Red wolf DNA wild dogs: smaller than better-known gray wolves

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Red wolf DNA wild dogs: smaller than better-known gray wolves.

Researchers have found red wolf DNA in a group of canines living on Galveston Island off the coast of Texas.

The ‘remarkable’ finding comes after red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

A researcher studying the canines on the island asked for a DNA analysis on two animals killed by a vehicle.

‘This is a remarkable finding, as red wolves were declared extinct in this region over 35 years ago and remain critically endangered,’ said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a graduate student in the lab of Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton.

‘While there have been reports of ‘red wolves’ along the Gulf Coast, conventional science dismissed them as misidentified coyotes.

‘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 absent from coyotes and gray wolf populations.’

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In addition to sharing genes unique to the captive red wolf population, the Galveston Island animals also carried a unique genetic variation not found in any of the known canines of North America.

The study appears in the special issue ‘Conservation Genetics and Genomics’ of the journal Genes.

The astonishing find traces its origins to wildlife biologist Ron Wooten, who had been observing a population of canines on Galveston Island.

He emailed vonHoldt’s lab asking for genetic testing of two road-killed animals.

‘I regularly receive this kind of inquiry, but something about Wooten’s email stood out,’ said vonHoldt.

‘His enthusiasm and dedication struck me, along with some very intriguing photographs of the canines. They looked particularly interesting and I felt it was worth a second look.’

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‘Somewhere along the way, the second sample had gotten lost and he ended up sending us the dirty scalpel he had used to take the sample,’ said Heppenheimer.

‘We have a huge inventory of coyote and wolf samples in the lab, and it’s quite rare that I would remember any one sample arriving, but no one had ever sent us a scalpel before, so it was a pretty memorable experience trying to extract this DNA.’

Once the researchers extracted and processed the DNA, they compared the samples to each of the legally recognized wild species of the genus Canis that occur in North America.

They used samples from 29 coyotes from Alabama, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas; 10 gray wolves from Yellowstone National Park; 10 eastern wolves (C. lycaon) from Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario; and 11 red wolves from the red wolf captive breeding program.

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When they ran their genetic analyses, they found that the Galveston Island animals were more similar to captive red wolves than typical southeastern coyotes.

‘I think we were all genuinely surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in either of these samples,’ said Heppenheimer.

‘Texas may be an appropriate location for future reintroduction efforts.’

In addition to sharing genes unique to the captive red wolf population, the Galveston Island animals also carried a unique genetic variation not found in any of the known canines of 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.’

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