The Truth About the Red Wolf’s Status as a Species

There are a lot of hostile jerks on the internet who are quick to insult the intelligence of people they disagree with. Not long ago, I encountered one of these shmucks.  Scottie Westfall writes the Retrieverman blog which is an interesting one focusing on dog breeding, evolution, and genetics.  He’s convinced recent genetics studies support his long held belief that the red wolf (Canis rufus) is nothing more than a hybrid between the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the coyote (Canis latrans).  I commented on his blog, suggesting how the natural history of this hybridization could have occurred beginning in the Pleistocene.  My comment was consistent with the findings of the study he cited.  I wasn’t disagreeing with his premise.

 A Shmuck on the internet.

His response to my comment revealed blind hostility.  He wrote that my “inability to understand the study and my parrotting of data it falsified was telling.”  This would be a cleverly worded retort, if I had been in conflict with his opinion.  But I wasn’t.  It was obvious he didn’t understand what I wrote because I wasn’t even disagreeing with his conclusion.  And his response implied that I was some how evil or an idiot simply because we supposedly disagreed about some obscure scientific controversy.  On this same response thread he’s carrying on a long debate (92 responses and counting) with an ardent anti-hunter in which his tactic is to call her an “idiot.”  What’s that say about his mentality and personality?

Now, I’ve had time to read the literature in depth, and I’ve discovered the genetic studies are contradictory.  Evolution is seldom black and white.  Usually, there is quite a bit of gray area, and the status of the red wolf as a species is certainly an example of the uncertainty involved in determining when speciation has occurred.  Scottie Westfall’s blog gives only one side of the issue–the genetic studies that support his opinion.  I commented on his blog with a link to a study that contradicted the genetic studies he touts as conclusively supporting his position, but he removed my comment and apparently he’s decided to block all of my comments from now on.  Because his blog tops google searches, I feel it’s necessary to offer both sides of this issue, so those researching this controversy can gain a better unbiased understanding.

Red Wolf (Canis rufus? Canis lycaon? Canis latrans x Canis lupus? Canis rufus x Canis latrans? Canis lupus rufus?)

This 80 pound canine was recently shot inside this hog trap somewhere in Georgia.  It’s black and had a white spot on its breast.  Another trailcam photo posted at the Georgia Outdoor News forum also photographed a black coyote with a white spot on its breast.  Early colonists and explorers in the southeast noted that black wolves with white spots on their breasts were the common color variation of wolves in Georgia and Florida.  I’ve also seen large reddish colored coyotes in south Richmond County Georgia.  Supposedly, wolves were extirpated from Georgia and Florida by 1917.  Did a population survive?  Is it breeding with the recent influx of western coyotes or was the southeastern wolf simply a big subspecies of coyote?  DNA tests are contradictory.

All scientists agree that the remaining population of red wolves, now confined to the Alligator Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina, have at least some coyote blood.  The final population of red wolves captured along the Lousiana/ Texas border had been reduced to such low numbers that they’d been breeding with the more abundant coyotes.  Scientists chose those individuals with the physical characteristics most consistent with those of the red wolf and successfully bred them in captivity before releasing them in the North Carolina wildlife refuge which then was far away from the expanding coyote population but now suffers a coyote invasion.  Biologists are attempting to trap and remove coyotes to prevent them from again breeding with red wolves, but I doubt they’ll be successful.

About 20 years ago, R.K. Wayne of UCLA noticed an absence of genetic markers in red wolves distinct from those of coyote or gray wolf.  He proposed that the red wolf was simply a coyote/gray wolf hybrid.  A few years later, he examined DNA from 6 skins of red wolves killed in Arkansas circa 1900, and the evidence supported his proposal.  A few other studies supported his contention, but other scientists were skeptical.  They were suspicious of Dr. Wayne’s choice of specimens.  They originated from Arkansas which bordered the historical range of the gray wolf and the red wolf.  The specimens may in fact be from gray wolves, not red wolves.

