Friday, 29 July 2016

North America Has Only 1 True Species of Wolf, DNA Shows

By Megan Gannon, Live Science Contributor | July 29, 2016 07:04am ET

DNA tests of wolves across North America suggest that there is just one species of the canid: the gray wolf.

What's more, populations of red wolves and eastern wolves, thought to be distinct species, are actually just hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes that likely emerged in the last couple hundred years, the study found.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances on Wednesday (July 27), could have implications for the conservation of wolves considered endangered in the United States, the researchers say.

Shared genes
For the study, scientists sequenced the whole genomes of 28 canids, including gray wolves, eastern wolves, red wolves and coyotes in North America.

The study revealed that gray wolves and coyotes are not very different from each other, genetically speaking. According to the DNA results, the two species likely diverged from a common ancestor in Eurasia about 50,000 years ago —much more recently than previous estimates of 1 million years ago.

Meanwhile, red wolves, thought to be native to the southeastern United States, and eastern wolves from the Great Lakes region, were found to be genetic hybrids.

"These gray-wolf-coyote hybrids look distinct and were mistaken as a distinct species," study author Robert Wayne, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a statement.

Compared with eastern wolves, red wolves were more coyote-like in their genetic makeup, the study found, which makes sense historically. Before the hybridization, humans dramatically altered the habitat of wolves in the southeastern U.S. Once gray wolves started to get hunted out of the region, the hybrid red wolves could mate only with other hybrids and coyotes, the researchers said.

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