There's only one true wolf species in North America, says new study

August 1, 2016, 9:42 a.m.
A wolf with pup
Photo: Vibe Images/Shutterstock

A new study shows that the various wolf species we know in North America all link back to the gray wolf, and this is the continent's only true wolf species. The finding could completely change how the Endangered Species Act is used to protect species.

A team of researchers analyzed the genomes of 12 pure gray wolves and three coyotes from areas where the two species do not overlap. They also analyzed the genomes of six Eastern wolves and three red wolves. What they found is that the two latter species are actually genetic hybrids of the two former species.

“We found that the red wolves are about 75 percent coyote ancestry, and the Eastern wolf has more gray wolf ancestry, about 75 percent,” Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA and author on the study, told the Los Angeles Times.

The findings could shake up conservation efforts for wolves. According to the New York Times:

The gray wolf and red wolf were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s and remain protected today, to the periodic consternation of ranchers and agricultural interests. In 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the Eastern wolf as a separate species, which led officials to recommend delisting the gray wolf. Conservationists won a lawsuit that forced the agency to abandon the plan.

The new findings could help ensure the gray wolf stays on the Endangered Species List and continues to receive protections.

It also could change the way we protect wildlife, potentially opening up room for adding hybrid species to the list. This would reflect how nature really works, as species constantly change and adapt — and hybridize — yet still need protections to survive and continue to fill beneficial roles their ecosystem.

"Our findings demonstrate how a strict designation of a species under the [Endangered Species Act] that does not consider admixture can threaten the protection of endangered entities. We argue for a more balanced approach that focuses on the ecological context of admixture and allows for evolutionary processes to potentially restore historical patterns of genetic variation," write the study authors.

Linda Y. Rutledge, an expert on Eastern wolves, notes hybrid animals still play a crucial role as top predators. "If it can kill deer in eastern landscapes, it’s worth saving," she told NYT.

This video further explains why these findings and changing how the Endangered Species Act addressed hybrids is important: