolved from small ones, but sometimes, the big ones become small, because it is a better fit for survival.

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Charles Darwin was an early proponent of humans belonging to a single species. The concept was not popular in Darwin’s imperialist nation, where many of the best and brightest were dead certain that “lesser peoples” of the empire were entirely different species. Monogenists versus the polygenists this was the debate by even those who accepted Darwin’s controversial thesis that species evolved through natural selection and that humans evolved from African great apes.

We know now that the monogenists won out. Only the basest racist frauds believe that humans represent multiple species deriving from distinct evolutionary lineages. The only exceptions are that we do have evidence that humans have trace amounts of other extinct humans in their DNA, such as Neanderthals and the Denisovan hominin.

The monophyly of a species is a concept that should be axiomatic. Much of the “rewriting” of taxonomy and systematics comes from us discovering that a clade is either paraphyletic or polyphyletic, but what does sometimes happen is we do run into situations where we have thought species were really distinct but now we think of them as being subspecies. Black-tailed and mule deer come to mind, as do Cape and African forest buffalo. We have to combine them in a single species to retain its monophyly.

I think something now must be done with gray wolves and their closest kin. In recent years, it has become difficult to retain that domestic dogs and dingoes remain distinct species from the Holarctic gray wolf, especially if we wish to keep the species monophyletic. But I think now a good case can be made that coyotes belong to the same species as Canis lupus. They diverged from a common ancestor only recently, around 50,000 years ago, and the much debated Eastern and red wolf “species,” which appear to be hybrids between coyotes and gray wolves can also similarly be folded into Canis lupus. Whether there was a coyote sister population in the Eastern forest that gave rise to red and Eastern wolves is a moot point. That “forest coyote” population is no more distinct from gray wolves than those of the West are.

Further, we do have evidence of continued gene flow between gray wolves and coyotes. Eastern coyotes have wolf ancestry, and many also have wolf ancestry that comes from domestic dogs.

This new way of describing Canis lupus forms has some benefits. One is that we can come up with a strong legal foundation for the protection of red and Eastern wolves without them being distinct species. Their hybrid status is no longer problematic. We no longer must strain credibility talking about them being ancient North American wolves. Instead, we just go the Endangered Species Act’s statute language which defines an “endangered species” as being a “subspecies” that requires conservation action. We currently protect the Florida panther as an endangered species using this definition, and what is more, the Florida panther was given genetic rescue when Texas cougars were released into its range. The Florida panther exists as a hybrid that holds onto alleles of a population that no longer exists in its pure form, and in the case of red and Eastern wolves, one can very easily make this case.

The problem with going this route is that coyotes themselves do not experience many protections in the United States or Canada. Most states have a very open hunting season on them year-round, and some places have bounties on them. Eastern coyotes are hard to tell apart from what are called Eastern wolves and are even harder to tell apart from red wolves. There is an overlap in phenotype that comes from both forms having similar hybrid origins.

Further, because red wolves living in the North Carolina recovery range are all derived from 19 individuals, and wild wolf-like canids have inbreeding avoidance behavior, it is quite common for red wolves to pair up with Eastern coyotes. Much energy has been devoted to killing off and removing coyotes in red wolf recovery zones, including the euthanasia of crossbred puppies, but it seems that this won’t work long-term.

Recently, researchers at Princeton discovered that the coyotes of Galveston Island are quite closely related to the red wolves in the recovery program. The authors think that many southeastern coyotes might hold the alleles of these red wolves, but I think a better explanation is that we simply under-estimated what the coyote’s range was in the United States at the time of contact. John Smith described the “wolues” of Jamestown as not being much larger than English foxes, and I initially thought he was talking about gray foxes. But then I read original text, and the gray fox is described in complete detail, including the fact that it lacks the red fox’s odor. Henry Wharton Shoemaker, the naturalist and folklorist who chronicled much of the lore of Pennsylvania’s wildlife, wrote about a “small brown wolf” that lived along the Susquehanna River, which made a yipping howl that resembled that of the prairie wolf or coyote. Shoemaker postulated that these small brown wolves were the same species as the coyote, but very few scholars have taken his speculations seriously.

Perhaps, there were coyotes living in the forest alongside Eastern wolves and a endemic Southeastern form of wolf that was very often melanistic. All three exchanged genes, and all three were killed off for their furs and for bounties without any regard to what they were. It was only when settlers in Indiana noticed that some of the wolves in their area were quite small that they began to wonder if they were a distinct species. Later explorers into the West began to call them prairie wolves, which was their name until Americans adopted the Nahuatl-derived name for them.

The most important bit of text I’ve read in any of these North American wolf taxonomy papers is one in a response paper to another one that still argues for multiple species of wolf in North America. The authors write that “[the] genetic differentiation between red wolves and other North American [wolf-like] canids is comparable to the amount of genetic differentiation found between different continental human groups, which of course are not considered to be distinct evolutionary lineages.”

