The Secret World of Red Wolves by T. Delene Beeland

I’m not familiar with awards given to science writers, but I do think Ms. Beeland deserves one for her new book, The Secret World of Red Wolves.  It is that good.  Her prose makes for easy reading, even though some of the topics covered in her book can be quite complex.  Her research was thorough and presented in a way a layman can understand and find interesting.  Yet, the book could also serve as a handy primer for scientists who are considering studying this species.

I read the second half of this book first, beginning with Chapter 8, because that had the information I was most eager to absorb.  Chapter 8 covers the controversial theories of the origin of the species.  Some think the red wolf evolved in North America hundreds of thousands of years ago. Others think the red wolf is a recent hybrid between gray wolves and coyotes.  A third theory assumes red wolves and coyotes share a common ancestry and split about 150,000 years ago.  I favor the shared ancestry school of thought.  I hypothesize red wolves evolved from Pleistocene coyotes in southeastern North America, following the extinction of the dire wolf.   The extinction of the dire wolf opened an ecological niche for a larger canid in the region.  This explains why coyotes were absent from the southeast for the last 10,000 years (until their recent colonization), and why coyotes and red wolves hybridize so easily.

Ms. Beeland discusses all of the genetic studies of red wolf origins, including those of Linda Rutledge, a Canadian researcher, who advocates the shared ancestry theory.  I contacted Ms. Rutledge after reading this chapter to inform her about the centuries old red wolf skeleton found in Fern Cave, Alabama.  (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/an-addendum-to-the-truth-about-the-red-wolfs-status-as-a-species/)  She responded and told me she is already “profiling” that specimen but “the results aren’t in yet.”  Hopefully, that specimen will shed some light on red wolf origins.

Chapter 9 covers the history of the red wolf from colonial times to its near extinction during the 1970’s.  I love old historical accounts of wildlife.  I did find a small gap in Ms. Beeland’s research for this chapter.  She wrote, “native wolves can’t have proved a serious threat to settlers and farmers in the southeast or much more would have been written about them.”  She must be unaware of The Okifenokee Album written by Frances Harper and Delma Presley.  The authors of this book reported the case of S.L. Davis who brought 300 beef cattle into the Okefenokee Swamp in 1850 and lost 230 of them to wolves in 3 months.  Obadiah Barber killed hundreds of Okefenokee wolves over a 40 year period along with 15o bears and 200 deer.  Most settlers didn’t have time to write about their negative experiences with wolves because they were too busy trying to make a living.

Chapters 10-13 of Ms. Beeland’s book cover the history of the red wolf recovery program.  In the last chapter she discusses the future of the red wolf program and possible threasts such as global warming.

I read the first half of the book last.  After an excellent introductory chapter, Ms. Beeland recounts her hands on experience shadowing the fish and wildlife service as they worked to protect the red wolf.  After reading this part of the book, it occurred to me how ironic the title is.  There is nothing at all secret about the lives of the surviving population of red wolves.  Every adult is radio-collared, and scientists implant chips into the pups as soon as they can find them in the spring.  The wolf’s scat is frequently collected and analyzed.  Scientists even influence which wolves breed with each other to prevent inbreeding.  Coyotes that form mated pairs with red wolves are sterilized, but not killed because killing coyotes increases coyote populations.  (See https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2013/06/01/killing-coyotes-is-futile/)  Actually, it’s sad how little mystery surrounds the lives of the final remnant population of red wolves.  Nevertheless, The Secret World of Red Wolves is a must read for anyone interested in the nature of southeastern North America.

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4 Responses to “The Secret World of Red Wolves by T. Delene Beeland”

  1. jamesrobertsmith Says:

    One of my Georgia ancestors killed the last recorded Red wolf in Tift County, Georgia. The interesting aspect of it is how he killed the animal. He was walking along a path and saw it sleeping. He used a knot of fat light wood to bludgeon it to death, after which he hauled the carcass into town.

    Knowing my dad’s family, I fully believe the yarn. He always told me that we still have relatives living there–Smiths and Nesmiths.

    I’ll have to pick up that book. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. markgelbart Says:

    Red wolves are very timid animals.

    Probably explains how they survived for so long in an environment filled with people, while fiercer animals didn’t.

  3. DeLene Beeland Says:

    Mark, thank you very much for your kind review. To be honest, it never occurred to me that people might read the chapters out of order; but given your long-standing interest in red wolf origins I can see why you would start reading at Chapter 8! You’re right, I was not aware of the folklore/written accounts of wolves raiding cattle in the Okefenokee Swamp. I’ll look the reference up. (With the amount of predation reported in the given time span, I have to question whether feral dogs were involved however.) Regardless, the accounts of wolves raiding livestock or bothering pioneers are surprisingly sparse for the mid-Atlantic states that were first settled by Europeans. Thank you again for your kind review, I’m glad you enjoyed the book.

  4. markgelbart Says:

    I’m not saying the settlers were illiterate, but most didn’t write down their daily activities. Pen and paper were luxuries. And a lot of the material they did write is lost–probably burned in fireplaces. Losing livestock to predators was nothing unusual or noteworthy for them.

    I reread about the loss of over 200 cattle in the Okefenokee to wolves. It was actually S.L. Davis’s father who lost most of his stock to wolves. Maybe he blamed wolves, but lost them to cattle rustlers. It does seem like a large number.

    However, the first settlers to live on Manhattan were sheep farmers and they lost all their sheep to wolves the first year they lived on the island. They switched to fur trapping.

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