Scientists Find Red Wolf DNA in Unique Group of Wild Dogs in Texas

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One of America’s native wild dogs, the red wolf, has been on the brink of extinction for decades. And despite the efforts of a captive breeding program started in the 1970s, only about 40 these wolves are known to still live in the wild today, all in North Carolina. But researchers at Princeton University have made a strange discovery that could be good news for the future of the species: a wild dog population, isolated off the coast of Texas, that appears to carry wolf genes. red, including remnants of DNA thought to be lost forever.

The researchers’ discovery was unintentional, according to a Press release from Princeton University detailing their subsequent study, which was published this month in the journal Genes.

Ron Wooten, a wildlife biologist living in Galveston, Texas, had started tracking a wild dog population on nearby Galveston Island. From a distance, Galveston’s dogs didn’t quite resemble the coyotes native to the area. And people claimed to have seen red wolves in the Gulf Coast region, decades after they disappeared in the United States in 1980. Wooten wanted a second opinion, so he contacted Bridgett vonHoldt, an ecologist and biologist from evolution who leads the North American Canine Ancestry Project at Princeton University.

His lab tested two samples of Wooten, both taken from dogs who were unfortunately killed on the road. And when they compared the genetics of these dogs to DNA samples from various known wild dog species in the United States, including coyotes, gray wolves and captive red wolves, they found that Galveston dogs possessed certain genes known only to belong to the red dog. wolves.

“I think we were all really surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in any of these samples,” said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, co-lead author of the study and PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton, in a statement. . “At first I was extremely skeptical that the analysis would lead to anything interesting, which ended up being very humbling. I consider myself an expert on these animals, but in reality, most of the time, I just look at my computer.It was the people in the field, who regularly monitor these animals, who made the major discovery.

The Galveston dogs might be particularly important to the continued survival and diversity of the red wolf. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of wild dogs thought to be surviving red wolves along the Gulf Coast were captured and used to start a breeding program. By the time the effort ended, though, scientists had only turned up 40 genetically distinct red wolves, with 14 wolves going on to reproduce. These few wolves now represent the founding lineage of wild dogs recognized as red wolves in existence today, including those that are being kept in captivity and those that were reintroduced into the wild.

The reintroduction program of the red wolf in North Carolina—the first attempt to bring back an extinct species in the U.S.—was at first a success, with over a hundred wild red wolves estimated to be living in the state as recently as 2006. Now, thanks to hunting, further human encroachment, and a resistance by state agencies and landowners to continue the program, their population has decreased again less than 40 wolves known in the wild.

Galveston dogs not only share certain genes with the captive red wolf population, but also appear to have genes that are not present in any wild dog population. Rather, they likely have genetic variations, or alleles, that were commonly seen in red wolves, but not in the small group of captured wolves used to save the species from extinction.

Unlike many animals, different populations of canids that we classify as species can interbreed and create fertile hybrids. It is well known, for example, that coyotes and wolves interbreed (although they prefer to stick to their own “species”), and that this interbreeding is one of the factors contributing to the decline of the wolf. as a single species.

But the Galveston dogs and their phantom alleles, perhaps because they were so isolated, “could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry,” the authors said. And they may not be the only ones. Heppenheimer’s team also found red wolf DNA in at least two samples taken from coyotes along the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

These wild dogs are obviously not “pure” red wolves, but careful breeding efforts with these populations could be used to restore lost aspects of the species’ genetic history and keep them healthy (inbreeding , as many Pug and Bulldog owners are well aware, risks serious hereditary problems). The fact that these dogs have survived on the island for so long could also mean that the location or Texas in general could be a great place to reintroduce red wolves in the future.

“This unprecedented finding opens up new avenues for innovative conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of red wolf ghost alleles into current captive and experimental populations,” the authors wrote.

Heppenheimer told Gizmodo via email that the team has no immediate plans to return to the Galveston Dogs. But as part of their North American Canine Ancestry Project, they plan to explore how often and to what extent red wolf DNA can be found in possibly hybridized coyote populations elsewhere.

[[[[Genoa Going through princeton university]

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