And at that moment, we are back to Mr. Darwin’s debate with the polygenists. He was right to oppose their claims back then, and maybe when it comes to North American and Eurasians wolves, dogs, dingoes, and coyotes, one should be a monogenists.

That’s where I am planting my flag. I think that is where it will all end up once we’ve sorted it all out.

I find the idea of gray wolves representing a phenotypically and behaviorally diverse species awfully intriguing. This diversity is greatly exaggerated in the domestic form, but this diversity is also reflected in the wild, where we have 15-pound coyotes and wolves that weigh 130 pounds.

It may even be that the African golden wolf, which is derived from the ancestor of the gray wolf and coyote mating with the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf, may be close enough to extant gray wolves that we might also regard it as part of this very diverse species. It would be a coyote-evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, for the coyote likely evolved in its smaller and more generalist form from the ancestral Eurasian gray wolf because it could not compete as a pack hunter in a North America dominated by dire wolves. African wild dogs once ranged over almost the whole continent of Africa, and they could have provided competition for that niche that would force these ancestral gray wolves to evolve in something like an African coyote.

The recalibration of the evolution of Canis needs to be done with light of the knowledge that gray wolves and coyotes aren’t so genetically distinct from each other. We need new papers that look at he full genomes of golden and Himalayan wolves to get an idea of when they may have split from the rest of the gray wolf swarm. It may be very well be that they all belong to this wide-ranging phenotypically diverse species that over parts of four continents

Yes, this is controversial, but I think it is parsimonious. So many scientists now have no problem thinking that pugs and Yorkshire terriers are Canis lupus familiaris, so why is it so difficult to think of coyotes as being Canis lupus latrans?

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red wolf female

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a bit of skeptic on the validity of the red wolf as a species.

In the early days of this blog, I thought it was probably a primitive form of Canis lupus that interbred coyotes, which is why it has such coyote-like mitochondrial DNA.  I thought its similarities with the Indian wolf were awfully compelling, but I was always leery of suggestions that it represented a full species called Canis rufus.

But then we started getting full genome analysis on red wolves, starting in 2011, when the first comparative assay of red wolf, gray wolf, and coyote genomes was published.

This study showed that red wolves were hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.  This creates an enormous problem for the red wolf’s protections under the ESA, for the language of the statute doesn’t allow for the protection of hybrids. 2011 was first year of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since Obama’s election, and I noted at the time that it would not be long before conservative forces began to push the red wolf out.

Since that study came out, a group of landowners in Eastern North Carolina have come out with complaints about red wolves. At the time of that study, there were very few documented complaints about them, but now there is an organized movement. Sometimes there videos are a bit in poor taste, but they have recently figured out some pretty savvy tactics, such as playing up the carnage against coyotes, including nursing pups that are hybrids between coyotes and putative red wolves.

The biggest complaint these landowners have is that red wolves were released upon private property, which generally would bother most people.  These landowners worked hard on getting their issues before the North Carolina Wildlife Services Commission, which in 2015, voted on a resolution requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the program.

Then, two things happened in 2016, one of these was new full-genome comparison study, which I have written about quite extensively. It revealed that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across the continent, and yes, red wolves are mostly coyote and only partially gray wolf in ancestry.  A full genome comparison is a much better analysis than an assay of a genome, because the researchers were looking at a much fuller picture.

This makes the red wolf even harder to defend as a distinct species.

That same year, the  US Fish and Wildlife Service began rolling back its red wolf recovery program.

In 2017, the program’s standing was then on quite unstable ground. The election of a Republican president with a very pro-sportsman secretary of the interior pretty much meant that the red wolf would be on shaky ground.

In November of 2017, a Senate panel voted in a directive for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the red wolf as part of a spending package that funds the Department of the Interior.

I’ve been following this story since that vote. I’ve been expecting this directive to appear in the various last minute spending bills that have gone through over the last few months.

It hasn’t, but there is still a lot of political pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the red wolf in the updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan, which will be out some time this year.

This animal the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of wildlife conservation on this continent, and its problems are even more hampered by sort of unwillingness to accept that this not a surviving lineage of an ancient North American wolf.

Most people who love red wolves love to attack the full-genome study from 2016, but in that study, there might yet be a way to save them.

The legal definition of a species in the ESA is as follows: ”any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

In that study that gets lambasted by red wolf advocates, there is section of note, which reveals a recent split between the gray wolf and the coyote. Most of the literature on gray wolf and coyote genetics suggested a million-year split from a common ancestor. That particular study found only about 50,000-year split, which is roughly equivalent to when extant forms of Canis lupus radiated across Eurasia and North America.

Therefore, one could make the argument that coyotes are a subspecies of Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a hybrid between two subspecies and not an interspecific hybrid.

Under that definition, the red wolf would meet the species requirement under the ESA.

Of course, this strategy will never happen. Coyotes are not regulated as proper game animals in most states. In mine, you can kill one at any time. There are no bag limits, and you can hunt them with lights from January 1 to July 31.

Wolves are not managed the same way. Indeed, in most of the US gray wolves are a listed species, and you cannot kill them. In the states that do have a wolf season, there are strict bag limits and tagging requirements.

