How many species of North American wolf are there? Trick question. There’s actually only one, and he’s angry that you’re infringing on its territory (or so I’ve heard).
New research out of UCLA reports that while the US originally reported three distinct species—the gray wolf, the eastern wolf, and the red wolf—there is only one: the gray wolf. The others are just gray wolves mixed with coyote DNA.
The study, which was published by biologists in Science Advances, comes on the heels of an important question that could be decided this fall: should the gray wolf remain under the protection of the Endangered Species Act?
The US Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that the species be removed from its list due to a factual error in the listing. The organization stated that while it originally stated the wolf’s geographic range included the Great Lakes region and 29 Eastern states, this was found to be incorrect. The eastern wolf—a newly recognized species—actually occupied the area. Basically, it came down to semantics.
However, scientists found after analyzing the genomes of the three species of North American wolves and coyotes that they all had something in common. According to the UCLA press release:
“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. “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.”
Scientists suggest that the two species mixed a few hundred years ago in the southern US, which would result in physically unique wolves, but not in unique species. Red wolves are around 25 percent gray wolf and 75 percent coyote while eastern wolves are around 75 percent gray wolf and 25 percent coyote.
As for why there was inter-breeding, the researchers present a theory at the end of the paper. Bounties beginning in the 1880s greatly diminished the wolf population, meaning that some would look to other species to mate. The extermination of wolves in the South—where red wolves are most prevalent—would’ve resulted in the higher percentage of coyote DNA.
This could be good news for the gray wolf, but on the opposite end, could mean the end of protection for the red wolf. It was declared extinct in the wild in 1980, and has been under federal protection, but, according to New Scientist, it could lose that status because it’s a hybrid, and the Endangered Species Act doesn’t mention hybrids.
So, it’s still unclear what this new research will mean for the preservation of our teenage years’ favorite animal. For now, and until we discover that direwolves are alive and well and roaming through the backwoods of North America, we’ll just have to deal with the fact that there is only one proper species of wolf on the continent.