Red wolf DNA found in Texas canids

Red wolves were de­clared ex­tinct in the wild by 1980. Formerly ran­ging through­out south cent­ral and east­ern por­tions of the US, hunt­ing, trap­ping and loss of hab­it­at decim­ated their numbers.

Luckily, the US Fish and Wildlife Service cap­tured about forty of the wolves and began a cap­tive breed­ing pro­gram. Red wolf fam­il­ies and in­di­vidu­als were re­leased and cap­tive-born pups were suc­cess­fully cross-fostered in wil­der­ness areas of North Carolina from the late 1980s on.

According to Regina Mossotti, dir­ect­or of an­im­al care and con­ser­va­tion at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri, in early 2018 there were ap­prox­im­ately 230 red wolves in cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams but pop­u­la­tions in the wild had dropped from over 100 to around thirty.

Coyotes are found in many urb­an and rur­al areas of North America. Photo cour­tesy US National Park Service

But a few years ago, bio­lo­gist Ron Wooten no­ticed some­thing odd about the coyotes he was pho­to­graph­ing on Galveston Island in Texas. When he found two of the an­im­als dead on the road­side, he took some samples hop­ing ge­net­ic test­ing would provide some answers.

Researchers at Princeton University were shocked to find a piece of en­dangered red wolf gen­ome in the tis­sue they ana­lysed. The ge­net­ic evid­ence in­dic­ates that at least some of the Galveston Island ‘coyotes’ ap­pear to be red wolf/​coyote hybrids.

Red wolves (and east­ern wolves, which primar­ily in­hab­ited south­east­ern Canada and the north­east­ern US and are now only found in south­ern Ontario and Quebec) will in­ter­breed with coyotes when their pop­u­la­tions fall be­low a sus­tain­able level.

Still, re­search­ers were sur­prised to find red wolf DNA on an is­land in Texas. And the Galveston Island can­ids are unique in that they pos­sess some red wolf genes not found in the cap­tive population.

Challenges to re­in­tro­du­cing red wolves to wil­der­ness areas con­tin­ue and they may once again be de­clared ex­tinct in the wild.

The Endangered Species Act does not in­clude pro­tec­ted status for hy­brids but some sci­ent­ists feel this think­ing is out­dated, es­pe­cially since hy­brid­isa­tion does not seem to be as rare as pre­vi­ously thought.

But even if the Galveston Island can­ids do not re­ceive pro­tec­ted status, their pres­ence is a test­a­ment to the re­si­li­ency of wolves and opens the door to fur­ther dis­cus­sions on the status of hybrids.

Top im­age: Red wolves are lean an­im­als with a dis­tinct red­dish cast to their coats. They’re in between the size of a grey wolf and coyote. Photo cour­tesy B. Bartel, USFWS

Wolf paws

Wolf paws are the found­a­tion for the carnivore’s every move­ment. They carry the pred­at­or across rugged ter­rain, serve as snow­shoes in deep snow and provide trac­tion on icy sur­faces. And the heavy pad­ding means a wolf can move across the land­scape as si­lent as a cloud.

Of course, if a wolf is trav­el­ling across rocky ground or a paved road, their nails may click against the hard sur­face. Wolves have four toes on each paw, as well as an­oth­er toe, the dew claw high­er up on the front legs.

The struc­tur­al dy­nam­ic of in­ward-turn­ing el­bows and out­ward-turn­ing paws res­ults in a highly ef­fi­cient gait that puts little or no stress on the shoulders. And webbed toes mean wolves are cap­able of ford­ing rivers, lakes and even up to thir­teen kilo­metres (eight miles) of open-ocean.

Wolves pos­sess an in­tern­al tem­per­at­ure reg­u­la­tion sys­tem that pre­vents their toes from freez­ing in north­ern loc­a­tions. They also have scent glands between their toes, al­low­ing oth­er wolves to know if it was a friend or foe that passed by.

Wolf paw prints are gen­er­ally re­cog­nis­able due to their size – about 7.610 cm (3 — 4 inches) wide and 8.9 — 11.4 cm (3.5 to 4.5 inches) long on an adult. Some dogs, such as Great Danes or Blood hounds have tracks that are longer than wolves but most dog paw prints are smal­ler and rounder.

Coyotes have smal­ler tracks than most dogs and wolves. Young wolf pups’ paws grow in­cred­ibly quickly so, even at three months old, most wolves have lar­ger feet than an adult coyote.

Image cour­tesy Montana Fish and Wildlife

Top photo iStock/​Ramiro Marquez