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