A flurry of news articles about wolf taxonomy hit the press today based on new research published by Bridgett M. vonHoldt, et al in Science Advances.

Wolf taxonomy, a messy topic for sure, will continue to be the subject of a lengthy, ongoing scientific debate. This latest genomic analysis is the newest chapter.

An Overview:

On taxonomy: There is general agreement that (1) there were at least three waves of migrant wolves from Eurasia during the Pleistocene, and (2) coyotes are endemic to North America.

The Debate:

  • Those in the 2-species camp (gray wolf, coyote), Bridgett M. vonHoldt, et al, believe that all wolves evolved in Eurasia. The waves of immigrant wolves during the Pleistocene were the ancestors of Canis lupus, the gray wolf. Under this scenario, Algonquin wolves and red wolves are of hybrid (gray wolf-coyote) origin.
  • Those in the 3-species camp (Algonquin wolf/red wolf, grey wolf, coyote), Linda Rutledge, et al, believe that a lineage of large canid originally arose in North America. Some members of this canid lineage migrated to Eurasia, where they were geographically isolated from the North American wolves and evolved into another species: Canis lupus. At the same time, back in North America, Algonquin wolves, red wolves, and coyotes also evolved from this canid lineage. When gray wolves returned during the Pleistocene era, they colonized western North America. But Canis lycaon (Algonquin wolves) and Canis rufus (red wolves) remained separate, viable species in eastern North America. Linda Rutledge’s genomic research published in Biology Letters in 2015 supports the 3-species model which concluded Algonquin wolves and red wolves represent a separate species.

Common Ground:

When it comes to conservation and management, the scientists from both camps agree that the role canids play in ecosystems should be the focus, not just the evolutionary history of a species.

“Conservation focuses on a very species-specific model,” Rutledge stated in an interview in The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science. “Agencies often want to know first whether a species is taxonomically valid, but that may not be an efficient way to approach conservation in general. Our research shows that what species are can be very difficult to pin down.”

In her paper, Bridgett M. vonHoldt concludes, “Our findings provide a critical heuristic lesson in endangered species management. The overly strict application of taxonomy to support endangered species status is antiquated. Species and taxonomic concepts are varied, complex, and difficult to apply in practice. We maintain that the Endangered Species Act could be interpreted in a modern evolutionary framework, devaluing the Victorian typological concept in exchange for a more dynamic view that allows for natural selection to occur on admixed genomes and to evolve phenotypes that are adapted to human-altered habitats and changing climates. These suggestions follow the “ecological authenticity” concept, in which admixed individuals that have an ecological function similar to that of the native endangered taxon, and that maintain a portion of the endangered genetic ancestry, warrant protection.”


While the debate on wolf taxonomy continues, we acknowledge there is critical need for common ground among members of the scientific community when it comes to guiding decision making. Ecosystems need top predators. Their importance to a balanced and resilient ecosystem is undeniable. In other words, as Rutledge sums it up, “Let’s quit trying to make wolves fit into our neat little taxonomic boxes. Let’s focus instead on how to protect and restore their critical role as top predators.”

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As a generalist carnivore, wolves hunt prey that can range from the bite-sized and agile rabbit to the massive bison. Regardless of the prey size, a meal is generally the hard-won reward of extensive traveling and a chase.

Wolves are not known for their speed but they can achieve 36-38 miles per hour in short bursts in pursuit of prey. Wolves are, however, known for having great endurance. They can travel long distances at a lope around 5 mph.

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The Wolf Conservation Center is one of 54 facilities in the U.S. and Mexico participating in the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan – a bi-national initiative whose primary purpose is to support the reestablishment of Mexican wolves in the wild through captive breeding, public education, and research.

Because the entire existing Mexican wolf population descended from just seven founders rescued from extinction, genetic health is the primary consideration governing not only reproductive pairings, but also captive-to-wild release efforts. Although both components are equally critical to Mexican wolf recovery, release events are far less frequent than successful breeding.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a responsibility under federal law to facilitate recovery of the critically endangered subspecies and releases are a central part of that effort. But because state politics continues to block release efforts, wolves bred specifically to help boost the genetic health of the fragile wild population remain in captivity.

To add insult to injury, earlier this month the U.S. House of Representatives passed two riders to the Interior Appropriations bill that aim to strip Endangered Species Act protection from all gray wolves nationwide – including critically endangered Mexican gray wolves.

Hunting, trapping, and poisoning caused the initial extinction of Mexican gray wolves in the wild. Wild lobos may face extinction again, but this time at the hands of politicians.

The clock is ticking on the lobos’ chances for survival.  Thus it’s critical that we stop allowing political considerations to govern endangered species recovery so necessary management actions urgently required for the long term survival of Mexican gray wolves can be implemented as soon as possible.

The wolves are ready and the wild is calling. Please follow the link below to urge Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to have USFWS release more wolves!

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The Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) or “lobo” is the most genetically distinct lineage of wolves in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the most endangered mammals in North America. By the mid-1980s, hunting, trapping, and poisoning caused the extinction of lobos in the wild, with only a handful remaining in captivity. In 1998 the wolves were reintroduced into the wild as part of a federal reintroduction program under the Endangered Species Act. Today in the U.S., there is a single wild population comprising only 97 individuals – a decrease from 110 counted at the end of 2014.


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