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Red Wolf - Canis rufus
Red Wolf - Canis rufus

Geographic Range
Formerly the range of red wolves included most habitats of the southeastern United States, however this species range was reduced in historic times to extreme southeastern Texas and southwestern Louisiana. Presently, red wolves are being reintroduced into areas of their historical range--Alligator River in North Carolina, and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991). (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Before becoming endangered, red wolves inhabited mountains, lowland forests, and wetlands. Presently, red wolves survive mainly as small relict and reintroduced populations in inaccessible swampland and mountainous terrain (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991).

Physical Description
Mass : 20 to 40 kg; avg. 23.50 kg (44 to 88 lbs; avg. 51.7 lbs)

Red wolves are distinguished from their nearest relative, Canis lupus, by their smaller size, relatively narrower proportions, longer legs and ears, and shorter fur. Red wolves have a total length between 1000 and 1300 mm, tail length of from 300 to 420 mm, and shoulder height of 660 to 790 mm. Among red wolves, males average 10 percent larger than females. Red wolves usually have upperparts that are a mixture of cinnamon, tawny, and gray or black, while the back is normally blackish. The muzzle and limbs are tawny and the tail is tipped with black. In winter, the reddish element of the pelage is dominant. An annual molt takes place in the summer (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991).

Breeding season : Breeding occurs between January and March. 
Number of offspring : 1 to 10; avg. 2.60
Gestation period : 60 to 62 days
Age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female) : 1 years (average)

The dominant male and female pair are solely able to reproduce within a pack. Other pack members assist in raising young and obtaining food for lactating females. (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Breeding season extends from January to March. The gestation period is 60-63 days, with average litters of 3-6 pups occurring in the spring. However, litters of up to 12 pups can occur. (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)
Both males and females participate in rearing the young in the den, as well as other pack members. The young are cared for, nursed, and sheperded through their first year of life. (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Longest known lifespan in captivity : 14 years (high)
Expected lifespan in wild : 4 years (average)

Most individuals live to about 4 years, though one captive individual was recorded at 14 years old (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991). (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Red wolves are primarily a nocturnal species. Home ranges are formed and a portion of the home range becomes the exclusive territory of a pack. Packs usually consist of a mated pair, and their pups, but larger packs have been reported. Dens within the home range are built to rear young offspring. These dens are normally located within trunks of hollow trees, in sandy knolls, or stream banks. Packs often live harmoniously, however aggression towards unknown wolves is characteristic of red wolves, as it is of other canids. Within their home range, red wolves hunt over small portions for 7-10 days at a time, continuously shifting to new areas of the range. The vocalizations of red wolves are said to be intermediate between those of coyote and grey wolves (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991). (Nowak and Paradiso, 1991; Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Communication and Perception
Red wolves communicate with conspecifics through a complex suite of behavioral, tactile, chemical, and auditory signals. Body language, pheromones, and vocalizations all serve to communicate about social and reproductive status and mood. Social bonding is often acheived through touch. Home ranges are delimited using scent marks.

Food Habits
Rodents, ungulates, and other small mammals are the main prey of red wolves. The dominant prey species include raccoons, white-tailed deer, swamp rabbits, cottontail rabbits, pigs, rice rats, nutria, and muskrats. Red wolves will also eat carrion. They typically hunt in a particular area for 7 to 10 days, then switch to a different range (Wilson & Ruff 1999, Nowak 1991). (Wilson and Ruff, 1999)

Red wolves are primarily preyed on by other canids, including conspecifics from other packs, gray wolves, and coyote as a result of agonistic interactions over territories. Young red wolves may also be taken by other large predators such as alligator, large raptors, and bobcats.

Ecosystem Roles
Red wolves are important as top predators in the ecosystems in which they live.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
Red wolves were long thought by the public to be a serious threat to livestock. This threat has been grossly exaggerated, though they may occasionally kill domestic animals (Fox 1975).

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Red wolves eat many rodents, thus helping to control the populations of these pests (Fox 1975).

Conservation Status
IUCN Red List: Critically endangered.
US Federal List: Endangered.
CITES: Appendix I; No special status.
Red wolves have been blamed for depredations on livestock and game. As a result, humans, mainly ranchers, farmers, and government trappers, steadily eliminated populations of red wolves. In 1967, red wolves were listed as endangered and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in a salvage effort to protect remaining populations. Fourteen remaining red wolves were placed in a captive-breeding facility; they have become the founders of the present red wolf population. Currently, 200+ red wolves exist, and reintroductions are occurring in a few areas, including North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains.

Other Comments
There has been some controversy regarding the validity of Canis rufus as a species. It is possibly a naturally occuring hybrid of coyotes and grey wolves, though debate on this issue continues (Nowak, 1995, Wayne, 1995).
[Image: wildcat10-CougarHuntingDeer.jpg]
[-] The following 1 user Likes Taipan's post:
  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu
Red Dog Wrote:Red-Wolf Coyote Interactions

Today's wolf focus (11301M) was collared late last winter while still a yearling  and living with the pack in his natal home-range just south of Columbia, NC. The subsequent collar downloads provided us with accurate home range data from where he was born and much more. Because most young wolves disperse from the pack between 12-24 months of age, we were able to follow 11301M as he left his natal home range this spring and began his travels from place to place. We could see his path as he seemed to go from wolf pack to wolf pack looking for a place to live. We could see how he skirted the core areas of the adjacent packs in order to stay out of trouble with other wolves (a smart thing for a young single wolf). We even tracked him as he moved completely around Lake Phelps before stopping on Pocosin Lakes NWR where a female wolf (11358F-also born in 2004) had just paired with a sterilized, radio-collared wolf/coyote hybrid.

The most recent download showed how 11301M not only displaced the hybrid out of the pack's area, but likely killed him. After retrieving the carcass, our theory seemed to be correct. As I fly over Pocosin Lakes today, I can see that 11301M has paired with 11358F. Together, they will now form the new Pocosin Lakes pack. These types of wolf/non-wolf interactions where the non-wolves are displaced, are some of the observations the new GPS collars will allow us to record.

[Image: RedWolfCoyoteInteractions001.jpg]

admin Wrote:Other Comments
There has been some controversy regarding the validity of Canis rufus as a species. It is possibly a naturally occuring hybrid of coyotes and grey wolves, though debate on this issue continues (Nowak, 1995, Wayne, 1995).

reddhole Wrote:Red-Wolf Coyote Interactions

Just some more info on the threat of hybridisation as a threat the viability of Red Wolves as a species.

Do red wolves hybridize with coyotes?
Red wolves, gray wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes are capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. Social structures and territoriality usually prevent such interbreeding. Due to the widespread persecution of predators and the destruction of suitable habitat, by the 1960s the number of red wolves was dwindling, and coyotes had migrated into the Southeast.

When the few remaining red wolves were unable to find mates of their own species, hybridization with more abundant coyotes did occur. This hybridization is generally accepted as the final factor that resulted in the near extinction of the red wolf.

Red wolves and coyotes have been hybridizing in northeastern North Carolina and the Service is addressing the hybridization threat with urgency. Initial estimates indicate that the current red wolf population would be unrecognizable as such within 3-6 generations (12-24 years) if the rates of hybridization currently being controlled actually occurred. The Service is partnering with several agencies and universities to conduct research that will allow for better understanding and hopefully successful management of hybridization based on the best available scientific information.

The current management plan uses a variety of techniques, including sterilizing coyotes and hybrids and augmenting the wolf population, to establish red wolf territories that will exclude coyotes. If this plan is successful, not only will we save the red wolf, but in doing so will control coyotes which traditionally have caused problems for humans and have been troublesome to manage.

Hybridization is not unique to the red wolf. Hybridization seems to threaten a species when they occur in small populations at the same location as similar species such as the gray wolf in eastern Canada with coyotes, the Ethiopian wolf with dogs, and the kit fox with swift fox.

From Philcoon:

Great info on this rather rare canine and nice photos, especially given the fact that it's difficult to find red wolves that are genetically pure.
Interesting info on their dietary preferences, never suspected that raccoons constituted such a significant part of their diet.

Red wolf reintroduction in North Carolina:

"Biologically, the red wolf reintroduction program has been a success. However, the red wolf is not out of danger. With such small numbers in the wild, the population is in constant danger of extinction from natural disasters such as disease and interbreeding with coyotes.

Severe weather patterns have proven to be a formidable threat to the red wolf recovery program. In September of 2003, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and the recovery program suffered a direct hit from Hurricane Isabel, resulting in the loss of two red wolves and destroying the Sandy Ridge captive red wolf breeding facility. Future catastrophic events remain a constant uncontrollable threat to the species recovery.

Hybridization between coyote and red wolf populations has remained a constant threat to the recovery of this imperiled species. As a result, FWS implemented an adaptive management plan to minimize hybridization that has shown initial promise.

Defenders continues to work with FWS and local conservation organizations, such as the Red Wolf Coalition, to ensure the future of this species."

[Image: redwolf.jpg]

It is thought that red wolves and coyotes hybridize readily because they are very closely-related species (they diverged ~ 150,000 years ago), somewhat close in size, and red wolf numbers are low. Interestingly, even when the large grey wolves of western North America had low numbers (due to human persecution) they never hybridized with the large coyote population.

