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Red Wolf Controversy

Posted Dec 05 2012 12:00am
When European explorers first reached North America, red wolves inhabited the southeastern quadrant of the Continent, from New England to the Ozarks of Missouri, southward to the Gulf Coast.  Smaller than gray wolves but larger than coyotes, they favored swamp forests and river valleys.  By the 1970's, habitat loss and predator control programs had eliminated them from almost all of that range and captive breeding efforts were initiated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1980.  The first reintroduction of red wolves occurred in eastern North Carolina, in 1987, and approximately 100 live in the wild today; a little over 200 remain in breeding centers.

Fossil discoveries have long suggested that gray wolves, red wolves and coyotes diverged from a common ancestor early in the Pleistocene (between 2 and 1 million years ago).  However, recent DNA studies revealed that 80% of the red wolf's genes are of coyote origin while 20% are from gray wolves, suggesting that red wolves are hybrids of the other two species; modern wolves and coyotes are known to hybridize with domestic canines and the geneticists theorize that red wolves arose when the natural range of gray wolves and coyotes had significant overlap, perhaps within the past few thousand years.

While this conclusion could have significant implications related to listing the red wolf as an endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to regard that canine as a distinct species and some scientific organizations and environmental groups list the red wolf as a subspecies of the gray wolf.  Regardless of their official status, red wolves were apex predators through a large portion of North America and vital to those ecosystems before humans intervened.  In reality, hybridism plays a significant role in evolution and whether natural interspecies breeding occurred in the distant past or in more recent times should not affect our conservation efforts.  After all, non-African humans are hybrids as well, possessing a relatively small but significant contribution of genes (5%) from Neanderthals or Denisovans; see my post on 2-4-12 .
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