According to a new study the gray wolf is the only distinct species of wolf that is indigenous to North America.

The paper was published in Science Advances this Wednesday, and finds that the red wolf and the eastern wolf are not in fact distinct species. Red wolves are found in the southern United States and the eastern wolf lives in central Ontario, writes Mary Pascaline for International Business Times.

Gray Wolf
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Coyote-wolf mix does not make distinct species

Researchers found that the red wolf and the eastern wolf are in fact gray wolves which have coyote DNA.

“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 Robert Wayne, senior author and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It is thought that the gray wolf mixed with coyote in the southern United States a few hundred years ago. This mix results in wolves that are unique physically but are not in fact a distinct species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had previously suggested that the gray wolf should be taken off the endangered species list because of a factual error. The authority stated that the gray wolf lived in the Great Lakes region and 29 eastern states, however the area is populated by the eastern wolf.

Will wolf lose protected status?

“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,” Wayne said.

However this could mean that the red wolf and the eastern wolf could lose their protected status. Under United States law hybrid animals do not have protection.

The paper goes on to theorize on the reason for interbreeding between gray wolves and coyotes. The wolf population was badly diminished in the 1880s due to bounties paid to hunters, and the team believes this could have led wolves to look to other species in order to find a mate.

Protected status important for preservation

Red wolves have 75% coyote DNA and 25% gray wolf DNA. The eastern wolf has 25% coyote DNA and 75% gray wolf DNA. The team believes that the hunting of wolves in the southern states, where red wolves are now more common, could be the reason behind the higher percentage of coyote DNA in red wolves.

In 1980 the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild and has been subject to federal protection, but that could now change. It is not yet clear what effect the research will have on the conservation of red wolves, but scientists now say that only one real species of wolf exists in North America.

Campaigners will be hoping that the federal protection remains in place in order to maintain remaining wolf populations. The presence of a species on the endangered animals list has been proven to have a good effect on raising awareness for the cause and encouraging action to be taken.

If the wolves were taken off the endangered species list it could encourage the false impression that populations are healthy and there is nothing to worry about. Hopefully the authorities will use this latest piece of research wisely without further endangering remaining wolf populations.