The politicians will probably cut the red wolf off.  It is very unlikely that this animal will be able to survive as a pure species, even if it were shown to be a genetically distinct species, because it readily breeds with coyotes. And once coyotes show up anywhere, it is virtually impossible to reduce their numbers.

Further, the coyotes that are coming into North Carolina are also hybridized a bit. They do have some wolf ancestry, though not as much as the putative red wolves do.

So to keep the red wolf going, we have to kill off another canid that genetically quite similar to the one we’re trying to save.

It is rather perverse in a way.

I say this as someone who really does support the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the red wolf issues ultimately harm the credibility of the act.

And that’s why I am such a negative nabob about them.

 

 

 

 

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Congress could end red wolf recovery

Canis rufus

It should be noted that the bulk of the genomic data show that the creature called a “red wolf” is actually a hybrid between some now extinct population of wolves and coyotes. Indeed, the most in depth genome comparison study performed on wolves and coyotes not only revealed that “red” and “Eastern” wolves are hybrids, it also revealed that coyotes were recent derivatives from Eurasian wolves and not ancient North American jackals.  Thus, the whole population of wild Canis in North America is much more closely related than we assumed.

Most of the data supporting the red wolf’s validity as a species are based upon fossil and subfossil evidence, which tended to show that the creatures being bred for introduction in the wild look an awful lot like ancient North American wolves.

But it now seems that the animals running loose in North Carolina are actually wolves with lots of coyote ancestry.

That’s what the science is telling us, and as I noted back in 2011, when this evidence from genome-wide analyses was being published, that it wouldn’t be long before politicians noticed a problem and began to use red wolves to chip away at the ESA.

I support the ESA, but I’ve long thought that adhering to red and Eastern wolf paradigms could cause real problems with the act’s long-term viability.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf, which is a biography of a Yellowstone wolf named “O-Six.”  O-Six was the breeding female of the Lamar Valley pack, a wolf widely photographed in the park. She was a great elk hunter and mother, and because she was so well-known in the park, she became a sort of celebrity.

O-Six died from a hunter’s bullet, and her death never would have happened had the Democratic-controlled Senate not allowed a provision in a government funding bill to pass, which overturned a federal judge’s ruling that stopped a proposal that would have allowed Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to regulate wolves as a state matter.  It was allowed to pass in order to provide immunity to Montana’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, who was facing a tough re-election.

This political drama is carefully described in Blakeslee’s work, and although little was made of it at the time, this provision was the first time congress had intervened on ESA listing in this manner.

Flash forward to 2017, and it looks like the Republican-controlled congress is about to do the something similar to red wolves. Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a provision the bill funding the interior department that declares the red wolf extinct in the wild and cuts all funding for its recovery.

This is problematic on many fronts.

First of all, the Endangered Species Act was designed to use scientific evidence for listing and recovery efforts. For most of its existence, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been left to use science for these efforts, but now congress has begun to intervene to affect endangered species policy citing political concerns only.

Part of the reason why congress is doing such a thing is that the US Fish and Wildlife service has pretty much been impervious to the growing data on what red wolves actually are. The bureaucracy still maintains Canis rufus as a species, but the evidence that it is a recently derived hybrid between the wolf and the coyote is pretty hard to ignore.

Whenever I’ve pointed out these problems, I’ve been called a wolf-hater and a right-winger and a Republican. I’m none of the three.

The problem is that wolves are political symbols.  Every wildlife conservation organization in the country uses wolves for fundraising. Wolves have two things going for them: they are the wild ancestors of dogs and they tend to recovery fairly quickly when not persecuted.  It is easy to turn the wolf into sort of the canine equivalent of the noble savage, a dog that lives in nature, wild and free, and with greater wisdom and intelligence than any mere cur of the street.

To others, the wolf is the federal government coming for your hunting rights, your farming enterprises, and your guns.

So we now have this dynamic in which our political issues with each other are being meted out over an animal.

This says much more about us than it does the actual biology of wolves and coyotes. We are fractious. We are at war with each other.

The romantic notions of a unique Southern wolf species has been racked convincing in depth genomic data that show it is hybrid have come to pass just at the same time that a resurgent right wing has taken over the US government at all three branches. This is a perfect storm for disaster for the Endangered Species Act.

Until the Republican majorities in congress are reduced significantly, the red wolf will ultimately be used to undermine the act.

It is a very sad state of affairs, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service clearly did a lot to anger sportsmen in Eastern North Carolina, as this thread clearly shows, and the Endangered Species Act will not last if this sort of implementation is ever repeated again.

No real solution for this problem exists. I would put money on the red wolf being delisted. I should be glad that the ESA has gone onto preserve other predators, like the Mexican wolf and Florida panther, but because it is happening in this fashion, it could be a real disaster.

And all because of this wolf, not a real species at all, but one in which many lines of nonsense on both sides have been written.

 

 

 

 

 

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I’m so glad these taxonomy issues are being raised on a popular science Youtube series:

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