DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack

January 13, 2019 by David Warren
DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack
In this June 13, 2017, file photo, the parents of this 7-week old red wolf pup keep an eye on their offspring at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C. A pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast have led to the discovery that red wolves, or at least an animal closely aligned with them, are enduring in secluded parts of the Southeast nearly 40 years after the animal was thought to have become extinct in the wild. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

Researchers say a pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes, a surprising discovery because the animal was declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.

The finding has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding that the red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient after decades of human hunting, loss of habitat and other factors had led the animal to near decimation.

"Overall, it's incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region 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 the wild," said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist involved in the research on the pack found on Galveston Island in Texas. The work of the Princeton team was published in the scientific journal Genes.

The genetic analysis found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer cautions that without additional testing, it's difficult to label the animal.

Ron Sutherland, a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said it's exciting to have found "this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf." The survival of the red wolf genes "without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news," said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.

The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild canines in southwestern Louisiana and bolsters the hopes of conservationists dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina that comprised the only known pack in the wild.

The red wolf, which tops out at about 80 pounds (49 kilograms), was once common across a vast region extending from Texas to the south, into the Southeast and up into the Northeast. It was federally classified 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 that eventually led to a successful captive breeding program. Those canines in 1986 became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina. That group has been declining since peaking at an estimated 120 to 130 wolves in 2006. A federal report in April said only about 40 remained.

An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities as part of captive breeding programs.

DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack
In this June 13, 2017 file photo, a red wolf female peers back at her 7-week old pup in their habitat at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C. A pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast have led to the discovery that red wolves, or at least an animal closely aligned with them, are enduring in secluded parts of the Southeast nearly 40 years after the animal was thought to have become extinct in the wild. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

A federal judge in November sided with environmental groups that argued in a lawsuit that efforts by federal authorities to shrink the territory of the wild group in North Carolina were a violation of law. The judge ruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife also violated the Endangered Species Act by authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators even if they weren't threatening humans, livestock or pets.

The debate over red wolf protections could take on new dimensions with the discovery on Galveston.

Sutherland said the Galveston canines have effectively quashed a decades-old impression that red wolves were a feckless predator overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of coyotes. He adds that the Galveston group has DNA that can't be found in the animal's captive population.

"From a practical conservation biology standpoint, 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 spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the agency is unable to comment during the partial government shutdown. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement that the Galveston discovery is "interesting," but "we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time."

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coalition, cautioned that further study of the Galveston pack is needed.

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

Conservationists, meanwhile, say policymakers need to have a greater appreciation for hybrid animals. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s, conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species—such as the wolf and coyote—was rare and to be avoided. But experts say the thinking on that has changed.

"Now we know hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and does not always have negative consequences, but the policy hasn't quite caught up with this notion," Heppenheimer said.

Explore further: A future for red wolves may be found on Galveston Island

Related Stories

A future for red wolves may be found on Galveston Island

December 11, 2018

Red wolves, once nearly extinct, again teeter on the abyss. New research finds red wolf ancestry on Galveston Island—providing opportunities for additional conservation action and difficult policy challenges.

US proposes shrinking last endangered red wolf habitat

June 27, 2018

The Trump administration announced a proposal Wednesday to shrink the habitat of the only endangered red wolves left in the wild, and to give landowners more leeway to kill any of the animals that stray onto private property.

Record number of Mexican gray wolves found dead in 2018

December 13, 2018

Wildlife managers have confirmed a record number of Mexican gray wolves have been reported dead this year, fueling concerns about the decades-long effort to return the endangered predator to the southwestern U.S.

Mexican gray wolf population grows by 1 animal, survey says

February 22, 2018

At least one more endangered Mexican gray wolf is roaming the American Southwest compared with a year earlier, and U.S. wildlife officials said Wednesday that lower survival rates among pups are primarily to blame for the ...

Recommended for you

Scientists engineer new CRISPR platform for DNA targeting

January 23, 2019

A team that includes the scientist who first harnessed the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 and other systems for genome editing of eukaryotic organisms, including animals and plants, has engineered another CRISPR system, called ...

9 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Thorium Boy
1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 13, 2019
Enviros "declare" a lot of things. Most turn out to be wrong.
Parsec
5 / 5 (6) Jan 13, 2019
When pilots put aircraft on autopilot, you will find that the plane is constantly moving from one heading to another, and constantly being corrected. So in that sense, the autopilot is steering in the "wrong" direction more than 99% of the time. Yet the process works because of the auto-correction.

Anti-science partisans who disdain the entire process of knowledge gathering in the scientific method, like "Thorium-boy" above, fail to understand that science is also often "wrong". But unlike partisans who cannot and do not change stances, opinions, or open their mind to changes, science freely autocorrects on a constant basis.

Indeed, claiming a scientific result is wrong simply because it contradicts a previous result, or visa versa, is signaling their ignorance of science and the entire process we use for knowledge formation. This denies the foundation for our entire technological society.
torbjorn_b_g_larsson
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2019
Well said, Parsec! On that note, same as in product development, some 80-90 % of ideas are scrapped before declaration (passing peer review), so it is a continuous improvement process.

The take away from the article is not that this "incredibly rare" find has upset environmental protection, but that it should be eased (less problematic species; more surviving alleles).
Ojorf
3.7 / 5 (6) Jan 14, 2019
Enviros "declare" a lot of things. Most turn out to be wrong.


... and your track record is ...
NeMaTo
5 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
"The genetic analysis found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote"

So, why did so many news outlets call them 'dogs' and not 'coyotes'? News reporting is so awful it can't even get the basic facts right. (this phys.org article is good though).
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2019
Enviros "declare" a lot of things. Most turn out to be wrong.
says Thorium Boy

Just by looking at the photos in the article, it is easy to see that these red wolves are not TRUE wolves but a mixture with coyote. The EPA and other orgs are involved in preserving species, genus, etc. of wild animals - particularly from hunters and ranchers. But red wolves, coyotes and wolves in general are all meat eaters and, as such, they will "take" whatever livestock they can find - which is an expensive loss for the owners. Placing all of the red wolves on a single island in Texas may seem like a good idea, but for the inbreeding factor - which is bad as it weakens the pups generation after generation, and subjects them to diseases and inability to breed.
Environmentalists do have some good ideas, but some of their ideas may be unpopular with the public. When a dog, cat or even a small child is taken by such wild animals - it is a loss for humans who love their pets and/or children.
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (2) Jan 15, 2019
@Parsec
It seems that (In the above article) it isn't science that is "on trial", but the need for expeditious conservation to protect these animals. Science is only involved because

...we really need to let science do its due diligence to determine what this animal is," she said


and also to determine at what percentages and what their needs are.
Personally, I prefer 100% wolf stock as they are graceful and beautiful animals in appearance.
Da Schneib
1 / 5 (1) Jan 15, 2019
@SEU thinks jebus will kill all the wolfses with laser beams from its eyes: https://pbs.twimg...pg:large
Surveillance_Egg_Unit
3 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2019
Trolling me again, Da Pussyman? Your jebus is gonna put you in a frying pan and cook you.
ROFLMAO

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.