In 2000 Dr. Paul Wilson, a Canadian scientist, led a study of eastern Canadian wolf and red wolf DNA.  He found none of the eastern Canadian wolf or red wolf DNA from specimens prior to the 1960’s contained gray wolf mtDNA sequences.  Moreover, there was a high degree of genetic affinity between eastern Canadian wolf (Canis lycaon) and red wolf mtDNA.  He considered them the same species.  In both wolves he found mtDNA control sequences more closely related to coyotes that are not found in gray wolves.  However, both eastern wolves had specific unique haplotypes not found in western coyotes.  So his study did find specific genetic markers unique to red wolves that were not found in gray wolves or coyotes–something Dr. Wayne didn’t find in his study proposing that red wolves were coyote/gray wolf hybrids.  Below is his proposed evolutionary tree which is consistent with the fossil record.

Dr. Wilson found a genetic divergence between gray wolves and eastern wolves of 8% which he calculated to mean they diverged from a common ancestor 1-2 million years ago.  The genetic divergence between coyotes and eastern wolves is only 1-2% which he calculated to mean they diverged from a common ancestor 150,000-300,000 years ago.  Coyotes have recently (within the last 100 years) come into contact with eastern wolves and have hybridized.

Last year, scientists led by Bridgett Von Holdt used existing genetic data to create a genome wide analysis of worldwide canine DNA.  The findings in this study directly contradict the findings in Dr. Wilson’s study, though it should be noted this study used the same contested samples of red wolf specimens that Dr. Wayne used.  Dr. Von Holdt found no close affinity between eastern Canadian wolves and red wolves.  They determined the current population of red wolves were 75%-80% coyote with the balance being gray wolf.

So which study is correct?  Who knows?  I would like to see a study of DNA from red wolf specimens originating from 17th or 18th century Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee.  Evidence from such a study might resolve the controversy.  I’m not sure a study such as I propose can be conducted.  There may just be a shortage of readily available museum specimens.  But I know of one.  I recall a red wolf specimen with fur was discovered in Fern Cave, Alabama in 1970 along with much older remains of the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus).  I don’t know who possesses this specimen but it should be genetically analyzed.

I believe red wolves evolved from coyotes following the extinction of dire wolves.  Coyotes were present in the Pleistocene southeast but eventually became absent.  I formerly thought red wolves drove coyotes out of the region, but now I think eastern coyotes grew bigger to exploit a deer-hunting niche left vacant when dire wolves became extinct.  Whether or not they’re a distinct species, a large subspecies of coyote, or a coyote/gray wolf hybrid is debatable?

References:

Wayne, R.K.

“Molecular Evolution of the Dog Family”

Trends in Genetics 1993

Wilson, Paul; et. al.

“DNA Profiles of Eastern Canadian Wolf and Red Wolf Provide Evidence for a Common Evolutionary History Independent of the Gray Wolf”

Canadian Journal of Zoology 78 2000

Von Holdt, Bridgett; et. al.

“A Genome Wide Perspective on the Evolutionary History of Engimatic Wolf-like Canids”

Genome Research 2011

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25 Responses to “The Truth About the Red Wolf’s Status as a Species”

  1. Mark L. Says:

    I’ve been trying to find out what happened to the same Fern Cave remains for several years now…even talked to a caver that was with the group that found it. Weird how stuff just disappears when you give it to ‘authorities’, huh….darn gubmint! I think there was a good quote from Mech that went something like ‘if it acts like a wolf, it’s probably a wolf’. Haplotypes, genotypes, phenotypes….canis soupis, etc. Why not at least save all the puzzle pieces instead of shooting them, right? Also, I think the Von Holdt study used mtDNA SNP’s from European dogs (boxers and poodles?) to extrapolate canid variation. Why? Just think, if we had called them ‘red coyotes’ instead of red wolves, what would have happened. It’s all in how you label stuff, I guess.

  2. James Robert Smith Says:

    First of all–there are lots of assholes on the Internet. They’re a common species. The bigger the asshole, the thinner their skin.

