DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack In this June 13, 2017, file photo, the parents of this 7-week old red wolf pup keep an eye on their offspring at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)
DNA of wolf declared extinct in wild lives on in Texas pack
Lexile

Assign to Google Classroom

A pack of wild canines found frolicking near the beaches of the Texas Gulf Coast carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes, according to researchers. It is a surprising discovery because the animal was declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.

The finding has led wildlife biologists and others to develop a new understanding. They say that the red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient. This comes after decades of human hunting, loss of habitat and other factors had led the animal to near decimation.

"Overall, 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." That's according to Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist. She is involved in the research on the pack found on Galveston Island in Texas whose work was published in the scientific journal Genes.

The genetic analysis found that the Galveston canines appear to be a hybrid of red wolf and coyote, but Heppenheimer cautions that without additional testing, it's difficult to label the animal.

Ron Sutherland is a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network. He said it's exciting to have found "this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf." The survival of the red wolf genes "without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news," said Sutherland who was not involved in the Princeton study.

The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild canines, including others in southwestern Louisiana. They bolster the hopes of conservationists dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina. They comprised the only known pack in the wild.

The red wolf tops out at about 80 pounds and was once common. It could be found across a vast region extending from Texas to the south, into the Southeast and up into the Northeast. It was federally classified as endangered in 1967 and was declared extinct in the wild in 1980. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1970s captured a remnant population in Texas and Louisiana. Eventually, it led to a successful captive breeding program. Those canines in 1986 became part of the experimental wild population in North Carolina, but that group has been declining. It peaked at an estimated 120 to 130 wolves in 2006 and a federal report in April said only about 40 remained.

An additional 200 red wolves live in zoos and wildlife facilities, part of captive breeding programs.

A federal judge in November sided with environmental groups. They argued in a lawsuit that efforts by federal authorities to shrink the territory of the wild group in North Carolina were a violation of law. 

The judge ruled U.S. Fish and Wildlife also violated the Endangered Species Act by authorizing private landowners to kill the canine predators even if they weren't threatening humans, livestock or pets.

The debate over red wolf protections could take on new dimensions with the discovery on Galveston.

Sutherland said the Galveston canines have effectively quashed a decades-old impression that led some to believe that red wolves were a feckless predator overwhelmed by the numerical superiority of coyotes. He adds that the Galveston group has DNA that can't be found in the animal's captive population.

"From a practical conservation biology standpoint, these animals have special DNA. They deserve to be protected," he said. He went on to explain that conservation easements that restrict development along parts of the Gulf Coast are an essential first step.

A spokesman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the agency was unable to comment during the partial government shutdown. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said in a statement that the Galveston discovery is "interesting," but "we do not anticipate any regulatory changes or implications in Texas at this time."

Kim Wheeler, executive director of the North Carolina-based Red Wolf Coalition, cautioned that further study of the Galveston pack is needed.

"We can get excited, but in my mind, we really need to let science do its due diligence to determine what this animal is," she said, noting that red wolves can evoke strong feelings in people with livestock or who have other concerns with their predatory nature.

Conservationists, meanwhile, say policymakers need to have a greater appreciation for hybrid animals. When the Endangered Species Act was implemented in the 1970s, conventional wisdom was that hybridization between species — such as the wolf and coyote — was rare and to be avoided. But experts say the thinking on that has changed.

"Now we know hybridization is relatively common in natural systems and does not always have negative consequences, but the policy hasn't quite caught up with this notion," Heppenheimer said.

Filed Under:  
Assigned 30 times
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why do you think it's important to study the DNA of animals like the red wolf?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (1)
  • BrianT-dec
    4/10/2019 - 12:24 p.m.

    these thing are big in extinct animals help them from dying

Leave a comment
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
Leave a comment