Below is an article summarizing the idea that the red wolf may have orginally ranged from eastern Texas through southeastern Canada (following the range of the white-tailed deer). 

What Are The Wolves of Algonquin?

Traditional View of North American Wolves

Although wolves have figured prominently in our legends and fairy tales for centuries and in some ways are as "familiar" to us as any wild animal, the identity of wolves is actually somewhat confusing, particularly here in Algonquin. Traditionally, scientists recognized three distinct species of wolf in North America. One was the medium-sized Red Wolf. Its original range was thought to be the eastern U.S. north to about Virginia but, by the middle of the twentieth century, the only place it survived was near the Texas-Louisiana border along the Gulf of Mexico The second North American wolf was the small animal most often called Coyote. It was originally confined to the open, non-forested areas of western North America but, following land clearing by European settlers, its range expanded into eastern North America, including agricultural southern Ontario. In the east, Coyotes are distinctly larger than in the west and are often called Brush Wolves. This larger size is believed to have resulted from past hybridization with remaining wolves in eastern North America as the Coyotes expanded from the west. 

Finally, there is the "true" wolf, more formally known as the Gray Wolf. It is the largest of the three animals and it had by far the largest range as well. In North America it originally occurred everywhere except where the Red Wolf lived. It also occurred in the great Eurasian land mass, from Siberia, Japan, and China right across to the British Isles. The problem, for people trying to get an accurate picture of this species is that, in this huge ancestral range, there was an incredible variety of geographic subspecies or races, significantly differing from each other in colour, size, and proportions. Just as the human species has readily recognizable races, so too does the Gray Wolf, and this makes it difficult or impossible to define a typical representative of this species. In North America alone, twenty-three races were described by scientists and, although some of these are now extinct, the surviving ones still exhibit an astonishing variability. The dark grey wolf of Vancouver Island, for example, is very different from the pure white wolf of Baffin Island. 

Realization that the wolves of central Ontario are "different"

Against this background of three recognized wolf species-and many, highly variable races in one of those species-two Ontario scientists pointed out back in 1970 that, locally, things were even more complicated. Rod Standfield and George Kolenosky of the Department of Lands and Forests showed that the wolves of Ontario, supposedly belonging to a single race of the Gray Wolf, actually consisted of two distinct forms. There was a large wolf in the far north, with a highly variable coat colour (almost white to black), and then there was a much smaller type to the south, ranging from Lake Superior to the Quebec border and from near Timmins to a bit south of Algonquin. The smaller wolf almost always had a brownish, "salt and pepper" coat (not black) and often had touches of cinnamon (especially behind the ears). It sometimes weighed only half as much as the big wolves up north and its range coincided with that of the White-tailed Deer. Standfield and Kolenosky called this small wolf the "Algonquin type"-although it was by no means confined to the Park-and they suggested that here was yet another race of the Gray Wolf that awaited formal description by other scientists.

Modern genetics and wolves

Kolenosky and Standfield worked before the advent of modern methods to analyze DNA and their views were formed solely by carefully examining the size, colour, and bone structure of hundreds of individual wolf specimens from across Ontario. When the high-tech methods did become available, in the 1990s, they showed that the "Algonquin-type" wolves had a range that was considerably larger than that suggested by Kolenosky and Standfield. Instead of occurring "merely" from Lake Superior to the Quebec boundary, the small southern wolves actually occurred from Manitoba and Minnesota in the west to at least as far as Quebec City in the east. Nevertheless, in another important way, the geneticists working on our wolves, Brad White and Paul Wilson of Trent University, in Peterborough, Ontario, largely confirmed what Standfield and Kolenosky had said almost 30 years earlier. The smaller, southern, "Algonquin-type" wolves turned out to be genetically quite distinct from the bigger wolves from the far north of the province. But then came a surprise. The geneticists discovered that the "Algonquin-type" wolf, supposedly a race of the Gray Wolf, was actually much closer genetically to the almost extinct Red Wolf of the southeastern U.S. than it was to any race of the Gray Wolf. From there, the White and Wilson team went on to propose that the Manitoba-to-Quebec wolves were not Gray Wolves at all, but instead belonged to the same species as the Red Wolf. White and Wilson could have kept the name Red Wolf (Canis rufus) for their new entity but proposed instead the name Eastern Wolf, with Canis lycaon as the scientific name (as opposed to Canis lupus for the Gray Wolf and Canis latrans for the Coyote). By their view, the Eastern Wolf would originally have inhabited the deciduous forests of North America east of the prairies from the Gulf of Mexico right up to southern Canada, probably sharing the range of its preferred prey, the White-tailed Deer. Then, when Europeans began to settle eastern North America, they extirpated the mid-latitude populations of the Eastern Wolf, leaving some animals in the south (which were eventually given the name Red Wolf), and some animals in the north (the Algonquin-type identified by Standfield and Kolenosky) which, before modern genetics, were mistakenly thought to be a race of the Gray Wolf.

Is the Eastern Wolf a New Arrival in Algonquin?

This new view of North American and Algonquin Park wolves was published in 2000 and it is too soon to say whether it will win acceptance from the broad scientific community. Park biologists support the idea, however, if for no other reason than it matches our long expressed perception that Park wolves are so small, so reddish, and just plain "different". Nevertheless, the new view takes some getting used to and it has some startling implications. For one thing, because the Eastern Wolf seems to depend on deer and because we know that deer did not originally occur in Algonquin Park, the new view implies that the wolf species we now protect in the Park is also a new arrival. Before 19th century logging and fires favoured the northward expansion of White-tailed Deer from near Lake Ontario up to and beyond Algonquin Park, the original wolf in the Park area would have been the Gray Wolf. With the arrival of deer, however, and a shift in the main local prey animals from moose and caribou to deer, the Gray Wolf would have been at a disadvantage compared to the smaller Eastern Wolf that apparently specializes in catching and eating deer. Thus, while we will probably never know for sure, there is a strong possibility that Algonquin's original wolf, the Gray Wolf, was replaced by a different, non-native species, the Eastern Wolf, within just the last 200 years.


"Where Do Red Wolves Go When They Die?"

All dogs may go to heaven but most wild red wolves go to the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wisconsin. Ever since the restoration of the first four pairs of red wolves to northeastern North Carolina, recovery program biologists have sent the remains of red wolves killed in the wild to the research center operated by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).
The National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) is a medical laboratory whose mission is to provide information, technical
assistance, and research on national and international wildlife health issues. NWHC scientists perform necropsies on red wolves,
providing detailed information about the medical condition of the animal in question, as well as the cause of death. Necropsy reports provided by NWHC are compiled in a longterm database tracking red wolf health.
Biologists rely on the wolves’ radio tracking collars to tell them when an animal has died. When a red wolf does not move for six hours, its radio collar emits a mortality signal. Biologists can then locate the animal and collect its remains. Even when the cause of death is evident, such as when a wolf is struck by a vehicle, the carcass is sent to NWHC. In the case of suspected illegal activity, the red wolf will be sent to the National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon. Forensic scientists at this wildlife crime lab provide information to law enforcement officers working on a case.
In the history of the red wolf recovery program, the single greatest cause of death appears to be vehicular collisions. A total
of 38 wolves have been killed by collisions since the recovery program’s inception in 1987. Of the natural causes leading to mortality, the greatest cause of death is known as intraspecific strife, a.k.a. “wolves killing each other.” Red wolves are extremely territorial and will defend their territory or social rank sometimes to the point of death. Because of the hazards and hardships of life in the wild, red wolves rarely die of old age, though, once in a while, a few oldtimers beat the odds.

TACOMA: Zoo wins conservation award for red wolf breeding program

Kris Sherman; The News Tribune Published: September 20th, 2007 01:00 AM

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s part in bringing red wolves back from the brink of extinction and helping re-establish the species in the wild earned the facility a national conversation award, zoo officials announced Wednesday. 
The Red Wolf Recovery Program received the North America Conservation Award during the Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual meeting in Philadelphia. Will Waddell, a 23-year Point Defiance employee who coordinates the program, accepted the award.

The zoo began its red wolf breeding project in 1973. Fourteen years later, in 1987, the zoo released four adult red wolf pairs into their natural habitat, a news release said.

There were fewer than two dozen red wolves in the wild 35 years ago. Today there are more than 250. The wolves once freely roamed the southeastern regions of the United States.

The program, which began with 14 captured wolves, now involves dozens of facilities nationwide. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is a partner. 

For more information, go to www. 

Kris Sherman, The News Tribune

Red Wolf Diet - Mostly Consists of White-tail Deer and Raccoons

[Image: RedWolfonBuckKill002Correction-1.jpg]

[Image: RedWolfonBuckKill001.jpg]

Prowling hunters endangered
Red wolf slowly recovers from near extinction

Shannon Mante
Issue date: 9/28/07 Section: Features

First there is only one.

It rises slowly from somewhere in the park and then floats through the darkness like a ghost. Seconds later, others follow. And soon, scores of them fill the night, driving campers deeper into their blankets, or closer to their fires, gripped by the same conflicting emotions human beings have always felt when wolves howl: admiration, empathy, distrust and fear.

An overview of cultures across the world reveals a consistent trend: people can't make up their minds about wolves. The Pawnee, for instance, revered the wolf as a wise, skillful hunter. Norse mythology, on the other hand, features Fenrir, a vicious, slavering, giant wolf that devours the earth and sky at the end of the world.