    My own feeling (and I have no data to back it up–just photographic evidence) is that the Red wolf was and is a distinct species. But it’s obviously very close to the coyote in many ways and more divergent from the Timber (or gray) wolf. You can see the obvious characteristics and differences/similarities in photographs of the three animals.

    The first time I encountered a coyote in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I thought it was a red wolf. But–as I discovered when I spoke to a park ranger the following morning–the Red wolves had all been rounded up and taken out of the Park some months previously. What I had seen going ’round my vehicle in the night was a big coyote looking for a handout. But it sure did look like a Red wolf.

    The reason the Park Service had to take the Red wolves out of the Park? The coyotes had already established themselves in the Smokies and had filled the niche formerly belonging to the Red wolf. The wolves just couldn’t compete. I’ve heard recordings of the wolf calls from the brief time they were in the Park and it’s MUCH different from the sounds of coyotes. So on that small social level they’re obviously a different animal. They just don’t make the same sounds.

    An old story from my family, passed down from my grandfather to my father and to me:

    One of my ancestors recorded the last known destruction of a wolf in Tift County, Georgia. He found it sleeping in the forest and was able to creep up on it and beat it to death with a length of fat lightwood–aka a pine knot. This would have been my great-grandfather. The wolf was described as being “very black”.

    I’ve read accounts of wolves in West Virginia as late as the early 1900s when the remaining populations were all shot, down to the smallest pups. I have always assumed that these would have been eastern Timber wolves and not Red wolves. The accounts I’ve read have never made that clear.

  3. markgelbart Says:

    When I have time I’ll try to see if I can find out what happened to the Fern Cave fossils.

    Scottie Westfall is sure impressed with Von Holdt’s study, probably because it supports his position. I’m not that impressed.

    Wolves that lived in West Virginia were probably closer to red wolves, but there’s no way of knowing today, unless there’s some musuem specimens that can be genetically analyzed. 100 years ago, nobody thought of saving a wolf carcass, so future sciedntists could analyze it.

  4. James Robert Smith Says:

    One of the accounts I read of the last wolves shot in WV was written by a naturalist in WV WILDLIFE MAGAZINE. The article was written in the early 70s and the man who wrote it was also the man who had killed the wolves. So we’re talking probably 1930s or so when he killed the animals–as I recall he killed the whole pack–about eight animals, including pups. He of course regretted it by the time he was knowledgeable about such things, but as a young man he was doing what everyone did in those days, and that was to kill the “varmints”.

  5. DeLene Says:

    Hi Mark, Glad to see you are investigating these issues to decide for yourself. I can’t wait for my book to be out, it covers the three major schools of thought on red wolf origins, including the two conflicting genetics-based ideas.

    Just two minor things though:1 .) the lead author of the 2000 Canadian study is Paul J. Wilson, not “Graval Wilson;” and 2.), Bridgett von Holdt was a graduate student studying under Robert K. Wayne so it’s not surprising her study follows his school of thought. (I won’t even go into what I see as the sampling problems with that paper, or the issue of using boxer and poodle genomes as the reference samples to compare the world’s wolves to…)

    Your second to last paragraph gets to an issue I call out in my book: that the historic source population of red wolves in the southeast has never been adequately characterized, despite some researchers claiming that they have done so. Without an adequate baseline to compare the modern red wolf population to, these issues can’t be fully resolved. I too fall out on the side of thinking that red wolves and eastern Canadian wolves are a derivative of a New World canid lineage that includes the coyote. Whether red wolves came from coyotes directly, or from an ancestral New World canid is not clear… But it’s very interesting that most often it’s geologically young species, which have recently diverged, that hybridize. I believe that scenario gets at what happened between coyotes, eastern wolves and coyotes in the past.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Thanks for pointing out my mistake. I’ll edit in the correction. I thought Graval was a weird name. I probably copied the name down and just couldn’t decipher my own writing.

      I’ll write a blog entry about your book whenever it’s released and I have a chance to read it.

      • DeLene Says:

        oops… and in that last sentence I mean to write “I believe that scenario gets at what happened between coyotes, eastern wolves and *red wolves* in the past.” I really shouldn’t post comments before I’m fully awake in the morning!

