“How do you reconcile this with the fact that gray wolves typically don’t breed with coyotes, but kill them?” Mech said. “We have no records in the West of wolves hybridizing with coyotes, even in areas where single wolves looking for mates have dispersed into the middle of coyote country.”
Mech also questioned whether the study tested enough Canadian and North Carolina wolves and whether those specimens were true representatives of those populations.
Although 48,000 genetic markers sounds like a lot, it’s actually a relatively small part of the entire genetic code, Mech said. So the evidence of a unique eastern wolf ancestor could simply be in another part of the code that wasn’t analyzed, he said.
Several researchers who consider the eastern wolf species separate from the gray wolf weighed in recently in an online discussion of the new study.
Brent Patterson, a genetics researcher at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, called the study “an important step forward.” But until more samples are analyzed, the hypothesis that a North American wolf evolved independently from the gray wolf was still viable, he said.
“It’s an academic issue,” Mech said. “It’s nice to know what the origins are from the standpoint of curiosity, but from a conservation standpoint, it shouldn’t make any difference.”
David Rabon, coordinator of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Red Wolf Recovery Program in North Carolina, said the federal agency has taken the position that the red wolf is a unique species that warrants protection. The new study, while interesting, won’t likely change management decisions, he said.
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