Today, this same ambivalence exists in the United States. While the wolf is managed and protected on reserves across the country and enjoyed by nature-loving tourists, many ranchers consider it a pest. Before the emergence of environmental politics in the mid-20th century, wolves faired even worse.

"Wolves were removed from large portions of the United States because of conflicts with livestock, because of competition with hunters for big game, and also people generally don't like big predators that can kill them, even though non-rabid wolves have never been documented killing people in North America," Roger Powell, professor of zoology, said.

Perhaps nothing conveys the scale of this removal effort better than the story of the red wolf.

Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves, with buff-colored coats that feature a reddish cast. Once widespread throughout the Southeastern region of the United States, scientists declared the red wolf extinct in the wild in 1980.

"This huge population of animals was completely extirpated by pressure to kill them off, bounties, all this sort of thing. Then somebody woke up and said 'whoa, wait a minute, we're gonna drive them extinct,'" Michael Stoskopf, professor of clinical medicine and director of the Red Wolf Coalition, a group of scientists that advise biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on red wolf recovery strategies, said. 
During the decade preceding 1980, scientists bred red wolves in captivity, and in 1984, the newly established Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern North Carolina was chosen as the site for a red wolf recovery plan.

In 1987, scientists released four pairs of red wolf mates onto the reserve.

Today, the red wolf is slowly recovering. 

"About 90 red wolves are collared on the reserve, and those are monitored incredibly closely, every week - catching, picking up, finding out where they are, mapping them on the GIS grids," Stoskopf said.

Still a wildlife refuge is not an impenetrable fortress, and the wolves still face several perils. As director of the Red Wolf Coalition, Stoskopf said he is responsible for developing strategies to manage them.

Two major challenges are of particular concern to scientists.

"All of the roads that run through any wildlife management area usually have an impact on the wildlife management in a number of ways," Stoskopf said. "But particularly for the wolves, getting hit by cars is a big way that we lose them."

Another major threat to red wolves is the infiltration of coyotes.

"It's very clear that coyotes and red wolves interbreed very easily, and that was one of the major reasons for the endangerment of red wolves in the Southeast," Powell said.

Coyotes, at one time lived primarily in the Southwestern United States, but slowly made their way eastward, where they encountered a red wolf population already in decline.

"We reduced their population sizes really, really low and kept them from their best habitat," Powell said. "And then when their populations were really low, and they had trouble finding each other even to breed now and then, coyotes appeared, and they interbred."

The threat coyotes pose to red wolf populations was an important factor during the planning phase of the recovery program in the early eighties. 

"One of the primary reasons eastern North Carolina was chosen was that there were no coyotes there at the time," Powell said. 

Since then coyotes have arrived, and scientists deal with the threat yet again.

"They've done a combination of live-trapping coyotes, kill-trapping coyotes, and then live-trapping coyotes in some places and sterilizing them," Powell said.

Of course, no recovery program can succeed without the help and support of the public.

"There's been a huge biological, genetic and health effort to get the wolves into a position where they can be recovered," Stoskopf said, "but there's a necessarily equal effort that goes into the human dimension."

Stoskopf believes public awareness and education are critical to the success of the recovery effort.

"Probably the biggest challenge that's left related to the red wolf success relates to people, and education and helping people understand how wolves live, and what they do for a living and that they're not really knocking down houses with their breath, trying to get at the three little pigs or taking Little Red Riding Hood out on her way to grandma's house."

Red Wolf Facts

Smaller than the gray wolf, the red wolf can range in color from a reddish-gray to an almost black. Though it is listed as an endangered species -- it is nearly nonexistent in the central United States -- numbers are slowly increasing through captive breeding. Nearly 100 wild red wolves cover 1.7 million acres of Northeastern North Carolina. In order to protect the wolves from coyotes, the Red Wolf Coalition is working to control the latter's popularion.

source: and

To learn more about red wolves, get involved in or donate to the cause, visit

admin Wrote:TACOMA: Zoo wins conservation award for red wolf breeding program

Kris Sherman; The News Tribune Published: September 20th, 2007 01:00 AM

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s part in bringing red wolves back from the brink of extinction and helping re-establish the species in the wild earned the facility a national conversation award, zoo officials announced Wednesday. 
The Red Wolf Recovery Program received the North America Conservation Award during the Association of Zoos and Aquariums annual meeting in Philadelphia. Will Waddell, a 23-year Point Defiance employee who coordinates the program, accepted the award.

The zoo began its red wolf breeding project in 1973. Fourteen years later, in 1987, the zoo released four adult red wolf pairs into their natural habitat, a news release said.

There were fewer than two dozen red wolves in the wild 35 years ago. Today there are more than 250. The wolves once freely roamed the southeastern regions of the United States.

The program, which began with 14 captured wolves, now involves dozens of facilities nationwide. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is a partner. 

For more information, go to www. 

Kris Sherman, The News Tribune 


Zoo has a lot to howl about

MELISSA SANTOS; The News Tribune Published: October 11th, 2007 01:00 AM

Red wolves aren’t native to the South Sound. They originally roamed the East Coast. But it’s Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium that has led the effort to save the species from extinction. 
The species was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, but today there are more than 300 of them, about a third of which have been bred by Point Defiance at its breeding facility near Graham.

The zoo received the North America Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums last month for its 30-year-effort to restore the species. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first red wolf litter born as part of the program and the 20th anniversary of the first red wolves reintroduced into the wild.

About 40 facilities participate in the breeding program, and Point Defiance coordinates their efforts.

During National Wolf Awareness Week, the zoo is hosting events Saturday and Tuesday to celebrate red wolves and the zoo’s role in bringing them back.

That process has faced many challenges, back to the day the red wolf was placed on the endangered species list in 1967.


Like their cousin the gray wolf, red wolves were killed by early American settlers for their fur and for the threat they posed to livestock.

That, combined with loss of native habitat, caused the red wolf population to dwindle to 17 wolves by the early 1970s.

In 1973, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service approved launching a recovery plan for the red wolf. 

At the time, Point Defiance volunteered its breeding facilities simply because it had the space and wanted to help, said captive breeding program coordinator Will Waddell.

“We recognized there was a need, and that the wolves were in trouble,” said Waddell, who has worked at the zoo for 23 years. “It wasn’t anything flashy – it was just that we wanted to help.”

The zoo started with 14 wolves. Turning that number into a thriving population hasn’t been easy, Waddell said.

Because closely related wolves who breed together have more health defects, the breeding staff at Point Defiance had to be careful to prevent inbreeding. 

The recovery program staff keeps genetic records of every captive wolf in the program so it can match each with genetically distinct mates. Wolves that weren’t intended to breed were separated during mating season.

“It’s been kind of analogous to a computer dating service,” Waddell said. “We have the pedigree on all those wolves back to the 14 original founders. So there are computer programs that help figure out which are best to mate to maintain the genetic diversity of the population.”

Today the captive red wolf population has grown to more than 200 wolves at facilities throughout the country, and wolves are often shuffled between facilities to get optimum breeding results.

Recovery program workers have also been gathering and freezing red wolf sperm samples to help guarantee a diverse selection of DNA to breed red wolves in the future. 

Having those samples is almost like having new wolves to introduce into the population at any given point, said Karen Goodrowe Beck, red wolf reproductive adviser.

“It’s not a technology that we need to use for reproduction for today, but it’s rather a strategic move,” Goodrowe Beck said. “We’re looking toward the future of the population.”


By the 1980s, the captive breeding program had been successful enough that it was time to start thinking about reintroducing the wolves into the wild. In 1987, Point Defiance and the Fish & Wildlife Service released four pairs of breeding wolves on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern North Carolina.

It was the first effort to restore a species that had been declared extinct in the wild.

Since then, the population on the peninsula has grown to between 100 and 130 wolves. But those wolves haven’t been immune to threats from humans and other animals.

Because the red wolves were so few, they began interbreeding with coyotes in the 1990s, said Bud Fazio, red wolf recovery leader for the Fish & Wildlife Service. 

By sterilizing coyotes and wolf-coyote hybrids found wandering in red wolf territory, the species’ genetic distinction has been restored, Fazio said.

The biggest challenges facing red wolves now are cars and guns. Of the 166 wolves lost to unnatural causes between 1999 and 2006, 22 percent were shot and 14 percent were hit by cars, Fazio said.

Often, hunters mistake red wolves for coyotes, Fazio said. 

The Fish & Wildlife Service has issued information cards telling hunters that if they’re hunting near the wildlife refuge, they’re more likely taking aim at a red wolf than a coyote.

Some signs are being installed on highways near the wildlife refuge informing drivers to watch for wolf crossings.

“There are so few red wolves on this planet that every one of them is extremely important,” Fazio said. “We’re doing everything we can to educate people.”


Now, the Fish & Wildlife Service is looking for more places to try reintroducing red wolves. Additional sites could help the Red Wolf Recovery Program reach its goal of having 220 red wolves living out of captivity, Fazio said.

Meanwhile, zoo workers including Goodrowe Beck are conducting artificial insemination trials to help improve breeding levels, and new techniques are being developed to help captive animals adapt to their native environment.

Recovery workers now favor a method called fostering, in which pups born in captivity are taken into a wild den to be adopted when they’re 2 weeks old. Those animals survive in the wild better than wolves raised at a captive facility, Fazio said.

