According to research published Thursday in Science, red wolves and eastern wolves aren’t truly wolves at all – they’re coyote-wolf hybrids. That confirms something scientists had long debated: Canis lupus, the gray wolf, is actually the only wolf species in the United States. Neither the red nor the eastern wolf has any DNA that can’t be tied to gray wolf or coyote origins. All three “species” are actually just gray wolf descendants with varying levels of coyote DNA.
The red wolf is actually mostly coyote, according to the study, with just around a quarter of its genes coming from the gray wolf. The eastern wolf is 25 to 50 percent coyote, and even gray wolves carry some small traces of coyote interbreeding in their DNA (in much the same way that many humans carry small percentages of Neanderthal DNA today).
The study also found that gray wolves and coyotes are much more closely related than previously assumed. While previous research had suggested that the two species had diverged around 1 million years ago, the new genetic analysis hints at a common ancestor 50,000 years ago.
Based on the traces of coyote DNA found even in “pure” wolves, the researchers suspect that these two closely-related species have frequently intermingled throughout the past few centuries. Gray wolves have become scarce in the United States – many populations have disappeared entirely – which made the remaining wolves more and more likely to pair up with coyotes as time went on. And as these hybrid creatures interbred with one another instead of with pure wolves, their coyote-like genes and characteristics became more prominent, giving them the appearance of an entirely new species.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Rachel Feltman