The genome of Indian wolves has been sequenced for the first time, revealing some fascinating and worrying facts about these animals. Not only are they genetically distinct from the gray wolf population, but they could also be the most ancient surviving lineage of wolves and, unfortunately, might be the most endangered wolves on the planet.
A new study, reported in Molecular Ecology, set out to ascertain where in the lupine lineage these animals fit in. To find out, researchers sequenced the genome of four Indian and two Tibetan wolves, and compared these genomes against 31 additional canid genomes. The results revealed that Tibetan and Indian wolves are distinct from each other and from other wolf populations.
In light of their findings, the team on the study are calling for these two populations to be recognized as evolutionarily significant units, an interim designation until a new taxonomic classification can be agreed upon. The change, though temporary, will help locals and scientists in getting support to protect these animals.
“This paper may be a game-changer for the species to persist in these landscapes,” said co-author Bilal Habib, a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India, in a statement. “People may realize that the species with whom we have been sharing the landscape is the most distantly divergent wolf alive today.”
The range of Indian wolves was previously thought to stretch from Turkey, across the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. But the genomic data from this study suggests that the Indian wolf is only found in parts of Pakistan and India. This would make its true population much smaller than previously believed.
“Wolves are one of the last remaining large carnivores in Pakistan, and many of India’s large carnivores are endangered,” explained lead author Lauren Hennelly, a doctoral student with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Mammalian Ecology Conservation Unit. “I hope that knowing they are so unique and found only there will inspire local people and scientists to learn more about conserving these wolves and grassland habitats.”
According to a press release, recent studies had already confirmed that the Tibetan wolf lineage is distinct and older than the common gray wolf lineage. This new work shows that the Indian wolf DNA is even more divergent than that of the Tibetan wolf. Both of them separated much earlier from their common ancestor and the Holarctic wolves found in Eurasia and North America. Indian and Tibetan wolves might even have been distinguished populations for as long as 700,000 years.