Waddell, the program coordinator, said Point Defiance is also looking to move its breeding facility from Graham to the Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. Development near the Graham facility is making the wolves’ environment too urban, Waddell said.

“We don’t want them to be influenced by external factors,” Waddell said. “We want them to be wolves.” 

About the red wolf
Scientific name: Canis rufus

Color: Brown with distinctive red coloring around face and ears

Weight: About 50 to 85 pounds

Size: About 26 inches tall at shoulder and 4 feet long from nose to tip of tail

Diet: Typically, white-tailed deer, raccoons, rabbits, nutria and other rodents

Territory: Eastern United States, from southern Texas up into New England

Quote:Male eastern wolf (norther red wolf) kills adult daughter.

The fourth case was a lactating female, Pretty 5, killed by her father, as confirmed by DNA analysis. She was killed while in her rendezvous site with her pups. The fate of the pups could not be determined. The previous year she had dispersed from her natal territory, then returned to it with a mate and denned after the territory had been left vacant. Her father, who
had become a wandering single, made periodic trips back to his territory, encountered and killed her. (A more complete description is in Theberge and Theberge 1998, page 250).
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  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu
Red Dog Wrote:
MightyKharza Wrote:The creature formerly known as “the red wolf”

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have long been skeptical of the classification of the red wolf as a distinct species.

Because this animal is rather large and hunts in packs and because it closely resembles the primitive pallipes wolf of the Middle East and India, I guessed that it was an early offshoot of the Canis lupus species. I never bought into the oft-promoted theory that this wolf was a primitive wolf that represented an even more ancient origin that the Canis mosbachensis and Canis lupus lineage of the Old World.

This theory, promoted by Ron Nowak and popularized throughout the wildlife conservation world (including the US Fish and Wildlife Service), holds that the red wolf is a derivative of Canis edwardii, an early North American member of the genus Canis that was roughly similar to the red wolf in size and general distribution. Nowak performed any number of skull measurements to prove his thesis. Anyone familiar with dog and wolf anatomy knows are actually among the most variable features within a population. Everyone has seen litters of dogs in which littermates have  different head shapes. Even in purebred litters, one can see puppies that have quite a bit of variance in head-type. For this reason, many conformation breeders of so-called “head breeds” have a very hard time fixing a consistent head within their lines. This variance in head shape also occurs in wolves, which is one reason why the Goyet cave  ”dog” is so disputed. Is its short muzzle the result of domestication or natural variance within a wolf population?

Another factor drove me to question the red wolf’s validity as a species. I greatly enjoyed Bruce Hampton’s The Great American Wolf, which is a history of man’s extermination of wolves on this continent. On page 166, Hampton provides an image of red wolf that was trapped in 1929 at Gillham, Arkansas.: 

[Image: gillham-arkansas-wolf.jpg]

The wolf’s jaws were bound with wire. It was then tied up to a stake to meet its fate. Either the dogs were going to be set upon it, or it was going to be left tied up to die from dehydration. Unfortunately, this image is not available in the preview, but what struck me about it is that this wolf looked nothing like the creatures that are claimed to be red wolves now. The animal had smaller ears and a broader muzzle– much like one would expect in an Iranian wolf or Spanish wolf. It was nothing like a coyote.

The ones I’ve seen in zoos have all had very strong coyote features– large ears and a narrower muzzle– but those same features can also been seen in Indian wolves, which are thought to be among the most ancient of extant wolf lineages.  Although I had skepticism about the Canis edwardii theory, I was more willing to accept that the red wolf was somehow related to the Indian wolf, for both would be very similar to the old primitive Canis lupus wolves from which the entire Holarctic wolf species descends.

The original mtDNA studies performed by Dr.Robert Wayne of UCLA found that all the red wolves in his samples had coyote or “gray wolf” mtDNA sequences. The majority of had coyote mtDNA.  The wolves of Minnesota and Quebec also had coyote mtDNA, which Wayne contended came from hybridization with coyotes. This finding caused an uproar in wolf conservation circles. This particular finding came out just seven years after the first red wolves were released into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was investing heavily in ensuring that his population thrived and remained free from the taint of coyote blood. Even now, much the work in red wolf conservation is trapping coyotes in red wolf range. For some reason,  the released red wolves and the colonizing coyotes just loved each other.

Wayne was not popular in the red wolf conservation community. Nowak wrote a rebuttal to Wayne in which his biggest argument is that there never were any coyotes in the eastern part of North America. Then Wilson released several comparative studies of red wolves and those of Algonquin Park in Ontario. These Algonquin Park wolves were main study population of John and Mary Theberge.  These were smaller, more “coyote-like” wolves, that had come to specialize on hunting beavers in their native range. Because of their appearance and because they were thought to have coyote mtDNA, Paul Wilson’s team decided to compare microsatellites in the DNA of Algonquin wolves, red wolves, coyotes, and Western “gray” wolves. The Algonquin and red wolves were found to have a divergent lineage from either Western “gray” wolves and coyotes. Those findings appeared to vindicate Nowak’s morphological studies that showed the red wolf to be part of an ancient North American lineage of wolf that derived from Canis edwardii (or something wholly North American), not Canis mosbachensis or Canis lupus.

I thought the microsatellite finding was still unconvincing. Perhaps these wolves were derived from a very early offshoot of Canis mosbachensis or early Canis lupus that invaded North America before the main Holarctic wolf lineages had developed.

I was waiting for something more.

Well, something more has just been released. Robert Wayne’s team at UCLA has been working on wolf genomes. Last year, UCLA researchers found that the Middle Eastern wolf populations were a greater source for diversity in domestic dog genes than any other wolf population– which suggested that dogs were first domesticated in the Middle East. This finding very strongly contradicted a comparison of many, many dog and wolf mtDNA sequences by Peter Savolainen of the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, Sweden, which found that dogs were first domesticated in East Asia. Greater diversity of lineages was found in that region, and it is accepted that one generally finds more diversity in mtDNA lineages at the point of origin. (This is how we figured out that modern humans first evolved in East Africa).

The UCLA study that contradicted Savolainen’s findings used a very sophisticated analysis technique to compare different parts of the genome. Using what are called SNP chips (“snip chips”) researchers are able to look at many different parts of the genome rather easily. This study used 48,000 different SNP chips, which is actually a far more in depth analysis than comparing the diversity of mtDNA lineages to determine heritage.  Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only through the mother, and although it is quite resistant to mutation, using it for analysis does have its limitation. Wayne’s original studies on the red wolf used only mtDNA sequences, which is one reason why the microsatellite data could still suggest that red wolves were an ancient North American species.

Well, on May 12, UCLA released the findings of a similar genome-wide study on wolves from Eurasia and North America, red wolves, coyotes and domestic dogs.   It used roughly 48,000 SNP chips to examine 48,000 loci in the genomes of these creatures.

This is where red wolves fit:

[Image: wolf-and-dog-phylogeny.jpg]

Red wolves are genetically coyotes. Like many populations of coyote, these coyotes do have some wolf ancestry. In fact, many coyotes have both wolf and dog ancestry, with only the Western population remaining “pure.”

This study also found that coyotes likely lived in the Eastern parts of North America at varying times. There are wolves with definite coyote mtDNA that predate Columbus that have been found in places like New York and Quebec. Indeed, the researchers final conclusion is that there was a massive “hybrid zone” between wolves and coyotes in North America– the largest hybrid zone ever documented in a terrestrial vertebrate species. For millennia, wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes– as have dogs and wolves and dogs and coyotes.

The Great Lakes wolves, which were said to be the same species as the red wolf, were found to have quite a bit of coyote ancestry, but it was nowhere near as much as the red wolf.  The Algonquin wolf was about 40 percent coyote, which was the highest concentration coyote ancestry in the Great Lakes wolf population, while the red wolf was 75-80 percent coyote and only 25-20 percent wolf. That is just a bit higher wolf ancestry than many coyote populations. One might actually call the Algonquin wolf a “stable hybrid,” but it may have coyote ancestry that traces back before Columbus. Which means it is a subspecies of Canis lupus with coyote ancestry with a unique ecological niche– which means that one could argue for its continued preservation.

Not so with with the red wolf.

This study strongly suggests that the red wolf is not a distinct species at all. In fact, it’s probably  not even a member of a species that is endangered anywhere.

That finding is not going to go over very well at all. I have noticed that this study has not been widely publicized in the media.

I think it is possible that there was a southeastern wolf population that was closely related to the Great Lakes wolf subspecies. This animal became extinct and was absorbed into the growing coyote population. Perhaps this southeastern wolf already had some coyote ancestry from many generations before, but as it disappeared, it was forced to mate with coyotes to survive. It exists now only as that 20-25% heritage that is in so-called “red wolf.”

It is very likely that the red wolf as it exists now simply came from a population admixed coyotes with wolf ancestry in Texas and Louisiana. Some of these mixed coyotes retained some wolf features. These coyotes with wolf features were the ones that were trapped, deemed an endangered species, and then were released into Eastern North Carolina, where the US Fish and Wildlife service has tried to keep this breed pure under the assumption that it is a species of rare wolf from an ancient North American lineage.

