Red wolf DNA found in Texas pack

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DALLAS — Researchers say a pack of wild dogs found frolicking near Texas Gulf Coast beaches carry a significant amount of red wolf genes, a surprising finding as the animal was declared extinct in the first place. wild nearly 40 years ago.

The discovery has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding that red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient after decades of human hunting, habitat loss and other factors have driven 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 in its original state. 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 the Galveston canids appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer warns that without further testing it is difficult to label the animal.

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 red wolf genes “without much help from us over the past 40 years is great news,” said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.

The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild dogs in southwestern Louisiana and bolsters the hopes of conservationists appalled by dwindling numbers of red wolves in North Carolina that were the only known pack wild.

The red wolf, which weighs about 80 pounds (49 kilograms), was once common across a wide region stretching from Texas in the south, southeast, and northeast. It was federally listed as endangered in 1967 and declared extinct in the wild in 1980. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s captured a remnant population in Texas and Louisiana which eventually led 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 peaking at around 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A federal report released in April said only about 40 wolves remained.

An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities through 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 violated the law. The judge ruled that US Fish and Wildlife also violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing private landowners to kill canine predators even if they did not threaten humans, livestock or pets.

The debate over protecting red wolves could take on new dimensions with the Galveston discovery.

Sutherland said the Galveston hounds 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.

“From a practical conservation biology perspective, 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 step.

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

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

Conservationists, meanwhile, say policymakers need to appreciate hybrid animals better. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s, the conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species – like the wolf and the coyote – was rare and best 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 that notion,” Heppenheimer said.

Associated Press reporter Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

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