Posts Tagged ‘canis rufus’

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

May 9, 2012

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

Irrational Anti-Wolf Hysteria in the Rocky Mountains

July 21, 2011

Photo of Yellowstone gray wolves from google images.  Note the color variations within the same pack.

The timber wolf (Canis lupus) is a beautiful animal well adapted to hunting big game.  It’s an ancient species having first evolved in Eurasia about 1 million years ago.  They crossed the Bering Landbridge and became widespread in western North America at least 300,000 years ago.  Based on the number and distribution of fossil specimens, dire wolves (Canis dirus) outnumbered timber wolves during most of the Pleistocene in the southern regions and lowlands, and apparently, timber wolves never penetrated the southeast, perhaps because red wolves (Canis rufus) were already present and occupying a niche not directly in competition with dire wolves.

The extermination of wolves from Yellowstone National Park and many sparsely populated regions of the west was an ecological disaster.  Elk and deer overpopulated the range, forcing National Park officials into the awkward position of having to shoot elk inside National Parks.  Canadian wolf populations rebounded, and they began recolonizing Montana and Idaho naturally in the early 1990’s.  Scientists reintroduced wolves back into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, improving the quality of the ecosystem.  Wolves now number between 1300-1600 in the northern Rocky Mountains.  Idaho held a spring hunting season on wolves in 2010 that led to the deaths of 188, not counting the puppies that starved to death following the deaths of their parents. 

The furious anger of irrational wolf haters pressured the Idaho Fish and Game Department into planning annual hunting seasons on wolves that will begin this upcoming fall, unless a lawsuit stops it.  The Idaho Fish and Game Department itself showed a bias in favor of killing wolves with the leading questions they asked on a pre-hunt survey such as “”Should wolves be managed to protect public safety?” instead of questions I would ask such as “Should wolves be slaughtered so their puppies will starve?”

The hatred of wolves is not based on reality or facts and seems most vocal among hunters who believe humans are the only animals on earth with the God-given right to kill other animals.  Although the Idaho Fish and Game Department only wants a sustainable “harvest” of wolves, many militant anti-wolf fanatics insist that wolves should be completely exterminated.  According to them, wolves “destroy all wildlife” and are causing big game populations to collapse.  It doesn’t occur to them that wolves are wildlife.  Hunter “harvest” statistics don’t support their erroneous beliefs.  I researched this and discovered how wrong they are.

Hunter “Harvest” Record from Wyoming Fish and Game Department for Selected Years

…………………………………..Elk …………………………..Deer

1994…………………………….24,534…………………………………….44,488

1996……………………………..20,612…………………………………….NA

2001…………………………….22,772…………………………………….47,943

2009……………………………22,971……………………………………..53,267

Note the elk “harvest” has remained steady in Wyoming, despite the reintroduction of wolves.  Deer “harvests” show a noticeable rise.  People spent an estimated $35 million in Wyoming just to see wolves, so their reintroduction has been beneficial economically as well as ecologically.

Hunter “harvest” table from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks from selected years

……………………………………….Elk………………………..Deer

2001……………………………….20,578………………….111,783

2004……………………………….23,313…………………..119,266

2005………………………………26,201…………………….115,238

2010……………………………….24,744……………………94,730

Again, elk populations show no signs of collapsing.  Deer show a slight decline in the most recent year but this may be due to a severe winter.

According to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, in 2010 the elk population there was above management goals in 10 districts, within management goals in 13, and below management goals in 6.  Since wolves recolonized the state, the elk population has declined from 125,000 to 100,000, but “deterioration of habitat” is considered a greater factor than wolves, especially in districts where wolves are getting blamed.  There has been no economic loss due to a decline in big game tags issued.

Clearly, there is no collapse in big game populations in areas wolves have recolonized.  In any case I’ve asked some of these wolf haters how wolves could be increasing in numbers, if the population of their prey was supposedly collapsing.  A dearth of game would cause wolves to starve and decrease in numbers.  I’ve yet to see an answer to this logical point  that makes any sense.  One man insisted that after wolves exterminate elk they’d gobble up everything else including people–an ecological impossibility.

Many ranchers hate wolves as well.  However, losses of livestock to wolves is minimal.  In 2007 in Idaho ranchers lost 53 cattle, 170 sheep, and 8 dogs to wolves.  This out of a population of 2.2 million cows, 235,000 sheep, and probably hundreds of thousands of dogs.  For cattle this can be calculated to a loss of something like .000002%.  Infinitesimal.

Wolf haters also have an irrational fear that wolves will attack people.  The chances of this happening are remote–in North America there have been about 25 reported attacks of wolves on humans in recorded history.  In Europe and Asia documented wolf attacks on people number in the thousands.  In the Old World only the nobility were allowed to hunt and wolves didn’t learn to fear peasants; but in America where more people have guns in an egalitarian society, intelligent wolves did learn to avoid people.  Contrast these 25 reported wolf attacks in all of American history with 34 people killed by domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) in the U.S. in one year, and the estimated 4.7 million dog attacks annually.  Yet, no rational person is calling for the extermination of domesticated dogs.

I’m not opposed to hunting for food. In my irregular series on this blog about my imaginary life living in Georgia 36,000 years BP, I hunt deer, elk, peccary, and bison for most of my meat (see the March archives for my most recent post on this).  But I’m disgusted with the attitude of many hunters today, and this certainly includes wolf haters who are all hunters unable to stand seeing other animals kill their game.  Direct TV offers 2 hunting channels.  More often than not on the hunting shows I’ve watched, hunters giggle like demented sadists after they’ve killed an animal.  When it comes to politics, the overwhelming majority of hunters are twisted fascists.

July 26, 2011 anti-wolf rally Federal judge Donald Molloy could once again halt a much needed wolf control hunt. - Sportsmen Needed To Protest Latest Wolf Hearing In Montana!

The controversial judge ruled against wolf haters in 1 case.  Freedom of speech does not include terroristic threats.  Whoever fashioned this sign should be arrested. (Note: the link to this photograph originally featured a picture of anti-wolf nuts hoisting a sign threatening Judge Molloy who ruled that wolves should remain protected.  Instead the photo on the embedded link was replaced with this asshole carting 4 dead wolves.) 

The above sign illustrates the intolerant hostility wolf haters have for people who oppose their point of view.  This sign is all one needs to know about these people.  They’re not nice guys.

Incidentally, one of these wolf haters who runs a ridiculous anti-wolf propaganda site known as save the elk.com was arrested recently for…felony poaching of an elk.  How ironic.

Another irrational fear wolf haters share is their belief that the federal government is going to take their guns away from them.  The way they carry on, one would think they were afraid the federal government was going to take their penises away.

References:

Idaho Fish and Game News 22 (2) August  2010

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Hunters “Harvest” Tables

Wyoming Fish and Game Department Hunters “Harvest” Tables