Galveston photographer’s discovery led to groundbreaking red wolf study

GALVESTON – The coyotes Ron Wooten spotted on the western end of Galveston Island had eye-catching dark, reddish fur and a long, slender build. In the golden twilight of that July evening of 2013, about a dozen animals rested in what appeared to be a wetland dried up by a seasonal drought.

These canids – mammals of the dog family – looked different. Most of the coyotes that inhabit this area have gray or pale brown fur. And while coyotes typically feed singly or in pairs, these appeared to travel and interact in packs.

Wooten had a hunch that he had stumbled upon something more important than fulfilling his hobby as a wildlife photographer.

“They didn’t look like coyotes at all. I thought they actually looked like a Great Dane or something, ”Wooten said. “I looked at pictures of red wolves and it seemed like they leaned more towards red wolves than coyotes, so that’s when I started chasing someone for him. take a look at these animals. “

Almost six years later, Wooten learned that his photographs played an important role in a groundbreaking genetic study published in December by a group of scientists led by biologists from Princeton University. The study suggests that canids native to Galveston Island carry DNA from the red wolf, an animal declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago but whose ancestry has endured in parts from the eastern United States and the Gulf Coast, including southern Texas and Louisiana.

Red wolves inhabited the southeastern United States before being declared extinct in the wild in 1980 due to habitat loss, predator control programs, disease and, ironically, crossbreeds with coyotes. A captive breeding program developed in the 1970s prevented total extinction, with 14 red wolves able to reproduce.

This success led to the reintroduction of red wolves into the wild in North Carolina. This experimental population immediately declined, with less than 40 pure red wolves now surviving in the wild.

Read more: After decades of rescuing stranded sea turtles, the Galveston lab plans to reduce

Some scientists have speculated that red wolves began to breed with coyotes, in part, as a means of survival. The study to which Wooten contributed, published in Genes, a scientific journal, further reinforces the idea that red wolves persisted by interbreeding.

Quick investigation of dead coyotes

This latest discovery began with death on the road.

Several months after spotting the coyote pack in Galveston, Wooten, a regulatory specialist for the US Army Corps of Engineers, spotted two dead coyotes with similar reddish fur on their way along the FM 3005. Intrigued, Wooten scooped up the remains, hoping the carcasses might pique the interest of someone who has professionally studied wolves and coyotes. He kept the tissue samples the only way he knew how: in his freezer.

“Of course my wife loved it,” Wooten said.

Several wildlife agencies pushed Wooten away before he finally hooked up with a group of wolf biologists who put him in touch with Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University. VonHoldt had been studying the genetics shared between North American canids for a number of years, and Wooten’s tissue samples and photos presented possible evidence for “ghost alleles” – surviving red wolf genes different from those of the red wolves in zoos or in the wild in North Carolina.

VonHoldt, in an email interview, said it was “phenomenal” that Wooten had both photos and tissue samples of the canines found in Galveston. The eye-catching photos he took of the pack of reddish furry coyotes caught his eye.

“Coyotes have a wide range of colors and markings,” said vonHoldt. “But Ron’s photo kind of caught my interest as being unique in a very specific way.”

VonHoldt and his team extracted and processed DNA from Wooten’s samples and compared it to each of the legally recognized wild canid species in North America, including samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, from Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 Eastern Wolves from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the captive breeding program.

They found that the animals on Galveston Island looked more like captive red wolves than typical Southeastern coyotes – one of Wooten’s samples was 70% red wolf, while the other was 40% red wolf.

Minimizes its role

Wooten learned of the discovery when the study was published. Although he played down his role, he was credited in the study as a “wildlife biologist” – a prestigious nomenclature for a part-time naturalist.

“I was sort of hoping they could be 100% Red Wolves. They weren’t,” Wooten said.

The latest red wolf gene study, along with a similar discovery of red wolf genes in the Louisiana canine population, has sparked the interest of wolf experts like Ron Nowak, former zoologist with the US Fish Wildlife Service. and expert in the case.

Nowak warned that while the genetic study does not represent a “rediscovery of an extinct species,” it should prompt further genetic studies to determine the prevalence of red wolf DNA across the country.

“Whether it’s just a persistence of genes because they’ve retained some adaptive advantage for animals or whether there is just one population that could still be predominantly red wolves, it hasn’t. been studied extensively and we are still hoping that more studies could be done to see what we might learn, ”Nowak said.

Nowak added that the National Academy of Sciences has a congressional mandate to study the taxonomy of red wolves, with a final report expected in the spring that may provide additional information.

VonHoldt said his top priority is avoiding inbreeding while maintaining and increasing genetic diversity in the wild canine population.

For his part, Wooten believes the discovery of the red wolf gene could potentially lead to more ecotourism along the Texas coast and in particular to Galveston, already a nesting site for endangered native species like the sea turtle. Ridley of Kemp.

“We have the red wolf hybrids which are among the most endangered dogs in the world; it really puts Galveston in a pretty big light, ”Wooten said. “It’s very special and you have to approach it from that aspect, you have to make sure that we are pushing it in a positive way and trying to do something right for everyone here in this area.”

nick.powell@chron.com


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