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Georgia and Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium researchers among others makes this claim in a just published study preprint (not yet peer reviewed) at biorxiv.org.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.
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.
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.
“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.
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