DNA tests have revealed that North America has just one genuine wolf species: the gray wolf. The other two species are crossbreeds between gray wolves and coyotes, researchers found.
The findings, reported Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, also show that there is a huge gap between reality and the 1973 Endangered Species Act. Before the study the red wolf and the Eastern wolf were considered genuine species.
Both the gray wolf and the red wolf were placed on the endangered species list in the1979s, and are still there now. In 2013, the Eastern wolf made a surprise appearance after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had identified it as a separate species.
The news prompted lawmakers to get the gray wolf off the list, but environmentalists objected in court, and won.
After Europeans’ (re)discovery of the Americas all wolf species were nearly eradicated by ranchers and farmers. Since the mid-1970s, there were efforts to help wolf species rebound in the continental U.S. Last year, authorities reported that there are slightly more than 5,500 known wolves in the U.S.
The recovery was possible due to the Endangered Species Act. The gray wolf’s (Canis lupus) historic range lies between the Rocky Mountains and New England. In the late 1970s, it was deemed threatened in 48 U.S. states.
At the beginning of the millennium, a group of scientists began presenting arguments that the Eastern wolves are a separate species, and federal authorities believed it 13 years later. In 2013, authorities noted that the gray wolf had rebounded enough to be de-listed.
But Princenton University scholars have a different side of the story. They said they analyzed the DNA of a dozen gray wolves, three red wolves and half dozen Eastern wolves and found that the latter two “species” are mixes with coyotes.
Lead author Bridgett M. vonHoldt and colleagues found that the two species are in fact gray wolves that interbred with coyotes. Still, the two species are differentiated through the amount of coyote DNA.
Researchers also found that the American wolf and the coyote had a recent common ancestor which moved to North America from Eurasia. But as wolves got wiped out in the East, those that survived the mayhem mixed genes with coyotes, the analysis found.
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