Red Wolf Rediscovery: Ancestral Genes Found Alive In Texas

The red wolf (Canis rufus) has been rediscovered along the Texas Gulf Coast or at least its essence has proven to survive long-thought extinction.

A collaborative effort of Princeton, Trent University, University of Georgia and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium researchers among others makes this claim in a just published study preprint (not yet peer reviewed) at biorxiv.org.

Rediscovering species once thought to be extinct or on the edge of extinction is rare. Red wolves have been extinct along the Gulf Coast region since 1980, with their last populations found in coastal Louisiana and Texas. We report the rediscovery of red wolf ghost alleles in a canid population on Galveston Island, Texas.

Biology Online Dictionary defines an allele as “one member of a pair (or any of the series) of genes occupying a specific spot on a chromosome that controls the same trait.”

An example would be eye color or head shape.

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An incredible shot of a gathering of wild canids in Galveston County taken by Ron Wooten one of the study’s authors. Notice the one howling on the right.

A “ghost allele” is essentially a genetic variant that has disappeared from a population through reduction or some other factor and then rediscovered elsewhere.

In this case it was found in two road-killed wild candid specimens from Galveston Island, TX near the last known stronghold of the red wolf.

Among the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act, the red wolf was declared extinct after decades of relentless predator control and habitat destruction led to strained populations and hybridization with coyotes.

Some 14 of hundreds of canids caught by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials were considered to be true representatives of the species and became the genesis of a successful nation-wide captive-breeding program and limited wild restoration effort that exists in North Carolina today.

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The first photo I had published back in 1992 when I had just begun my freshman year in college. These pair of red wolves lived at the Texas Zoo in Victoria.

The study authors note surviving ancestral traits from the shared common ancestor of coyotes and red wolves could have drifted to a high frequency in the captive breeding red wolf population and in a small portion of Gulf Coast coyotes; or wild coyotes in the Gulf Coast region are a reservoir of red wolf ghost alleles that have persisted into the 21st century.

Through interbreeding with coyotes, endangered and extinct red wolf genetic variation has persisted and could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry. This unprecedented discovery opens new avenues for contemporary red wolf conservation and management, where ghost alleles could be re-introduced into the current captive and experimental  populations

Noted red wolf researcher and former USFWS biologist Dr. Ron Nowak said the study supports long-standing morphological evidence and visual observations that animals at least partly red wolf have continued to exist along the Texas coast, in other parts of eastern Texas and in Louisiana from the 1970s to the present day.

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A red-wolf like canid I captured an image of along the Texas coast in 2003. Did this animal contain the “ghost alleles” found in the study?

“This new information should help to stimulate further relevant study that should ascertain the status of red wolf genetic material across larger areas, determine the mechanisms that have enabled survival of such material and develop appropriate management programs,” he said. 

Red wolf recovery has been controversial due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is its protection under the Endangered Species Act which spooks some private landowners.

A few scientists have even questioned whether Canis rufus exists at all by hypothesizing it is a fertile gray wolf/coyote hybrid, not a separate species.

Other interests are concerned about recovery impact on deer populations and livestock and the corporate wildlife media have all but ignored the red wolf’s story.

It has never resonated with the public at large like its larger cousin the gray wolf’s comeback in the Yellowstone region, though the red wolf has long been much more at risk.

But the aforementioned essence of the red wolf has survived despite the obstacles and may even be thriving, not only on Galveston Island but in a broader area.

Thousands of hunters, hikers, fishermen and landowners have reported seeing wolves in the Texas-Louisiana region since 1980. They have often been told they saw a coyote or a feral dog, not a wolf.

This study shows that if it looks like a wolf and howls like a wolf that it might not necessarily be fully wolf or fully coyote as we currently understand them.

What people are seeing in Texas and Louisiana however could be wild canids with genetics that could be the key to this misunderstood specie’s survival.

Chester Moore, Jr.

Listen to a podcast on this discovery at The Wildlife Journalist® by clicking below.

(To subscribe to this blog enter your email address in the box on the top right of this page. To contact Chester Moore e-mail chester@chestermoore.com.)

