Posts Tagged ‘wolf hybrid’

A black Italian wolf. The black trait originated in dogs and was transferred to Italian and North American wolves through introgression.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I consider dogs to be a form of gray wolf.  I do not consider Canis familiaris to be a valid taxon, because of cladistics and because of the gene flow between domestic dogs and wolves.

The extent of this gene flow was largely denied in much of the literature on wolves.  But last year, it was discovered that the majority of Eurasian wolves have recent dog ancestry. This gene flow has been going on for a while, and although people do get a bit worked up about domestic animal genes filtering into a wild species, it has been shown that the melanism in wolves that is conferred by a dominant allele originated in a Native American dog that was living in the Yukon or the Northwest Terrtories thousands of years before Columbus. Further, this melanistic allele is associated with higher immune responses, and there is evidence for natural selection favoring black individuals following a distemper outbreak.

In a paper released this week in the European Journal of Wildlife Research found extensive crossbreeding between dogs and wolves in agricultural landscapes in Central Italy.  The authors estimate that about half of all wolves in this region have recent dog ancestry, and they think it is because humans have disturbed wolf habitat to have agriculture.

Of course, humans, wolves, and dogs have been living in Italy alongside agriculture for thousands of years. Dogs and wolves have been mating ever since there was a population of somewhat domesticated wolves.

Further, European wolves are much better adapted than North American wolves to living in agricultural areas.  It may simply be that North Americans are much more likely to kill wolves that appear in agricultural areas and that this is what has created this asymmetry. But North American wolves tend to be in remote areas, where they rarely encounter dogs. Thus, there is not as much gene flow between dogs and North American wolves as there is between dogs and Eurasian wolves.

There is a lot of gene flow between dogs and coyotes in North America, and this finding does make sense. Coyotes do live in agricultural and urban areas much more easily than large wolves do.

I don’t think it worth becoming alarmed that dogs and wolves are mating in the wild.  Dogs have lots of interesting mutations that could be of great use to wolves as they adapt to more and more human-dominated planet. If the dog alleles are deleterious, nature will select against them, but if they are advantageous, they will help wolves thrive into the future.

So it is quite short-sighted to think of wolves as being a some sort of pure entity that must be kept free of “foreign” alleles.  If it were more widely accepted that dogs were just a domestic form of gray wolf, we would have a much easier time accepting a more holistic understanding to how these populations can continue exchange genes and adapt to new challenges.


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tazi mating with wolf

This image appeared on a Kazakh instagram account. 

The wolf appears to be a steppe wolf (Canis lupus campestris). In Kazakhstan, people keep wolves as pets and “guard dogs” fairly often, and according to Stephen Bodio, they are obsessed with wolves.

The dog is a tazi, a sighthound of the general saluki breed complex, that has quite a few wolf-like characteristics. The breed is usually monestrus, like a wolf, coyote, or a basenji, and females engage in social suppression of estrus and sometimes kill puppies that are born to lower ranking bitches.

I wonder if the wolf-like traits of this breed are somehow reinforced by occasionally crossings with captive and wandering wolves like this. As far as I know, no one has really looked into the genetics of the Kazakh tazi, but it is an unusual dog that lives in a society with a very strong tradition of keeping captive wolves.

We know that gene flows between Eurasian wolves and dogs is much higher than we initially imagined, but I don’t know if anyone is looking at breeds like these for signs of hybridization. The only study I’ve seen looked at livestock guardian dogs from the Caucasus, and it found quite a bit of gene flow-– and it was mostly unintentional.

It would be interesting to know exactly how much wolf is in Kazakh tazis. I would be shocked to learn that they had no wolf ancestry.

I seriously doubt that this is the only time a captive steppe wolf and a tazi were found in this position.

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jack russell wolf

Yes. For real, apparently.

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The collar kind of gives it away.

It’s a wolfdog playing with a golden retriever.

(Source for photo).


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These two photos depict two wolf hybrids.

The animal on the left, with its floppy ears and black-and-tan coat, is an F1 wolfdog from Wildlife Park Kadzidlowo in Poland. He was intentionally bred from a “Polish spaniel” dog and a European wolf bitch. I am not sure what breed of spaniel the father was, but this hybrid reminds me very much of the Gråwachtel, a German spaniel (“wachtelhund”)/Norwegian gray elkhound cross. The dog features predominate. It looks like nothing more than a really feral-looking retriever type dog.