  6. Rick Berrey Says:

    Around 1998 a wolf hybred or wolf crossed the road in front of my truck in North Mobile Co. Al near the delta. When I called the wildlife office I was told they did’nt know what I had seen. When describing it to a friend his friend a (local Mowa) finished describing it, he called it a wild hog dog.The animal was dark orange red on it,s back ,to a yellow, legs and face, cream color on the belly and had a thick hanging winter coat. It was long and low, the legs could have been made to look short due to the long coat, about 6′ ,nose to tip of tail. The ears could have been laided foward making them look shorter than they were but they were much shorter than any coyote I’ve seen in Texas or Alabama, almost like they had been clipped. Weight was about 100 lbs, yellow eyes, wide head, big jaws. It did’nt look any thing like the pictures of a red wolf I’ve seen online as far as body shape , it was longer, lower to the ground , bigger head. From time to time I search the web for red wolf post, a few years back I saw a sighting of a wolf in Naples Fl, After seeing the picture I deceided to call the fed,s ( A Bud Fasio?) who told me he had heard a lot of stories of islands of red wolves in a sea of hybrides. I then called a woman over the red wolf for (protectors of the wild?). She said the problem with my sighting was the animals discription estimated at 100 lbs or greater, it was too heavy to be a red wolf and that they were going to get DNA from the Naples Fl. wolf. I then called the local wild life bio, he thought I had seen a coyote hybred 40 or 50 lbs. Because of the low body , small ears, and wide head,I felt like there may have been some misidentified sightings . I asked about panther sightings, thats where the call went south. But I did learn there are 3 to 5 panther sightings a week to our local office, averaged at 4 that is 208 sightings a year, he also said he wished someone would kill one so he could see what they are, and he would pay the fine, leading me to believe he thanks there is an unidenified animal around the delta. In digging into the three subspeices of red wolves I learned that a red wolf form this area would not look like a Texas red wolf,they would range from blond ,to red, to black, 80 to 100 lbs. Whether a hybred or purbred I saw what I should have seen if it were a red wolf from this area. There are also no black panthers, so other than a black bear or hog there are no other large animals in the mobile tensaw delta . I would be willing to bet some of the panther sightings are red wolves or hybreds. There was another sighting of a red wolf in Fl. 2011 that looked much closer to the animal I saw.

    • markgelbart Says:

      It’s hard to estimate exact sizes from just a sighting.

      Studies show that most people are wildly inncurate when estimating the size of an animal they’ve seen.

      It may have weighed much less than you thought.

      • Rick Berrey Says:

        I first spoted it about 75 yards down a bottem ,when I stoped my truck in order to keep from hitting it , it was right at the side of the road.It never checked it,s speed as it crossed in front of me ,may be 8′ to 10′ ,it looked up at the truck as it passed close enough for me to see yellow eyes and make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I judge the size by the bumper of a ford f150, and the weight by a large german shepard I once had that weighed 110 lbs on junk yard scales. It was spring but it had a winter coat that made it look odd, the coat was long enough it flaped as it ran. The length of the coat may have made the legs look shorter than they were, but the broward chest and hips were well defined , as was the jaws and ears, the weight was around 100 lbs + or -. It could well have been a hybrid as the Fed man said, but the black bear has survived in the pine woods around the delta, so who knows. Up untill the past few years our limit on dear were two a day, one buck ,one doe, every day of the season. So there has been enough food sorces for a population. One other thing when talking with the Fed man was that he did,nt sound like he was interested in finding any other red wolves other than the ones he already had. He was also interested in the black bear population.And I was excited or may be shocked is a better word, enough so that I did,nt grab the camra from the center console, not so much so that I could’nt tell the differance between it and a coyote.