As for the pack hunting aspect of this “red wolf,” coyotes can learn to form packs and evolve larger size, even if they have only traces of wolf ancestry. That is certainly the case with the Eastern coyote, which is now evolving into a kind of wolf-coyote that hunts deer. And that would explain why red wolves would form packs and hunt deer and raccoons in North Carolina. Pack-hunting is not exclusively the purview of wolves. Coyotes can do it, too.

This study is the most advanced analysis of the red wolf’s genetics that has yet been performed.  These results have not trickled down into the popular conscience yet.

But once they do, it is going to be very hard to argue for the continued preservation of the red wolf in Eastern North Carolina or anywhere else it has been released. A big coyote with wolf ancestry that hunts deer is not an endangered species at all. We have them in West Virginia, but no one would call them an endangered species or some ancient wolf lineage. People want bounties on that coyote here.

But the US Fish and Wildlife Service and many, many scientists have put countless hours into red wolf. Lots of  money has been spent.

How are these new facts going to be received?

It is no longer the red wolf.  It is the creature formerly known as the red wolf.

That finding is an affront to the conscience of so many people.

And I don’t know how we can justify preserving this form of deer-hunting coyote when we already have another much more healthy population of deer-hunting coyote that continues to establish itself in the East.

These questions have yet to be answered.

But the debate surely will start soon. The US federal government is looking for programs to cut, and funding for red wolf reintroduction and management looks like its been dealt a pretty crushing blow.

I don’t see any how any other genetic studies can cast doubt onto what UCLA’s researchers have found.

Oh well.

There are plenty of other more worthy endangered species– including the Mexican wolf subspecies and the Island fox– that need some attention. Perhaps these animals could benefit from some of the funding and man-hours that have been allocated to red wolves.

That is one positive for which we can all hope.

The truth is not going to be received, but at least it’s the truth.

The study in question

Some more Retrieverman posts on the red wolf
Many researchers disagree with Wayne, et al.'s conclusion the red/eastern wolf if a hybrid. Several methodological issues exist. For example, most samples came from Great Lakes wolves, which are mostly gray and eastern or red wolf hybrids. As a result, these wolves will not show up as red or eastern wolves in genetic testing. Closest thing to pure eastern/red wolf in northern regions come from Algonquin Park and only 2 specimens were sampled. Even so, these two Algonquin specimens grouped separate from other wolves and coyotes in Principal Component Analysis from Wayne et al's paper.

Most importantly wild coyotes and gray wolves in western North America do not hybridize. Therefore, it is hard to believe Wayne et al's theory that gray wolves and western coyotes (gray wolves are about 3-4 times heavier) hybridized frequently enough to form the red/eastern wolf.

Western coyotes and eastern/red wolves hybridize due to closer genetic history and relatively small size differential.  Similarly, gray wolves hybridize with eastern wolves due to relatively small size differential. 

Here are some of the researcher's views on this research. 

Ron Nowak

From: Ron Nowak <>
To: Meril, Rick
Sent: Sun May 22 11:24:25 2011
Subject: Re: new canid genetics paper
Rick---it's just more of the same; the paper is filled with qustionable material and conclusions.  And as long as there is another major team of geneticists taking a diametrically opposite view, I cannot accept the validity of that whole approach---Ron

Bradley White

From: Bradley White <>
To: Meril, Rick
Sent: Sun May 22 14:27:52 2011
Subject: RE: Fwd: FW: new canid genetics paper
Hi Rick:

We still interpret the data such that the eastern/red wolf are distinct but closely related species  to the western coyote. Wayne et al are still making interpretations about coyote /gray wolf hybridization to support the original Wayne suggestion that the red wolf was formed a hybrid.
The Biology is clear; coyotes and gray wolves do not hybridise. The gray/eastern hybrids do not hybridize with either eastern or western coyotes. Coy wolves or eastern coyotes have little to no gray wolf material.

Brent Patterson
From: Patterson, Brent (MNR) <> 
To: Meril, Rick 
Sent: Wed May 25 12:13:46 2011
Subject: RE: Fwd: FW: new canid genetics paper 

Hi Rick,

Tyler, Linda & I first heard Roland present these results at the Midwest wolf Stewards meeting in Wisconsin about a month ago and were certainly both interested and intrigued.  While we remain open to rigorous testing of the ideas suggested by this work re the origins and taxonomy of eastern wolves (C. lycaon), we are not yet convinced and have concerns that impact the conclusions of vonHoldt et al. concerning the eastern wolf. 

One of our primary concerns is that the authors refer to eastern wolves and Great Lakes wolves interchangeably, and conduct their subsequent analyses based on this assumption.  We must assume some of the blame for this confusion given suggestions in earlier works from this lab of a broad range for eastern wolves (e.g. Grewal et al. 2004; J. Mammalogy 85: 625-632), but in recent papers (e.g. Rutledge et al. 2010: Heredity 105: 520-531;  Wheeldon et al. 2010: Molecular Ecology 19: 4428-4440) we tried to clarify that: 1) while there are likely no remaining unhybridized eastern wolves in the wild, the closest living relatives to the historic eastern wolf live in and immediately around Algonquin park in central Ontario.  These wolves are distinct from wolves in NE and NW Ontario, as well the Great Lakes States, and 2) Although wolves in the Great Lakes States and much of Ontario and Quebec contain some eastern wolf genetic material, they are not eastern wolves and both phenotypically and genetically (based on autosomal microsatellites) group more closely with Gray wolves, C. lupus than with C. lycaon (again, as typified by wolves in Algonquin).  Given this, the finding that Great Lakes wolves and Red wolves did not share a common evolutionary origin is not surprising.  We have suggested a common origin for Red wolves and Eastern wolves (again typified by, and largely restricted to wolves in Algonquin), NOT between Red wolves and the Great Lakes wolf which, as mentioned above, is a hybrid of C. lupus and C. lycaon.  

Given that VonHoldt et al. only analyzed DNA from 2 Algonquin wolves, and that we don't know when and exactly where these samples were collected (i.e. they could have been coyotes or hybrids collected somewhere in or around Algonquin), we don't believe that the hypothesis of eastern wolves as a distinct North American evolved species was adequately assessed by this work.  Note also that the Wilson et al. (2000) canid evolutionary model (CJZ 78: 2156-2166) of the eastern wolf suggests divergence from the western coyote only 150-300K years ago. This time is barely sufficient to see differences in the mtDNA control region resulting from mutation, so the finding that genomic SNPs did not differentiate eastern wolves from western coyotes is not surprising.  Another concern relates to the analyses conducted using the program Structure.   Anyone familiar with this program, used to assign membership to different genetic groups, knows that it would be highly unlikely for any "population" consisting of only 2 individuals to separate as a distinct group from other larger populations.  Nonetheless, it is interesting that the PCA conducted by VonHoldt et al. (see their Fig . 3) places the 2 Algonquin samples separate from all other groups although the authors arbitrarily grouped them with Great Lakes wolves. 

Future research might yet reveal that there never was a North American evolved Red wolf or Eastern wolf, and that these animals are indeed merely hybrids between C. lupus and C. latrans, but if so we wonder how the following lines of evidence supporting a North American evolved wolf distinct from the Gray wolf will be rectified:

1)      Hybridization between eastern wolves/ red wolves and coyotes is pervasive where they are sympatric in eastern North America but hybridization between wolves and coyotes remains exceedingly rare or absent in the west.  Hybridization between wolves and coyotes is also very rare across the Western Great Lakes region (see Wheeldon et al. paper cited above), and in northern Ontario (east and west).  The range of ratios of abundance of wolves: coyotes vary widely in both eastern and western North America so saying the 2 species only hybridized in the east because of skewed species ratios requires quite a leap of faith.
2)      How does one explain the presence of mitochondrial haplotypes C3 and C13 (see Rutledge and Wheeldon refs cited above); both of which are common in eastern wolves and their associated hybrids, but neither of which are found in non-hybridizing wolves or coyotes (i.e. gray wolves and western coyotes).  
3)      Evidence of a separate Y-chromosome eastern wolf lineage (Wilson et al., manuscript in review).

In summary, while we agree that the approaches employed by VonHoldt et al. represent an important step forward re analysis of canid taxonomy; until a more representative and balanced sample containing eastern wolves (i.e. Algonquin wolves), historic pre-Columbian eastern wolf samples, and the appropriate out groups, is similarly analyzed we consider the hypothesis of a North American evolved wolf independent of the gray wolf still viable. 


Brent Patterson
Research Scientist – wolves and deer 
Adjunct Professor, Trent University, Environmental and Life Sciences Graduate Program 
President, Ontario Chapter of The Wildlife Society
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources
Wildlife Research and Development Section
Trent University, DNA Building
2140 East Bank Drive
Peterborough, ON
Tel: (705) 755-1553
Fax: (705) 755-1559
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  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu
Red Wolf's Last Stand

[Image: july_aug_cover_1_jpg_25149.jpg]

A pioneering effort to restore a species to the wild continues, even as floodwaters rise and scientists debate the animal’s genetic heritage.

By Cheryl Lyn Dybas

It’s early November 2011 on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The infamous Halloween Nor’easter that brought an early snowstorm farther north has blown down many a house. Now, days later, another nor’easter has snuck up on this flatline of beach. Along a row of stilt-legged homes, I set foot out of my car to see what the holdup is on Highway 12. Somewhere ahead the asphalt has cracked open under the weight of floodwaters. Sirens sound and the sheriff arrives to set up roadway barricades. Turning tail and heading for the mainland, he warns, is the only way out.

