A new study aimed to find how many species of wolf live in America ... and it came to a rather surprising conclusion.
When the study began, scientists were trying to answer a relatively straightforward question: how many species of wolves live in America? Where they ended up, however, they probably couldn’t have predicted: they found that there is just one true wolf in America.
That’s the gray wolf, meaning that the eastern wolf of central Ontario and the red wolf in the southern United States aren’t actually pure wolves: they’re coyote and gray wolf hybrids, according to a University of California Los Angeles statement.
It wasn’t even close, in fact. The scientists found that the red wolves were about 75 percent coyote ancestry and the eastern wolf had a solid 25 percent coyote ancestry.
And the findings could have huge ramifications for the species, as it could determine whether gray wolves will continue to receive protection from the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act. When gray wolves first received protection, their historic geographic range included some of the territory occupied by the eastern wolf, so if it gets corrected it could mean the gray wolf gets bumped off the endangered species list.
The scientist involved don’t think that should happen.
“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,” said senior author Robert Wayne, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, in the statement. “We found no evidence for an eastern wolf that has a separate evolutionary legacy. The gray wolf should keep its endangered species status and be preserved because the reason for removing it is incorrect. The gray wolf did live in the Great Lakes area and in the 29 eastern states.”
Still, the results were pretty surprising, he admitted.
“If you did this same experiment with humans — human genomes from Eurasia — you would find that one to four percent of the human genome has what looks like strange genomic elements from another species: Neanderthals,” Wayne said. “In red wolves and eastern wolves, we thought it might be at least 10 to 20 percent of the genome that could not be explained by ancestry from gray wolves and coyotes. However, we found just three to four percent, on average — similar to that found in individuals from the same species when compared to our small reference set.”