Red wolf could lose endangered status because it’s just a hybrid

A red wolf (Canis rufus), Florida

Mark Conlin / Oxford Scientist / Getty

The red wolf, a critically endangered species living in the southeastern United States, may be nothing more than a hybrid between coyotes and gray wolves, a new study suggests.

If so, it could lose its conservation status and protection, as US law does not protect hybrids.

This could result in the loss of an important evolutionary lineage, as the red wolf is the only living repository of gray wolf genes that have come close to being lost in the southeastern states through trapping and agricultural development.

Hard to count

Zoologists have struggled for many years to decide how many species of wolves live in North America. Everyone agrees on the coyote and the gray wolf, which can be found all around the northern hemisphere.

The US government also recognizes two more, the Eastern Wolf, now found in Ontario, and the Red Wolf, which was captive-bred from 12 individuals and reintroduced to the eastern United States. United.

The problem has been difficult to resolve, in part because bounty hunting drove eastern and southern wolf populations to the brink of extinction a century ago, allowing coyotes to invade and to hybridize with the few wolves. As a result, these wolves carry many coyote genes, making it difficult to detect genetic markers from a distinct wolf species.

Now Robert wayne, a geneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues compared the entire genome sequences of 28 individuals from Eurasian and North American wolves and coyotes, including eastern and red wolves.

To mix together

Eastern and Red Wolves have shown no evidence of independent ancestry; their genomes could be explained only by the mixture between coyotes and gray wolves.

Previous, less extensive studies have found genetic and morphological reasons for recognize these wolves as distinct species, and others have shown that they appear to be hybrids. Wayne’s study is unlikely to resolve the issue. However, this is the highest resolution on the problem to date, says Roland kays from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh.

If Wayne’s team is correct, it could cause problems for the Red Wolf. The U.S. Endangered Species Act makes no mention of hybrids, so the red wolf could lose its protective status – and the millions of dollars spent on captive breeding and recovery programs.

That would be unfortunate, Wayne says, because the hybrid red wolf’s small stature may mean it is better suited than a pure gray wolf for life in the Southeastern United States.

“Maybe we can’t put a gray wolf in the American Southeast,” Wayne says. “Maybe the main predator has to be a smaller wolf. “

The red wolf situation shows the endangered species law must catch up with reality, Kays says. “What we’re seeing with today’s high-resolution genetic tools is that hybrids are everywhere,” he says. “To say it’s a hybrid, so it’s not worth protecting it, it just doesn’t work anymore.”

Journal reference: Scientists progress, DO I: 10.1126 / sciadv.1501714

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