Last summer, right before the Ontario government decided to reduce province-wide protection for threatened Algonquin wolves to a few provincial park buffers, a research paper made major headlines across the USA announcing evidence that eastern wolves (AKA Algonquin wolves) and red wolves were simply hybrids of grey wolves and coyotes, rather than unique wolf species.
In response to that research, a group of genetic experts from across North America published a review of last year’s genome data study this month. Following a critique of the original study design, including unrepresentative groups of coyotes and eastern wolves and inappropriate hypothesis tests, they concluded that the genomic data still support the case that red and eastern wolves evolved a very long time ago. While they are now two distinct populations of similar wolves with different names, both are species-at risk, and both are able to mate with coyotes and grey wolves. It is this current hybridization that occurs in parts of their range that makes genetic research on wild canines confusing at best. However, the researchers show that the individuals from the red/eastern wolf lineage are distinct from the more common grey wolf and coyote species.
Genetic research progresses as tools are developed to look at and compare more and longer sections of DNA, and it was therefore no surprise when last year’s research was published in major newspapers in the USA after being the first to use the full genome of wolves and coyotes to discuss the evolution of these animals. As far as wildlife genetics goes, the wolf species debate has been a hot topic – wolves are in the news frequently being charismatic, controversial, some facing extinction while others face government killing programs.
Unfortunately, we tend to get caught up in the species-number debate: how many wolf species are there? Are red wolves and eastern wolves really different from the grey wolf? When did the eastern wolf become the eastern wolf? These questions have detracted from the most important, and indeed perhaps the only agreed upon conclusions from both side of the scientific discussion: that top carnivores are ecologically valuable, that the ‘species’ definition in endangered species legislation is too inflexible (after all, even humans genomes aren’t “pure” – we have neanderthal DNA) and that wildlife policies should strive to conserve the genetic diversity of populations, especially in the face of climate change. We hope that this ongoing discussion redirects decision-makers back to the conservation of biodiversity at all scales – both species, and genetic.