*Study Authors (Elizabeth Heppenheimer, Kristin E. Brzeski, Ron Wooten, Will Waddell, Linda Y. Rutledge, Michael J. Chamberlain, Daniel R. Stahler, Joseph W. Hinton, Bridgett M. vonHoldt)

The Black Panther Hoax Pt. 3: Enter the Black Longtail

Black Panther Search 2007—My heart pounded as I saw the silhouette of a black cat move through the tall grass.

Headed toward a clearing on the edge of a bayou it would be only seconds before it stepped into the open.

The fact I was on an expedition to investigate “black panther” sightings in the area added to the excitement.

What was I about to see?

As its head peeked out of the grass at a distance of about 70 yards I thought it might be a jaguarundi,.

When the entire body came out, it was obvious that was not the case.

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The cat the author saw was not a jaguarundi (pictured here’d) but something similar in size.

I estimated this cat to be around 42-45 inches in length, stocky, with a tail longer than the body and sporting a solid, dark coat.

The cat quickly shot into a thin line of cattail that intersected a marsh and I never saw it again.

This was fall of 2007 and I knew I had not seen a jaguarundi or a jaguar or a black cougar. It was a domestic cat or some kind of hybrid and it was bigger than normal. And somehow I knew that when an untrained eye saw this cat -“black panther- would get bestowed upon it quickly.

About two years after that as game camera prices plummeted and smart phones began featuring quality cameras I started getting many cat photos sent by readers. Most of them inquired whether the cat they captured an image of was a “black panther”. A couple asked if it might be a jaguarundi.

All but two of them have been some kind of feral house cat.

And I believe they are the source of the vast majority of “black panther” sightings.

I believe this for three key reasons.

  1. People Cannot Judge Size: I have received dozens of photos of bobcats people sent to me insisting they were cougars. I have now come to the conclusion many cougar sightings in nontraditional habitat are bobcats. I have personally identified dozens of “black panther” sightings as house cats or some kind of hybrid. (We’ll get to that in a minute)
  2. Distribution: Feral house cats are distributed throughout North America, have large populations in many forested areas and are the only known black cat to dwell continent-wide. I have received multiple photos of readers wondering what kind of wild cat they captured on their game camera. It turned out they were white, tabby and other colored feral house cats. People are not prepared to see a feral cat in the woods but they are abundant. When they see a black one they often label it “panther”.
  3. New research in Australia which has a massive feral cat problem suggests these cats are growing to much bigger sizes than anyone would expect. Recent states attributed to Oklahoma wildlife officials state sizes of up to 35 pounds for feral cats.

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The photo above was submitted by a landowner who wishes to remain anonymous.

As you can see it features a large black cat with a long tail. The cat has a build somewhat like a domestic cat but it has a very long tail and judging by the size of the cinder blocks it is larger than the average house cat.

In my book Field Guide to Mystery Cats of Texas, I have officially dubbed these “Black Longtails”.

Texas-based researcher Jeff Stewart who captured a similar cat on a game camera in Panola County has an interesting theory.

“One theory I have been working on to explain the sightings of large black cats in the South is that interbreeding could happen between a large cat with no black gene (like a cougar) and another which has the gene then the offspring have the ability to be black or even produce black kittens themselves,” Stewart said.

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The Jeff Stewart black cat photo.

Hybridization is rampant in cats and stranger things have happened in nature.

These black longtails could simply be feral domestic house cats that are adapting to a wild life. Or maybe there has been some sort of hybridization going on that science has not discovered.

Feral house cats are the key to understanding the bulk of the black panther phenomenon in America.

My research has shown me jaguarundis play a part in this as well and there is a slight chance of melanistic jaguars and bobcats in the mix. We can scratch black cougars off the list as there is no evidence they exist.

The corporate wildlife media have perpetuated the black panther hoax for ratings and web traffic and most amateur researchers including myself have overlooked the obvious as a solution because so many credible witnesses have great panther stories.

On this end the research will continue in the field and by communicating with people throughout the country who hunt, fish, ranch, farm and spend time in nature.

The black longtail is out there and whether is an evolving house cat or something else it is a mystery worth pursuing despite its obviously domestic roots.

Chester Moore, Jr.