Scientists hope that the key to reviving red wolves, which are at risk of extinction, may lie in the species of a coyote with the vital offspring of the red wolf.
Red wolves once lived all over the southeastern United States but were declared extinct in the wild in 1980. Today, thanks to conservationists’ work, about 20 red wolves in the wild in North Carolina have also been released from captivity. 240 in American zoos and sanctuaries.
Bridgett vonHoldt, a biologist at Princeton University, had heard stories from viewers of Texas and Louisiana. They realized that coyotes in their locals were “different” – much more significant and looked more like red wolves than an ordinary coyotes. A genetic study published in Science Advances by vonHoldt and his team on June 29 found that many of those coyotes had an essential offspring of the red wolf, which is the result of breeding between red wolves and foxes.
“Even though the red wolves were extinct, or we are told, those genes may have survived the coyotes that carried that inheritance,” Vonholdt explained to CNN. These “genes” can play an essential role in maintaining the value of the red wolf.
The study focuses on a coyote population in southwestern Louisiana, near where the last red wolves were discovered and abducted in the 1970s.
The team took samples from about 30 coyotes in Louisiana and analyzed their genetics to identify resembling red wolves. “Red wolf ancestry lists range from 30 to 70%,” said vonHoldt.
The acquisition raises essential questions about conservation policy. Coyote, far from endangered, abounds in most parts of North America and is illegal to hunt in the United States. But the red wolves are protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Decades of breeding have made it difficult to distinguish between the two species, as vonHoldt’s genetic analysis of coyotes in southwestern Louisiana shows.
“A lot of people will ask: If something has 70% of the red wolf’s genes, is that a red wolf?” said vonHoldt. “I have no answer for them. The name of the government.”