Red wolf genes found in coyote hybrids may be key to preserving endangered species


Dr. Kristin Brzeski and Dr. Joey Hinton secure a swamp coyote from Cameron Parish, Louisiana in a kennel before removing its muzzle and releasing it. Credits: Karin Saucedo

A team of researchers affiliated with several institutions in the United States reports a high percentage of red wolf genes in the genomes of coyote hybrids living in parts of southwestern Louisiana and eastern Texas. In their article published in the journal Scientists progressthe group describes the discovery as a possible way to save the red wolves from extinction.

The red wolf is native to many parts of the southeastern United States. It is a subspecies of the gray wolf and is slightly larger than a coyote. The population of red wolves has declined due to human encroachment for many years and is almost extinct today – currently only 200 exist in captivity and only 20 of them are thought to live in the wild.

In this new effort, the researchers studied the genomes of coyotes currently living in parts of Louisiana and Texas that were once home to large numbers of red wolves. Previous research has shown that it was common for red wolves to mate with coyotes when the two shared the same habitats. Coyotes have been shown to be more resilient and are not considered endangered.

Principal Investigator Dr. Kristin Brzeski discusses the objectives of the Gulf Coast Canine Project study and explains why it is so important to understand the genetics of Gulf Coast coyotes of Red Wolf ancestry. 1 credit

The researchers obtained tissue samples from 31 coyotes living in southwest Louisiana and studied their genomes. Specifically, they compared coyote genomes to red wolf genomes, looking for commonalities. They found that 38-62% of the coyote genome included red wolf genes.

They also found that the higher the percentage of wolf genes in coyote hybrids, the closer the coyote was to a red wolf in size. They also noted that coyotes with higher percentages of red wolf genes looked more like red wolves and also behaved like them. They suggest that those with the highest percentages shouldn’t be called coyotes at all.

Red wolf genes found in coyote hybrids may be key to preserving endangered species

Dr. Kristin Brzeski holds a vial of blood taken from one of the Louisiana coyotes. It will be sent to Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt at Princeton for sequencing. Credits: Karin Saucedo

Researchers believe that such amounts of genetic material in coyote-wolf hybrids could represent a new way to save the wolf from extinction. They suggest that in the future, when captive-bred wolves are released into the wild, it will be where high-percentage coyote hybrids live. They also suggest that genetic material from some of the hybrids could be collected and stored to clone new animals.

Should the gray wolf retain its endangered species protection? New genomic research provides the scientific answer

More information:
Bridgett M. vonHoldt et al, Reviving ghost alleles: Genetically mixed coyotes along the U.S. Gulf Coast are key to saving the endangered red wolf, Scientists progress (2022). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abn7731

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