  7. Mark LaRoux Says:

    Interesting stuff, here Mark and Rick (sorry for not catching it sooner). I’d be curious if anyone else has seen anything like it, and if scat has ever been tested….look for weird shaped/hairy scat.
    If you want to try an experiment, take a look at big dogs that have long and short hair and try to estimate their weight, for a while. I almost always over estimate the long haired ones and under estimate the short hairs. Give it a try and let me know after around 15 or so dogs (just big ones). I’d guess by your description 80 sounds closer, but the broward chest and wider rostrum sounds very ‘red wolfish’…but hey, you never know. Bear sounds right for the location though.

  8. Christina Hardy Says:

    I live in Coweta Ga .South east. Around 9.30 am I seen, My first thought was a coyote. As I made my turn I slowed down to get a better look due to the fact, Of it’s size. I have seen a lot of coyotes due to having a chicken farm. This was not. There was no red on the coat. Grey/White/Black. Looked like a Timber wolf. Or Grey wolf. As if it came right out of a picture. This animal didn’t run when I slowed down. It slowed down on it’s walk with it’s head angled down staring at me as it was telling me to leave. The coat was thick. Ears was rounded. Looked to weigh around 60 to 80 pounds. I am going to try to get pic on my home to post. Can this still be a red wolf?There has never been any reports of wolf’s in Ga. I am being told no possible way.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Red wolves have been considered extinct in Georgia and Florida since 1917.

      There’s no way of knowing what type of canid you saw is without a DNA test.

      Some scientists think the red wolf is just a big coyote.

      • Rick Berrey Says:

        A red wolf in parts of the southeast had a range of color from yellow to black. If a red wolf is not a red wolf because it is a coyote mix , then it cant be a coyote for the same reason. The question of weather the red wolf consisted of three sub-species or three separate species was never really answered. It would be nice if someone would do a survey of two small areas where the two southeastern sub- species existed . The area where there have been sightings in Fl. in resent years would be a good start for the Fl. red wolf. The Mobile Tensaw delta and surrounding pine forest would be a good area due to the fact that this is the area where the Al. bear population has survived and the lower 5 Al. co., s are where the deer population survived before Al. restocked the population. The availability of food is also abundant , we could shoot a doe and a buck a day up until a few years ago and can shoot 3 buck a year and a doe a day last year. Hog and small game are plentiful as well. May be someone will come up with the money for a survey in the future.

    • Jason Says:

      I have seen a very similar animal on Gordon Road in Senoia. It was grey, and massive, but ferrel looking and acting. It happened to be crossing the road as my wife and I were leaving our house. I thought for sure I’d seen a grey wolf, as did she, until I researched the habitat of grey wolves and found that they don’t exist this far south. This was definitely not a domesticated dog, but looked nothing like the coyote pictures I’ve been able to find, or the coyotes I’ve seen in my yard.

  9. Jess Says:

    I live in Effingham County GA and yesterday in the middle of the day I saw……a wolf. I live on a 5 acre wooded lot, and was at the kitchen window when I looked up and saw him…I froze…first thought..wolf, second thought…can’t be…third…..&^%%$$ wolf. I ran to bring my dog in from outside and he was gone. He stayed along the treeline and must have ducked back in when I opened the door. He was huge…too big to be a coyote I have seen lots of them and I would have thought oh a coyote, but there was something about him….his presence that made me freeze and sent chills. He was …at least 90-100 lbs not exaggerating he was bigger than my lab mix and she is 80lbs…..very long legs…bushy chest looked like he was shedding his winter coat grey colored. Measured his paw print it was 3 inches. Called DNR they said no wolves in Georgia (of course they don’t want people freaking that they repopulated the area with wolves…I think they have come down from NC or even further North, just my thought) She also told me it was a large dog or coyote. I know it was not a DOG we used to have a husky and I am very familiar with dog breeds including wolf hounds…it was not any of those…..My only possible solution to coyote is some type of hybrid that would get that large….but when I think of how it looked and the size I can’t get over it and I believe it was a wolf.
    I have my camera ready and want a shot at him cause people are thinking I’m crazy!!
    I have read a lot of hunters blogs from the area and some have encountered such unexplainable animals.

