Endangered red wolf DNA found in unlikely Texas wolf-coyote hybrid

Find bolsters hopes of environmentalists dismayed by decrease in number of red wolves in only known pack

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DALLAS – Researchers say a pack of wild canids found frolicking near Texas Gulf Coast beaches carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes, a startling finding as the animal was declared extinct at the wild almost 40 years ago.

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The discovery led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding that the red wolf‘s DNA is remarkably resilient after decades of human hunting, habitat loss, and other factors that drove the animal to near-decimation.

“Overall, it’s incredibly rare to rediscover animals in an area where they were thought to be extinct and it’s even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved as it is. wild, “said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist involved in research on the pack found on Galveston Island in Texas. The work of the Princeton team has been published in the scientific journal Genes.

Genetic analysis has revealed that Galveston’s canids appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer cautions that without further testing, it is difficult to label the animal.

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Ron Sutherland, a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said it was exciting to have found “this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf.” The survival of the red wolf genes “without much help from us over the past 40 years is wonderful news,” said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.

The find coincides with similar DNA finds in wild canids in southwest Louisiana and bolsters the hopes of environmentalists dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina who were the only known pack in the state. Savage.

We may be excited, but in my mind we really have to let science do our due diligence to figure out what this animal is.

The red wolf, which weighs around 80 pounds (49 kilograms), was once common in a large area stretching from Texas south, southeast, and into the northeast. It was listed by the federal government as endangered in 1967 and declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The US Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s captured a remaining population in Texas and Louisiana which eventually leads to a successful captive breeding program. These dogs in 1986 became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina. This group has been in decline since it peaked at around 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A federal report released in April said there were only around 40 left.

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Another 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities as part of captive breeding programs.

In November, a federal judge sided with environmental groups who argued in a lawsuit that efforts by federal authorities to reduce the wild group’s territory in North Carolina were a violation of the law. The judge ruled that US Fish and Wildlife also violated endangered species law by allowing private landowners to kill canine predators even if they did not threaten humans, livestock or pets.

The debate over the protections of the red wolf could take on new dimensions with the discovery of Galveston.

Sutherland said the Galveston canines effectively quashed a decades-old impression that red wolves were a reckless predator overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of coyotes. He adds that the Galveston group has DNA that cannot be found in the animal’s captive population.

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“From a practical conservation biology point of view, these animals have special DNA and they deserve to be protected,” he said, explaining that conservation easements that restrict development along parts of the Gulf Coast are an essential first stop.

In this file photo from June 13, 2017, the parents of this 7-week-old Rufous Cub watch their offspring at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina.  The Texas Gulf Coast led to the discovery that red wolves, or at least one animal closely aligned with them, endure in isolated parts of the southeast nearly 40 years after the animal was thought to have s 'was extinct in the wild.
In this file photo from June 13, 2017, the parents of this 7-week-old Rufous Cub watch their offspring at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, North Carolina. The Texas Gulf Coast led to the discovery that red wolves, or at least one animal closely aligned with them, endure in isolated parts of the southeast nearly 40 years after the animal was thought to have s ‘was extinct in the wild. Photo by Gerry Broome /ASSOCIATED PRESS

A spokesperson for US Fish and Wildlife said the agency was unable to comment on the partial government shutdown. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement that the Galveston discovery is “interesting”, but “we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time.”

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coalition, warned that further study of the Galveston pack is needed.

“We can be excited, but in my mind, we really need to let science do their due diligence to determine what this animal is,” she said, noting that red wolves can evoke strong feelings in people with livestock or who have other concerns with their predatory nature.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, say policymakers need to have a greater appreciation for hybrid animals. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s, conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species – like wolves and coyotes – was rare and to be avoided. But experts say thinking about it has changed.

“Now we know that hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and doesn’t always have negative consequences, but politics hasn’t quite caught up with this notion,” Heppenheimer said.

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