Ghost In The Pack
By. Luna Carson
Recent findings in the DNA of wild canines in Texas, may just be the hail Mary needed to help further revive a species in critical danger.
The red wolf (Canis Rufus) which once had a habitat range that spanned from Texas to New York, has been drastically reduced over the years to the point where red wolves were once thought to be extinct. Red wolves are now only surviving from a reintroduced population that can be found within federally protected land in Dare County, North Carolina.
In Texas, biologists have been taking a closer look at a population of canines that initially were discounted as being no more than a “mystery coyote” species to being potentially looked at as a scientific selling point to increase conservation actions.
Red Wolf: A History
Red wolves hence named for their captivating tawny colored fur, are among the top 10 most endangered species in North America. In the time I've spent observing two captive red wolves under the protection of the Species Survival Plan, these nocturnal hunters despite their frenetic energy which is very reminiscent of our own domestic breeds, display a shy and secretive nature. This comes as no surprise seeing as one of the main reasons this species is floundering with as many as 20-30 mature individuals in the wild, stems from them being extensively hunted due to predator control programs and loss of habitat.
Additionally, it has been well documented that another risk to the population comes from the inter-breeding of red wolves and coyotes. If we assess this situation according to the adage of beggars can’t be choosers, this predicament we have put these wolves in gives them very little options to choose from in order to protect their lineage.
In the 1960’s governmental agencies officially listed the red wolf as endangered under the US Endangered Species Preservation Act. Between 1973-1977 along the Gulf Coast as many as 240 individuals were trapped with the hope of gathering enough genetic diversity to accomplish a captive breeding program. Out of the sum total, 40 individuals were selected for the program and only 17 were found to be genetically pure. Among those 17 individuals, 14 wolves were successful in reproducing thus creating the foundation of which all red wolves in the aforementioned protected land in North Carolina are descended from today.
The Population in Question
The population biologists have been studying are a group of canines located in Galveston Island that have an unknown taxonomic rank. In the study photographic evidence show that these unidentified canids have the size and stature of a coyote, but with a coloration more indicative to a red wolf. An important factor to note is the area in which these canids are living. Though Galveston Island, Texas is not an area in complete isolation from humanity, it is separated from the mainland enough to create a naturally occurring controlled population.
In order to assess the theory that these canines possess red wolf genetics, scientists collected tissue samples from the “unidentified” canines on GI. The samples acquired came from specimens that were already deceased, some of which were found as roadkill. Next reference samples were gathered among various canines all over the country such as coyotes, gray wolves, and true red wolves from wild sanctuaries and captive breeding programs. This allowed scientists to account for the variation of genetic ancestry among the different wolf species.
The tissue samples were examined according to both genomic and mitochondrial DNA sequencing analysis and the results showed that the genetics found in the coyotes on Galveston Island had alleles that matched alleles found in the protected population of red wolves, but additionally found alleles referred to as “Ghost” Alleles because scientists observed genetics belonging to red wolves that did not match up with the reference samples gathered from the protected population.
The rediscovery of genetics previously thought to have been lost is a big thing. Conservation efforts have been vigorously researching and developing new ways to expand the gene pools of endangered species that are on the brink of extinction.
In the case of the red wolf, conservation efforts have been struggling to maintain viable red wolf populations in the States. Mismanagement and the whiplash of governmental policy changes, and a general sense of apathy for wildlife coming from political leaders have caused progress in these matters to yo-yo back and forth so much so that now that yo-yo is hanging on by a thread. The most stunning example of this comes right from the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. In June of 2018 the USFWS released the 10j rule proposal, stating that any red wolves found outside the managed protected area could be legally hunted. Currently, before anything is finalized, there are population assessment studies being done with the potential to wrap-up by as early March of 2019.
I do not envy anyone working for the USFWS here. On one hand this decision has been made in order to protect true red wolf bloodlines, and there has been talk about keeping them just in zoo’s that participate in breeding programs with all other designated institutions. On the other hand, as much as the interbreeding of red wolves and coyotes has been seen as a threat to the population, the scientific results show that they are actually a saving grace for the species and any sort of red wolf genes whether pure or otherwise should be protected.
This discovery with the right support behind it can mean great things for Conservation Biology and U.S ecosystem health. Let’s just hope that if in the future if we drop the ball again, it can be fetched.