The animal on the right is a first generation cross between a West Siberian laika dog and a female wolf. Breeding West Siberian laikas to wolves is really nothing new, and the practice continues in Russia to this day. Knowing the politics of wolf hybrids in the United States, it might not be wise to discuss this feature in the West Siberian laika. There is a certain politically correct movement that views any sort of wolf hybrid as a skittish, dangerous animal, when in reality, the animals vary quite a bit. Having been around a West Siberian laika, I can attest that they are less wild and skittish than many other Nordic breeds.

The truth is you can’t tell a wolf hybrid by just looking at it. If the dog in the cross has floppy ears, it’s not going to look like a wolf at all. It may act more like a wolf.

Or maybe not.

The differences between wolves and dogs are more complex than you might think.

Unfortunately, this problem gets worse when certain people make absolute claims about wolves, dogs, and wolf hybrids.

The one absolute claim one should follow is always be leery of absolutes!

When someone says “never” or “always,” they are setting themselves up for error. All it takes is one example that goes counter to the claim to make it false.

And that’s what happens.

There are pure wolves that are as docile as golden retrievers when they are brought up imprinted upon people.

There are also dogs that are very reactive and nervous and only bond to a few people– just as most captive wolves do. There are pure wolves that have made decent hunting and working dogs.

There are wolf hybrids that have killed people, and there are wolf hybrids that have been the perfect pets.

Because of the complexity of the wolf and dog question, I cannot consider dogs and wolves distinct species.  There is just too much overlap between dog and wolf to make such absolute distinctions.

I will use Canis lupus familiaris to describe the dog.

I think one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to understand why wolves are dogs is that the only wolves people seem to know about are the big wolves from northern ranges. What they don’t realize is that these wolves are not the totality of their species. They are actually a fairly specialized variant that evolved in the northern parts of Eurasia and North America to hunt things like moose, caribou, elk/wapiti, bison, aurochs, and muskoxen.

There are also wolves that are much smaller in the Middle East, South Asia, and yes, Africa, that are much more dog-like, and at least one study points to Middle Eastern wolves as being the primary source for most of the genetic diversity in the dogs we have today.

Wolves are actually a very diverse species, and historically, they were even more so.  Dogs are just a reflection of their ancestral species diversity. Once removed from the rigors of natural selection, humans can play with that ancestral wolf genome to produce what is really the most morphologically diverse population in the world.

One cannot tell a wolf hybrid just by its appearance.

And one cannot always tell a wolf by its appearance either.

This white wolf-like animal was captured in Los Angeles:

The facility that bred it actually said it was actually 1/8 Great Pyrenees!

Wolves and dogs are wild and domestic populations of the same species.

The wolf itself is really a vestige of what was once a very diverse species.

Wolves managed to range over almost all of Eurasia and all of North America from the Valley of Mexico to Greenland. Their range in Africa has only recently been revealed through genetic studies.

And this species became successful because it could adapt its morphology– perhaps rather rapidy— to fit new ecosystems and prey sources.

To live in the same places, humans adapted new technologies. Wolves adapted their bodies through evolution.

A domestic dog is just a wolf that has evolved to live with humans. It’s a different niche, and humans did quite a bit of selective breeding to produce unusual body types.

But the body template and the vast majority of the genome are still those of a wolf.

Dogs are wolves in terms of their phylogeny and genes.

They may look very different now.

And dogs may be much better adapted to living with people.

But dogs and wolves haven’t diverged that much.

And when a floppy-eared dog mates with a wolf, the results can be somewhat disconcerting.

We expect the wolf dogs that result from the mating to look like wolves and not Labrador crosses.

It takes us aback.

And it makes us wonder.


The top image comes from this recent study that confirmed hybridization between male wolves and female dogs in the Baltic states.

Previous “naturally occuring” wolf dogs in Europe have all been between male dogs and female wolves, which is one reason why the studies that one cannot use mtDNA studies on European wolves to confirm or deny the introgression of dog genes into the wolf population.

There will be more  on this study in a future post.

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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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