Last week, three species of wolf roamed North America. This week, there's only one.
No, they haven’t been killed off by hunters, nor have they migrated en masse south of the border. As a genetic analysis has just revealed, the eastern wolf is a hybrid species between the gray wolf and the coyote, as is the red wolf, with the former being mostly gray wolf and the latter being mostly coyote.
“The recently defined eastern wolf is just a gray wolf and coyote mix, with about 75 percent of its genome assigned to the gray wolf,” coordinating author Robert Wayne, a University of California Los Angeles professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, said in a statement.
On the other hand, red wolves are 25 percent gray wolf and 75 percent coyote. So, as of this week, there aren’t three species of North American wolves – there’s just one, the gray wolf. One wolf to rule them all, as they say.
This genetic analysis, published in Science Advances, has not just sent shockwaves through the zoological community – it’s also reignited a contentious debate on conservation.
How the red wolf and eastern wolf disappeared overnight. AAAS via YouTube
The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is an immediately recognizable beast, one native to the wildernesses of both Eurasia and North America. Thanks to human proliferation across North America, the once continentally widespread canid has been reduced to living in only the most remote areas of the wilderness. It has long been considered an endangered species, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service recently removed it based on what they considered to be a case of mistaken identity.
The protection of the wolf was previously justified based on its incredible geographic range, which in the US also included the 29 Eastern states and the Great Lakes region. However, in 2013, their research asserted that a species dubbed the “eastern wolf” (Canis lycaon) occupied these regions, and not the gray wolf. Thus, the original reason for the protective designation was rendered invalid, and they were taken off the list.
However, this new study has come to the conclusion that this analysis is erroneous. After a lengthy genetic analysis of all North Americans wolves, including the gray wolf, eastern wolf, and the red wolf, it appears that the eastern wolf isn’t real – it’s a hybrid between the gray wolf and the coyote (Canis latrans).
Pure eastern wolves were once thought to reside in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, but genome sequencing revealed that they are in fact 50 percent gray wolf and 50 percent coyote – a true mongrel. The red wolf (Canis rufus) is also a non-distinct entity.
Ultimately, this means that the geographic range of the gray wolf does include the Eastern states and the Great Lakes. The logic behind its original protective status was sound after all, and it should be relisted as “endangered.”
House Coyote, the co-conspirator in the zoological coup. kojihirano/Shutterstock