  10. Killing Coyotes is Futile | GeorgiaBeforePeople Says:

    […] species of wolf unless scientists examine the DNA of the fossil specimen found in Fern Cave (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/the-truth-about-the-red-wolfs-status-as-a-species/ ).  Dire wolves were the dominant canid across the south during the Rancho La Brean land mammal […]

  11. judy Peters Says:

    I think I saw a red wolf in Lake Mary, Florida at 3:00 am. At first I thought it was a deer. Its head was larger than a coyote. It was moving slowly up the road. I live in a wooded area. My dog (who I was taking out to pee) froze next to me. I know it was a wolf and not a coyote. I thought wow. It was about 30 to 40 feet from me. It was a full moon too. It was so big! It was at least 60 pounds.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Scientists have difficulty differentiating red wolves and coyotes, even after they have examined them in captivity.

      There’s no way a layman observing a canid at night could make that distinction.

  12. Jennifer Says:

    I live in Lake Mary in a residential area and just saw a wolf late tonight when I was entering my neighborhood. I typed in wolf sightings in Lake Mary (something like that?) and this came up. It stood right in front of my car, I got a really good look at it. Amazing!

  13. Alice Wonder Says:

    Hi, I suppose I am late to the party but research into our native wolves is something I have become very interested in ever since OR-7 visited California. Normally, herpetology is my thing.

    Here is my *speculation*

    Red Wolf from a claudistic point of view is not valid, but is the result introgression of coyote genetics into southern Eastern Wolf populations.

    The coyote influence I suspect was there before European Homo sapiens started colonizing this continent.

    What’s left of Red Wolves now probably have more coyote genetics than the population originally had, but I suspect that Eastern Wolf and Coyote split, with Red Wolf being the result of hybrid origin between the two after the split.

    I suppose it is still being hotly debated, but that’s my suspicion.

    • markgelbart Says:

      Western coyotes never interbreed with timber wolves, so I doubt the red wolf was a hybrid between the 2 species. Instead, I think red wolves were the result of eastern coyote evolution following the extinction of the dire wolf. They grew to a larger size to occupy the niche left vacant by dire wolf extinction. Whether or not they evolved into a completely new species is debatable.

      There is an early Holocene specimen of red wolf that is being genetically analyzed. Whenever the results are published, we will probably know what the original red wolf was.

      I think the red wolf is extinct and the entire remaining population of these canids in the south consists of western coyotes that have colonized the region.

  14. Ross S Riley Says:

    All interesting comments and all thought out beyond my knowledge base in science for sure. I live on the edge of the Alligator river refuge where the red wolves have been released. When the wolves were released we had no coyotes, now we are saturated, doesn’t take long. Even USFW admits the wolves are interbreeding with the coyotes. In a effort to study the interactions several coyotes were collared. The coyotes have joined the wolf packs, they are “buddies”, comrades, collared coyotes are running with the wolves in the wolf packs! I have seen coyotes and red wolves and for the life of me I don’t know how anyone can tell a smallish wolf from a grown coyote. There is a stuffed red wolf in our local USFW visitor center. I contend one could replace the wolf with a stuffed coyote and no one in building could tell the difference. I once saw a “pet” coyote being walked on a lease by a tourist to our area. I can assure you a well groomed, well fed coyote looks to be a dead ringer for a red wolf (I have often wondered if this “pet” situation ended well.) My observation on this matter is no matter the DNA, no matter the ideals espoused by USFW, no matter the best intentions, this creature being called a red wolf will simply dissolve into “coyote-ism” if it is not removed and kept in isolation. All the money spent, the destruction of our deer herd (this is also a bear refuge, we have bears numbers like rats at the city dump) and now a proliferation of coyotes, protected coyotes, (yes protected coyotes, thank you fed. Gov.) all will be for naught because the ground game has changed. What is known as a red wolf will only be a foot note if this program is not terminated and the canines removed. Academic hand wringing be damned, dogs will be dogs.

  15. Thomas Lovett Says:

    All I know is I live in S. E. Georgia and bout two days ago I saw a animal exactly like the first photo in this article. 5/5/2016. It was near the wildlife reserve here.

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