First stop off the Outer Banks is the 240-square-mile Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1984 to preserve the area’s unusual pocosin, or shrub bog, habitat. Three years later it became the core site for reintroduction of the red wolf, a species officially extinct in the wild. The effort—a biological first—is succeeding, but precariously. The animals’ hold in the refuge is subject to a host of snares—hunters’ stray (and not-so-stray) bullets; the lethal threat of vehicles on roads and highways;the apathy, if not outright antipathy, of farmers; territorial infringement by and hybridization with coyotes; diseases, such as sarcoptic mange; and an uncertain genetic heritage. The nor’easter is a warning that a rise in sea level may further threaten their limited habitat.

David R. Rabon, coordinator of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program, is like the Route 12 storm sheriff come ashore. His job in five North Carolina “red wolf counties”—Dare and Hyde, where the refuge is located, and, to their west, Tyrrell, Washington, and Beaufort—is to protect the vulnerable wolf population. In the middle of the refuge lies the regularly targeted 72-square-mile Dare Bombing Range. One pack of red wolves dens nearby; to check on the pups in spring, biologists must approach on Sundays when the range isn’t “hot” (though usually only smoke bombs or dummy rounds are dropped).

The morning after the storm, Rabon and I meet in a parking lot at the refuge, quickly load gear into his jeep, and bump our way down a closed-to-the-public road where a red wolf pack is often glimpsed. Ahead is a day in the field with Rabon and other Alligator River biologists.

[Image: pair_of_radio_collared_red_wolves_jpg_11017.jpg]
A pair of radio-collared red wolves: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors about a hundred red wolves in the wild. About twice that many are held in captive-breeding facilities across the country.

Shy shadows of forested bottomlands, red wolves (Canis rufus) were among the top predators throughout the southeastern U.S. Fossil and archaeological evidence shows that they ranged from the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts north to the Ohio River Valley, through central Pennsylvania and southern New England, and west to southern Missouri and central Texas. Court records from eastern North Carolina document the payment of red wolf bounties from 1768 to 1789; animal bounties in the American colonies in fact began with the red wolf more than a century earlier. “Aggressive predator control programs and clearing of forested habitat combined to bring the red wolf to the edge of extinction,” says Rabon.

Then hybrids of coyotes (C. latrans) and gray wolves (C. lupus) began to migrate from the western U.S. into southern and eastern states. Along the way, the canid social structures and territorial behavior that formerly minimized interbreeding between red wolves and coyotes were broken down. By 1970, the entire population of wild red wolves was believed to number roughly 400 animals, confined to a small area of coastal Texas and Louisiana. And how many of them were “pure” red wolves no one could say for sure.

In fact, the evolutionary history of red wolves is contro­versial. Some scientists believe they’re derived from a coy­ote-like ancestor in the New World that also gave rise to the Eastern, or Algonquin, wolf. That wolf is commonly classified as a gray wolf subspecies, C. lupus lycaon, but oth­ers would classify it as its own species, C. lycaon. According to geneticist Paul J. Wilson of Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, the Eastern wolf belongs to an ancient lineage of wolves that existed some 750,000 years ago in the eastern half of North America. Scientists are comparing the Eastern wolf with the red wolf and finding that they may be each other’s nearest kin—or indeed the same species. One theory is that as Europeans settled eastern North America, they extirpated the red/Eastern wolf from the center of its range, leaving some animals to the south (red wolves) and some animals to the north (Eastern wolves).

The Eastern wolf is thriving in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. A buffer zone around the park has been a great success, according to Brent R. Patterson, a wolf biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Trent University. Mortality rates are down, the wolf population is remaining stable, and in general the wolves are not inter-breeding with coyotes. “That a population of 200 wolves distrib­uted among thirty-five packs in Algonquin is of sufficient size to naturally exclude coyotes—and maintain its genetic integrity with minimal human intervention—indicates that there may be hope for red wolf recovery efforts,” observes Patterson.

Other scientists think the red wolf is a distinct North American species most closely aligned with gray wolves of Old World origin. Still others say it’s never been more than a hybrid of coyotes and gray wolves. One scientific group howls and soon another howls back.

Gray wolves, coyotes, and red wolves are all capable of inter­breeding; red wolves and coyotes often produce fertile hy­brid offspring. In the 1970s and1980s, when the few remaining red wolves had difficulty finding mates of their own species, they frequently mingled with the more abundant coyotes. That hybridization, says Rabon, was the final blow to the wild red wolves of the time. In the mid-1970s, when the intermingling was first dis­covered, a bold experiment was set in motion to bring in the few remaining wild red wolves and to breed them in captivity.

From 1974 to 1980, the 400-plus animals in the remnant population were rounded up and evaluated for red wolf characteristics. Only 17 “true” red wolves were identified. Of those, 14 were selected as founders to begin the red wolf captive breeding program, coordinated by the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. While C. rufus was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, some forty cooperating facilities across North America now partici­pate in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan and are home to more than 200 captive red wolves.

[Image: red_wolf_walking_page_01_jpg_26865.jpg]
A red wolf makes his way through the Alligator National Wildlife Refuge

In 1987 the first four captive-bred pairs were released in the Alligator River Refuge, and a year later wild-born pups were found in a den on the refuge. Since 2002, in a further experiment, pups born in captivity in zoos have been introduced into dens, where they are raised as wild offspring by their North Carolina stepparents. “It’s one of the most innovative things the Red Wolf Recovery Pro­gram has accomplished,” says biologist Dennis L. Murray of Trent University. Murray has conducted several studies of red wolf population dynamics. “We weren’t sure ‘fos­tering’ would work at first, but it has, and beautifully.”
Rabon estimates that there are now between 100 and 120 red wolves in the wild, more than 90 percent of them wild born. (That is down from the population high of about 130, reached two years ago.) The animals roam across more than 2,600 square miles of mixed public and private land in the five red wolf counties, a patchwork quilt of wildlife refuge, farms, townships, and highways.

The early November nor’easter has blown itself out. Rabon patrols the refuge roads, showing me the rounds. On one side are the loblolly pines common along the U.S. southeastern coastal plain; on the other are agri­cultural fields of corn, winter wheat, and soybean turned russet-gold under the clearing sky.

“The wolves love to run along the edges of these fields,” says Rabon. “It’s easier for them to do the same thing we do—move in open areas with fewer impediments. That’s also where they have a good chance of flushing deer, choice red wolf prey.”

[Image: red_wolves_feeding_on_deer_carcass_jpg_11154.jpg]
Red wolves in the wild feed on a deer carcass

Red wolves take many deer, but, contrary to some farmers’ beliefs, do not eat cattle. In a study of “ecosystem services” and red wolf habitat conducted by scientists Randall A. Kramer and Aaron Jenkins of Duke University, local agricultural landhold­ers were asked about their level of support for red wolves. Negative opinions ranged from “Any red wolf program would need to be balanced relative to other wildlife” to “Bad for cattle, will shoot them.” Other respondents, however, welcomed the wolves “because I had to replant 25+ acres of soybeans due to deer predation,” or because “The red wolf is a beautiful animal and I enjoy seeing them now and then when I happen across one.” Another report showed that farmers appreciated the wolves’ control of raccoons and nutria.

A study of some 2,200 scat samples from red wolves in the Alligator River environs shows that their diet is about 50 percent white-tailed deer, 30 percent raccoons, and 20 percent small mammals such as rabbits and rodents. Zero percent is cattle: they’re too big for this relatively small wolf. One red wolf may eat two to five pounds of food each day, and will travel up to twenty miles in search of it.

Red wolves form packs of five to eight animals—an “alpha,” or breeding, pair and offspring from various years. “Sometimes we get lucky,” muses Rabon, “and glimpse a pack right along a refuge road.”

Something moves. Rabon picks up binoculars and scans tall grasses and mixed croplands. I hold my breath, hoping for a red wolf. But it’s a great blue heron, fishing in the low, wet channels that encircle the fields. We return to watching for the smallest movement. Soon reinforcements arrive in the form of three other refuge biologists: Art Beyer, Chris Lucash, and Ryan Nordsven.

Red wolves are mostly brown-and buff-colored with black along their backs. The ginger-red tint that gives them their name is behind their ears, on their muzzles, and along the backs of their legs. They’re smaller than gray wolves and larger than coyotes. Red wolves have tall, pointed ears, long legs, and large feet.

“Since coyotes are more and more common, it’s important for people to know how to tell them apart,” says Rabon. Adult coyotes weigh one-half to two-thirds as much as adult red wolves, stand some four inches shorter, and are less massive through the head, chest, legs, and feet.

Alligator River was chosen as the site for the 1987 red wolf restoration in part because it was free of coyotes. But by the mid-1990s, coyotes making their way eastward in ever greater numbers once again became a threat to red wolves. In 1999, the Red Wolf Recovery Program developed a zone-based “adaptive management plan” to help protect the wild red wolf population from hybridization. The scheme established zones where coy­otes are captured and sterilized, then returned as “place­holders” until a pair of breeding red wolves claims the territory. According to Murray, trying to halt hybridization using sterile placeholders has been another scientific first.

