Although red wolves are critically endangered, their DNA may survive in other species. Researchers have discovered that a population of canines living on Galveston Island, off the coast of Texas, have unique red wolf genes that may have disappeared in the only known population of these animals. The discovery is reported in the journal Genes.
The history of this species is not a happy story. Wild red wolves went extinct in the wild by 1980 and the only group that remains are the descendants of a captive breeding program. While they increased in numbers for several years, recently the population took a nosedive. Now, only 40 individuals remain.
"While there have been reports of 'red wolves' along the Gulf Coast, conventional science dismissed them as misidentified coyotes," lead author Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a graduate researcher at Princeton, said in a statement. "Now, we have shown that at least one example of a 'red wolf sighting' has some validity to it, as these Galveston Island animals definitely carry genes that are present in the captive red wolf population yet [are] absent from coyotes and gray wolf populations."
The samples were collected by wildlife biologist Ron Wooten from two road-killed animals. The research team also extracted DNA samples from several different species of the American Canis genus: 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone, 10 eastern wolves from Ontario, and 11 red wolves from the breeding program.
The Galveston Island animals are much more similar to the captive red wolves than any other species tested. The animals also carry a unique genetic variation not found in any other canine species in North America.
"This variation may represent the red wolf derived genes that were lost as a result of captive breeding," said Heppenheimer. "It's incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region where they were thought to be extinct, and it's even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved in the wild."
While these are early days and more research is necessary, it might be possible to reintroduce red wolves to the area in order for their lost genes to be expressed once again in the population.