Scientists find red wolf DNA in unique group of wild dogs in Texas
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 of 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 believed to be lost forever.
Ron Wooten, a wildlife biologist living in Galveston, Texas, had started tracking a population of wild dogs on nearby Galveston Island. From a distance, the Galveston dogs didn’t quite look like the coyotes native to the area. And people claimed to have seen red wolves in the Gulf Coast region decades after they were declared extinct in the United States in 1980. Wooten wanted a second opinion, so he contacted Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary ecologist and biologist who heads the North American Canine Ancestry Project at Princeton University.
His lab tested two samples of Wooten, both taken from dogs that were sadly killed on the road. And when they compared the genetics of these dogs to DNA samples from a variety of wild dog species known to the United States, including captive coyotes, gray wolves, and red wolves, they discovered that Galveston’s dogs had genes known only to be red. wolves.
“I think we were all really surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in either of these samples,” said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, co-lead author of the study and doctoral student. at Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, in a statement. . “Initially, I was extremely skeptical of any analysis that would reveal anything interesting, which ended up being very humiliating. I consider myself to be an expert on these animals, but in reality most of the time I just look at my computer. It was the people on the ground, who regularly monitor these animals, who made the major discovery.
Galveston’s dogs could be particularly important to the continued survival and diversity of the Red Wolf. In the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of wild dogs believed to be surviving red wolves along the Gulf Coast were captured and used to start a breeding program. By the time the effort ended, however, scientists had found only 40 genetically distinct red wolves, with 14 wolves breeding. These few wolves today represent the founding line of wild dogs recognized as red wolves, including those that are kept in captivity and those that have been reintroduced into the wild.
North Carolina’s red wolf reintroduction program – the first attempt to bring an extinct species back to the United States – was initially successful, with over 100 wild red wolves living in the state in 2006 . Now. , through hunting, continued human encroachment, and resistance from state agencies and landowners to continue the program, their people have again diminished within 40 known wolves 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 wolf’s decline. as a single species.
But the Galveston dogs and their ghost alleles, perhaps because they were so isolated, “could represent a reservoir of the red wolf‘s previously lost 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 owners of a pug or bulldog well know, increases the risk of 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 discovery opens new avenues for innovative conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of red wolf phantom alleles into current captive and experimental populations,” the authors wrote.
Heppenheimer told Gizmodo via email that the team has no plans to return to the Galveston dogs anytime soon. 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 hybrid coyote populations elsewhere.