“So far,” says Rabon, “it seems to be working, but it takes constant vigilance. What people don’t realize is that when someone kills a coyote, it may be one of our sterilized animals, opening the area right back up to hybridization.”

Rabon and I, followed by Beyer, Lucash, and Nords­ven, off-road down a dirt track where the biologists hope to locate not a coyote but a wild red wolf. “We often pick them up in this brushy area,” says Lucash after we stop for a look, “especially along streams and other paths through the scrub.” By “pick them up,” Lucash means via a very high frequency radio antenna. Seventy five adult red wolves have been captured and outfitted with transmitter collars.

Blips sound, but they’re very faint. “We have a wolf in the vicinity,” says Lucash, “but vicinity easily could mean a mile or more away. They can smell our scent and know we’re here much more easily than we can find them.” We look down. A fresh paw print is nearby on the bank of a creek. “Must have just missed him as he came through,” laments Beyer.

It’s better for the wolves that their paths and those of humans don’t cross—especially in autumn hunting season.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has instituted a “Please Don’t Shoot!” request for the red wolf five-county region. In counties just beyond that area, it recommends a “Look Before Shooting” stance. The Red Wolf Coalition, a North Carolina–based organization dedicated to the animals’ conservation, is distributing edu­cational materials to hunting and other groups. “We show them the clear difference between red wolves and coyotes,” says Cornelia N. Hutt, chairperson of the coalition’s board of directors.

Between 1987 and 2003, a total of twenty–eight red wolves were killed. From 2004 to the end of 2011, fif­ty–two were shot. The situation has become so serious that Rabon has ended the “Track the Pack” section of the project’s quarterly report that listed the wolves’ loca­tions. That space now says that “the U.S. Fish and Wild­life Service is investigating the suspected illegal take of several red wolves found dead in the [five-county] Red Wolf Recovery Area. . . . The red wolf is protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The maximum criminal penalties for the unlawful taking of a red wolf are one year imprisonment and $100,000 fine.”

Most shootings happen during hunting season, when the sportsmen who are out and about may mistake a wolf for a coyote. In fact, however, in North Carolina it’s le­gal to kill a coyote during daylight hours at any time of year, so the hazard of mistaken identity is not confined to autumn. And now there’s a proposal to expand coy­ote hunting to nighttime hours, when distinguishing the two canids is even more difficult. Although other states allow coyote hunting after dark, they don’t have an endangered red wolf population in the same area, observes Hutt.

The situation is exacerbated, according to biologists Lisette P. Waits of the University of Idaho and Justin H. Bohling of Penn State University, when one half of a red wolf breeding pair is killed. Hybridization with a coyote is then more likely to occur.

Humans are not the only hazards. In May of 2011, wildfire raged through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The peaty pocosin soil burns red-hot and smolders long. “Once a fire starts here, it’s often hard to put out,” says Rabon. The Pains Bay fire, as it came to be known for its point of origin, spread across tens of thousands of refuge acres. Then the fire jumped a highway and zeroed in on the Dare Bombing Range.

“The red wolves did the only thing they could,” says Rabon. “Hunkered down and waited it out.”

And in late August 2011, Hurricane Irene lashed the region with wind and rain, leaving red wolf territory under three feet of muddy water. Over the longer term, sea level along the North Carolina coast is likely to rise by at least one meter (39 inches) by 2100, believe Orrin Pilkey of Duke University and other climate scientists.

“We’re giving that serious thought,” says Rabon. “It was always planned that there would be more than one site where red wolves would be reintroduced.” Any new site is also likely to be somewhere in the southeast U.S., where red wolves historically roamed.

The safest place for a wolf in the five coun­ties may be the red wolf captive facility, a fenced, gated, locked series of enclosures tucked away in the loblolly pines of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. At any given time, a dozen or so red wolves live there, “pre­serving the genetic integrity of the species,” says Rabon. "It's our safety population."

The Sun begins to go down on this November af­ternoon. Parking just outside the encampment, Rabon quietly walks to the entrance and unlocks the gate. We walk through, relocking it behind us. There’s not a red wolf in sight.

“Look again,” says Rabon. Sure enough, among the autumn leaves littered on the ground of enclosure number one is the glint of a darker, more vibrant red: that of a red wolf curled up in a corner, fast asleep. But he’s not alone. Alongside rests his mate. The two red wolves, Rabon says, have been together for years. They’re an older pair, destined, perhaps, to serve as red wolf ambassadors in a new outdoor exhibit the refuge is building.

“They’re wonderful with people,” says Rabon, carefully unlocking the wire mesh enclosure. We step briefly inside. The wolves’ ears twitch, but otherwise they keep still. After a few minutes, two pairs of curious golden eyes meet mine. I follow the wolves’ lead and crouch down. Slowly, the animals stir from their shady corner. They watch my every move, then begin to step, then lope, then streak by, seeming to ham it up for the Homo sapiens they’ve temporarily allowed into their territory. Hardly the fearsome predators the species has been made out to be for so long.

Too soon, Rabon motions that it’s time to go. We close the inner door and make our way toward the outer en­trance. The wolves watch us, their noses pressed against the mesh. I walk backward through the piney woods, reluctant to break eye contact. 
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  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu

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Endangered red wolf pups (DJ Sharp/USFWS)

Saturday, July 25, 2015 04:58PM

RALEIGH -- A revised population estimate puts the world's only wild population of endangered red wolves at their lowest level since the late 1990s amid recent moves to protect the bigger, predatory relatives of dogs from hunters' misdirected bullets.

Once common in the Southeast, the red wolf had been considered extinct in the wild as of 1980 for reasons including hunting and lost habitat. In 1987, wildlife officials released captive-bred red wolves into the wilds of a federal tract in North Carolina. For years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that about 100 wolves roamed the land in coastal Dare, Hyde, Washington, Tyrrell and Beaufort counties and also drifted onto neighboring private property.

Now the federal agency has drastically cut its population estimate to between 50 and 75 wild red wolves. The revision was the result of fewer breeding adult wolves producing fewer babies to replace those animals that die, FWS supervisory wildlife biologist Rebecca Harrison said.

"The decrease is a reflection of two years in a row of very low pup production in combination with the standing mortality," Harrison said.

While in the past wildlife officials have found 30 to 50 pups a year, last year 19 were found and this year only seven, Harrison said. The wolves breed a single litter of pups annually that are born in the spring.

An outside study last year of the red wolf recovery program by the nonprofit Wildlife Management Institute said it couldn't determine the specific reasons for the red wolf decline. Over the past decade, there was a tripling of wolf deaths from gunshots, the report said. Illegal killings of red wolves was the leading cause of deaths over the first 25 years of the program, the report said, with shootings and poisonings making up 30 percent of their deaths.

Most of the red wolf shooting deaths of breeding-aged red wolves happened during the last three months of the year just before the animals breed, the report said. Deer season also increases hunters in the forests in the fall.

The threats to red wolves from gunfire have increased as coyotes - which are often confused for their bigger, endangered cousins - multiplied across the state into the red wolf's range.

North Carolina's Wildlife Resources Commission in 2013 decided to allow coyote hunting at night on private land and under certain circumstances on public land. Conservationists said that resulted in the shooting deaths of red wolves since even experts often couldn't distinguish them from coyotes in a distant flashlight's glare.

Non-native coyotes threaten pets, livestock and native wildlife so in the rest of the state they can be hunted on private land at any time without any bag limit and on public land at night with a permit.

Concerns include a case earlier this month in which three coyotes stalked a man walking with his dog in a Raleigh forest. After police arrived to help, the coyotes stalked them too. There hasn't been an unprovoked attack on humans recorded in North Carolina, state wildlife officials said.

A federal judge meanwhile is monitoring events because of a lawsuit challenging nighttime coyote hunting. A settlement agreement led to new regulations this year again banning night hunting for coyote in the red wolf zone, but the General Assembly has about a year to decide whether to oppose it.

State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, who represents a region that includes the red wolf zone, declined comment on whether lawmakers will object to the rules.

Last year, 15 red wolves died in the wild, including four from gunshots. In 2013, nine of 15 wild red wolf deaths were from shootings.

Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that "the fall of 2013 saw a large number of breeding females lost to gunshot, and we could be seeing a corresponding reduction in the number of pups." 
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  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu
North America Has Only 1 True Species of Wolf, DNA Shows

By Megan Gannon, Live Science Contributor | July 29, 2016 07:04am ET

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Gray wolves, which are not always gray, are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Credit: Dan Stahler, courtesy of UCLA

DNA tests of wolves across North America suggest that there is just one species of the canid: the gray wolf.

What's more, populations of red wolves and eastern wolves, thought to be distinct species, are actually just hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes that likely emerged in the last couple hundred years, the study found.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday (July 27), could have implications for the conservation of wolves considered endangered in the United States, the researchers say.

Shared genes

For the study, scientists sequenced the whole genomes of 28 canids, including gray wolves, eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes in North America.

The study revealed that gray wolves and coyotes are not very different from each other, genetically speaking. According to the DNA results, the two species likely diverged from a common ancestor in Eurasia about 50,000 years ago —much more recently than previous estimates of 1 million years ago.

Meanwhile, red wolves, thought to be native to the southeastern United States, and eastern wolves from the Great Lakes region, were found to be genetic hybrids.

