Researchers say a pack of wild dogs in Texas carries a substantial amount of red wolf genes, an the animal that was declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.
Red wolves – larger than coyotes but smaller than the better-known gray wolves – once lived throughout the southeastern United States. The finding has led to a new understanding that the red wolf DNA is remarkably resilient after decades of human hunting and loss of habitat. The red wolf was declared extinct in the wild in 1980.
“Overall, it’s incredibly rare to rediscover animals in a region where they were thought to be extinct and it’s even more exciting to show that a piece of an endangered genome has been preserved in the wild,” said Elizabeth Heppenheimer, a Princeton University biologist involved in the research.
“I think we were all genuinely surprised that there was any indication of red wolf genes in either of these samples,” Heppenheimer said in a statement. “I think of myself as an expert on these animals, but in reality most of the time I’m just looking at my computer. It’s the people on the ground, who watch these animals regularly, who have made the major discovery.”
Ron Sutherland, a North Carolina-based conservation scientist with the Wildlands Network, said it’s exciting to have found “this unique and fascinating medium-sized wolf.” The survival of the red wolf genes “without much help from us for the last 40 years is wonderful news,” said Sutherland, who was not involved in the Princeton study.
The discovery coincides with similar DNA findings in wild canines in southwestern Louisiana and bolsters the hopes of conservationists dismayed by the dwindling number of red wolves in North Carolina that comprised the only known pack in the wild.