Friday, June 17, 2011

Unraveling wolf DNA

 

Photo by Larry Master

 

 

 

By Phil Brown

Several years ago, the Defenders of Wildlife abandoned a campaign to reintroduce gray wolves to the Adirondacks after a study suggested that the region’s original canid was the red wolf, not the gray.

Now a new study of canid genetics—billed as the most thorough of its kind—suggests that it was the gray wolf that lived here after all and that the so-called red wolf is not a distinct species.

Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum, said the wolves that roamed the Adirondacks probably were similar to wolves living today in the western Great Lakes region. “We don’t have any evidence for there being a distinct species in the East,” said Kays, one of sixteen scientists who collaborated on the study published by Genome Research.

This conclusion is at odds with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent proposal to declare the eastern wolf a separate species, Canis lycaon. Hitherto, the agency has regarded the eastern wolf as a subspecies of the gray wolf, Canis lupus. According to the service, Canis lycaon once lived in the Northeast, but there is no evidence that it still does. The service proposes to review the status of Canis lycaon in the United States and Canada to determine whether it should be classified as an endangered species.

Kays contends that the federal proposal is not supported by the DNA evidence. Although the eastern wolf likely was smaller than western wolves, he said, “it was not so different that you’d call it a separate species.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service unveiled its eastern-wolf proposal in early May, shortly before the genetic study was announced. A spokeswoman said the service would take the study into consideration before implementing the proposal.

The DNA researchers analyzed forty-eight thousand “genetic markers” in gray wolves, red wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs to ascertain the kinship among the canids. The authors describe their study as “the most extensive [genetic] survey of any wild vertebrate group” ever done.

The researchers found a varying degree of hybridization between wolves and coyotes. The farther east wolves live, the greater the proportion of coyote DNA. Pure wolves exist mainly in the western states. Wolves in the western Great Lakes region are 85 percent wolf and 15 percent coyote, the study found, while those in Algonquin Park, in eastern Ontario, are 58 percent wolf.

The red wolf—which now lives only in North Carolina—is just 24 percent wolf. The federal government considers the red wolf an endangered species and intensely manages the population to keep the wolves from breeding with coyotes. Yet the study concludes that the red wolf is not a unique species and questions the rationale of managing it as such, especially since it appears to be a coyote/wolf hybrid. Indeed, given its genetic makeup, is it even a wolf?

“That’s a good question,” Kays said. “It’s more coyote than wolf, but what do you call that?”

But Kays said the wolves mentioned earlier—as well as the wolf that once lived in the Adirondacks—should be considered varieties of the gray wolf.

Wolves in the Great Lakes region probably started mating with coyotes more than six hundred years ago, according to the study. Coyotes later disappeared from the region. In the last century, as coyotes migrated east, they again interbred with wolves.

In an interview with the Associated Press, wildlife biologist David Mech, founder of the International Wolf Center in Minnesota, cast doubt on the theory that eastern wolves are hybrids.

“How do you reconcile this with the fact that gray wolves typically don’t breed with coyotes, but kill them?” said Mech, who has written several books on wolves. “We have no records in the West of wolves hybridizing with coyotes, even in areas where single wolves looking for mates have dispersed into the middle of coyote country.”

The study also revealed that coyotes have DNA from both wolves and dogs. Coyotes in the Northeast, for example, are 9 percent wolf and 9 percent dog. Another study co-authored by Kays, published last year, showed that northeastern coyotes are larger and more wolflike than coyotes in the West. Coyotes did not arrive in New York State until the last century.

Kays believes that gray wolves in the Great Lakes region would do well if introduced to the Adirondacks, but he said he’d rather see the species return on its own. He expects that many people would oppose a government-sponsored wolf reintroduction.

“There’s enough habitat,” he said. “It’s a question of managing conflicts with people.”

Defenders of Wildlife spokesman John Motsinger said the nonprofit organization has made no decisions on whether to revive its campaign to restore wolves in the Adirondacks or anywhere in the Northeast. “There certainly is habitat that is suitable for wolves in the Northeast,” he said. “But reintroductions take substantial resources and a strong commitment at the state and federal level, as well as from local communities. It would take significant time to obtain that kind of support.”

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has no plans to reintroduce wolves to the Adirondacks, according to spokesman Michael Bopp, who refused to comment further.

 

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