"These gray-wolf-coyote hybrids look distinct and were mistaken as a distinct species," study author Robert Wayne, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

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Gray-wolf-coyote hybrids (like the one shown here) were once thought to be a distinct species.
Credit: Dave Mech, courtesy of UCLA

Compared with eastern wolves, red wolves were more coyote-like in their genetic makeup, the study found, which makes sense historically. Before the hybridization, humans dramatically altered the habitat of wolves in the southeastern U.S. Once gray wolves started to get hunted out of the region, the hybrid red wolves could mate only with other hybrids and coyotes, the researchers said.

"If you did this same experiment with humans —human genomes from Eurasia —you would find that 1 to 4 percent of the human genome has what looks like strange genomic elements from another species: Neanderthals," Wayne explained.

The researchers thought they would see a bigger chunk of such "strange genomic elements" in red wolves and eastern wolves, perhaps at least 10 to 20 percent of the genome that could not be explained by the animals' relation to gray wolves and coyotes."However, we found just 3 to 4 percent, on average —similar to that found in individuals from the same species when compared to our small reference set," Wayne said.

Conservation implications

Wolves were nearly exterminated from the contiguous United States by the mid-20th century. After gray wolves and red wolves were given protections under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, conservation efforts led to a modest comeback in the animals' populations. Red wolves have been reintroduced in North Carolina, and gray wolves have been restored in several areas of the western United States, notably in Yellowstone National Park. But the predators' endangered species listing is still sometimes a controversial, even politically charged issue, opposed by ranchers and farmers who see wolves as a threat to their livestock.

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Compared with eastern wolves, red wolves (like the one shown here) are more coyote-like in their genetic makeup.
Credit: Dave Mech, Courtesy of UCLA

A few years ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) put forth a controversial proposal to remove gray wolves from the endangered species list. Technical distinctions about wolf species were at the heart of the plan. The FWS argued that gray wolves had been restored in enough of their original habitat. The agency relied on a 2012 study to designate a new species, the eastern wolf, as a separate species from the gray wolf; if that were true, it would mean gray wolves had never lived in the eastern United States, and thus the FWS claimed it wasn't responsible for restoring gray wolves in that area.

"The recently defined eastern wolf is just a gray wolf and coyote mix, with about 75 percent of its genome assigned to the gray wolf," Wayne said in the statement. "We found no evidence for an eastern wolf that has a separate evolutionary legacy. The gray wolf should keep its endangered species status and be preserved, because the reason for removing it is incorrect. The gray wolf did live in the Great Lakes area and in the 29 eastern states."

The new results may also call into question whether the red wolf can be listed as an endangered species if further research proves this population is not even a true species.

But Wayne and his co-authors argued that it is "antiquated" to require full species status for an organism to get an endangered listing. The researchers recommend that policy makers take a more flexible approach to applications of the Endangered Species Act so that they can also protect hybrids that fill important ecological niches (i.e., keeping deer populations in check).

Journal Reference:
Bridgett M. Vonholdt, James A. Cahill, Zhenxin Fan, Ilan Gronau, Jacqueline Robinson, John P. Pollinger, Beth Shapiro, Jeff Wall and Robert K. Wayne. Whole-genome sequence analysis shows that two endemic species of North American wolf are admixtures of the coyote and gray wolf. Science Advances, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1501714

Protection of populations comprising admixed genomes is a challenge under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is regarded as the most powerful species protection legislation ever passed in the United States but lacks specific provisions for hybrids. The eastern wolf is a newly recognized wolf-like species that is highly admixed and inhabits the Great Lakes and eastern United States, a region previously thought to be included in the geographic range of only the gray wolf. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has argued that the presence of the eastern wolf, rather than the gray wolf, in this area is grounds for removing ESA protection (delisting) from the gray wolf across its geographic range. In contrast, the red wolf from the southeastern United States was one of the first species protected under the ESA and was protected despite admixture with coyotes. We use whole-genome sequence data to demonstrate a lack of unique ancestry in eastern and red wolves that would not be expected if they represented long divergent North American lineages. These results suggest that arguments for delisting the gray wolf are not valid. Our findings demonstrate how a strict designation of a species under the ESA that does not consider admixture can threaten the protection of endangered entities. We argue for a more balanced approach that focuses on the ecological context of admixture and allows for evolutionary processes to potentially restore historical patterns of genetic variation.

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Fig. 1 Admixture proportions, hypothesized branching patterns, and the geographic distribution of Canis in North America.
Top: Previously proposed phylogenetic relationships among Canis lineages, with gray lines indicating putative admixture events (5). Bottom: Geographic distributions of Canis in North America. Sample locations are indicated by dots and abbreviations are described in Table 1. Ancestry proportions from vonHoldt et al. (5) are indicated (proportion gray wolf/proportion coyote; see also new values in Table 3). IRNP, Isle Royale National Park; Ma, million years ago.

Attached to this post:[Image: attach.png] Whole_genome_sequence_analysis_shows_that_two_endemic_species_of_North_American_wolf_are_admixtures_of_the_coyote_and_gray_wolf.pdf (910.18 KB)
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  • Claudiu Constantin Nicolaescu
Scientists Find Red Wolf DNA in a Unique Group of Wild Dogs in Texas

by Ed Cara December 20, 2018 at 2:40pm

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The Galveston canines 
Photo: Ron Wooten (Princeton University)
One of America’s native wild canines, the red wolf, has teetered on the brink of extinction for decades. And despite the efforts of a captive breeding program started in the 1970s, only about 40 such wolves are known to be still living in the wild today, all in North Carolina. But researchers at Princeton University have made a strange discovery that might spell good news for the future of the species: A population of wild dogs, isolated off the coast of Texas, that seem to carry red wolf genes, including remnants of DNA thought to be lost forever.

The researchers’ discovery wasn’t intentional, according to a press releasefrom Princeton University detailing their subsequent study, which was published this month in the journal Genes.

Ron Wooten, a wildlife biologist living in Galveston, Texas, had started tracking a population of wild dogs on the nearby Galveston Island. From afar, the Galveston dogs didn’t quite look like the coyotes native to the area. And people have claimed to have seen red wolves in the Gulf Coast area, decades after they were declared extinct in the U.S. in 1980. Wooten wanted to get a second opinion, so he got in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist who runs the North American Canine Ancestry Project at Princeton University.

Her lab tested two samples from Wooten, both taken from dogs that sadly became roadkill. And when they compared the genetics of these dogs to DNA samples from a variety of known wild dog species in the U.S., including coyotes, grey wolves, and captive red wolves, they found that the Galveston dogs had some genes only known to belong to red wolves.

“I think we were all genuinely surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in either of these samples,” Elizabeth Heppenheimer, co-lead author of the study and a PhD candidate at Princeton’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department, said in a statement. “Initially I was extremely skeptical that the analysis would turn up anything interesting, which in the end turned out to be very humbling. I think of myself as an expert on these animals, but in reality most of the time I’m just looking at my computer. It’s the people on the ground, who watch these animals regularly, who have made the major discovery.”

The Galveston dogs might be particularly important to the continued survival and diversity of the red wolf. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of wild dogs thought to be surviving red wolves along the Gulf Coast were captured and used to start a breeding program. By the time the effort ended, though, scientists had only turned up 40 genetically distinct red wolves, with 14 wolves going on to reproduce. These few wolves now represent the founding lineage of wild dogs recognized as red wolves in existence today, including those that are being kept in captivity and those that were reintroduced into the wild.

The reintroduction program of the red wolf in North Carolina—the first attempt to bring back an extinct species in the U.S.—was at first a success, with over a hundred wild red wolves estimated to be living in the state as recently as 2006. Now, thanks to hunting, further human encroachment, and a resistance by state agencies and landowners to continue the program, their population has again dwindled to less than 40 known wolves in the wild.

The Galveston dogs not only share some genes with the captive red wolf population, but also seem to have genes not present in any wild dog population. Rather, they likely have genetic variations, or alleles, that were commonly seen in red wolves, but not in the small group of captured wolves used to rescue the species from extinction.

Unlike many animals, different populations of canines that we classify as species can interbreed with one another and create fertile hybrids. It’s well known, for instance, that coyotes and wolves interbreed (though they prefer to stick to their own “kind”), and that this interbreeding is one of the factors that’s contributing to the wolf’s decline as an unique species.

But the Galveston dogs and their ghost alleles, perhaps because they were so isolated, “could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry,” the authors said. And they might be not the only ones. Heppenheimer’s team also found red wolf DNA in at least two samples taken from coyotes along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

These wild dogs obviously aren’t “pure” red wolves, but careful breeding efforts with these populations could be used to restore lost aspects of the species’ genetic history and keep them healthy (inbreeding, as many a pug or bulldog owner knows well, raises the risk of serious hereditary problems). The fact these dogs have survived for so long on the island might also mean that the location or Texas in general could be an ideal spot to reintroduce red wolves in the future.
“This unprecedented discovery opens new avenues for innovative conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of red wolf ghost alleles to the current captive and experimental populations,” the authors wrote.

Heppenheimer told Gizmodo via email that the team has no immediate plans to return to the Galveston dogs. But as part of their North American Canine Ancestry Project, they do plan to explore how often and to what extent red wolf DNA can be found in possibly hybrid coyote populations elsewhere.

[Genes via Princeton University]
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