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Saving Endangered Wolves Via Artificial Insemination

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Mexican wolf F1226 (Belle) with pups born in 2016

The Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) participates in the Species Survival Plan (SSP) for two critically endangered wolf species, the Mexican gray wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) and the red wolf (Canis rufus). The Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf are among the rarest mammals in North America; both species were at one time extinct in the wild.

An SSP is a breeding and management program designed to ensure the long-term sustainability of captive-based animal populations. The primary goal for the Mexican gray wolf SSP and red wolf SSP is to breed wolves for maximum genetic integrity for reintroduction into the wild.

Because the entire existing population of Mexican gray wolves is derived from just 7 individuals saved from extinction, genetic health is the primary consideration governing decisions re reproductive pairings and captive-to-wild release events. It is also the reason that the SSP programs for both wolf species pursue extraordinary conservation measures to save these species including semen collection, gamete cryopreservation, and artificial insemination (AI).

Not every genetically valuable wolf in the SSP program has the chance to successfully breed, so WCC staff helps the wolves make an “investment” in the recovery of their rare species by collecting semen from the males during the prime breeding season in mid-winter. Most of the genetic material collected is for cryopreservation for future potential use, an important option when trying to maintain diversity with such species that were once extinct in the wild.

M1133_dad_pup_logo_blog -2Unbeknownst to Mexican wolves M1133 (Rhett), his valuable contributions are poised to benefit Mexican wolf recovery program (and enhance his pack) in the not-so-distant future by fathering pups this season via AI.

Mexican wolf Rhett was been wearing the badge of fatherhood since 2016 when he and his mate F1226 (Belle) welcomed their first litter. They added three more pups to their brood in 2017. This breeding season, they will again be given an opportunity to have pups, but breeding isn’t a part of the equation. Because their yearlings are approaching sexual maturity themselves (they’ll be turning two years old in May), the males need to be separated from the females to prevent spontaneous breeding from occurring. Inbreeding doesn’t occur often in the wild but in captivity, the lobos have limited options so a family member can appear pretty appealing when hormones are racing. All of our enclosures have a dividing fence line through their interior so their pack will remain in their original territory, but males on one side and females on the other. It’s kind of like a middle school dance!

So, we’re utilizing AI (with Rhett’s frozen semen) for breeding as an alternative to permanently removing the yearlings from the family.

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To best prepare for the insemination, last week WCC staff inserted an Ovuplant Belle. Ovuplant is a sustained release implant of a hormone called “deslorelin.” The hormone, used to induce estrus and ovulation in wolves, will allow staff to best predict when Belle is most receptive to fertilization.

WCC curator Rebecca Bose injected the Ovuplant pellet right under the skin into Belle’s inner thigh. Staff will revisit the wolf in the coming days to confirm her status before next steps are taken.

If successful, the family will have a lot to be happy about – their reunion and a priceless contribution to the recovery of their rare species! Plus, with 6 offspring already, mom and dad will have lots of help caring for their newborn kiddos. Afterall… When it comes to wolves, it’s all about family!