With the world’s last remaining red wolves hovering on the brink of extinction in the wild for yet a second time, the need for action is urgent. The Wolf Conservation Center is uniquely positioned to have significant influence over the future of red wolves due largely to research efforts spearheaded by Dr. Joseph W. Hinton, the WCC’s Senior Research Scientist. His work studying the morphology and ancestry of southeastern canids and current analysis of ecological, social, and wildlife management data surrounding these canids will identify future reintroduction sites for red wolves and provide a blueprint for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to better navigate the path towards recovery.
Relying on the Past to Create a Better Future for Red Wolves
Despite once ranging across the southeastern United States, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980, with only a small remnant population remaining in captivity. These sole survivors became the founders of the red wolf captive breeding program and all red wolves alive today can trace their roots back to these individuals, providing a clear lineage but also highlighting genetic concerns. With such a limited genetic pool, what would the future look like for red wolves?
Recent research provides valuable insight. In 2018, scientists discovered canids in the Gulf Coast regions of Texas and Louisiana with ancient red wolf DNA, often referred to as “ghost alleles”, that was not present in the captive or wild red wolf populations. These canids, similar in appearance to coyotes but with certain red wolf characteristics, can hold the key to unlocking a more secure future for red wolves. Dr. Hinton and his collaborators spent the early months of 2021 and 2022 live trapping canids in Louisiana and Texas to collect genetic samples and phenotypic data for species identification, to determine taxonomy with comprehensive genetic and morphological analyses, and identify historic red wolf ancestry and ghost alleles not present in extant red wolves.
The implications of this research are wide-ranging; better understanding the impact of red wolf ancestry on these canids will help clarify the ecological role of red wolves and will further strengthen the evidence that red wolves are a unique species. This ecological data can then be applied to a collaborative research effort between Dr. Hinton, Dr. Michael Chamberlain, Dr. John Vucetich, and Dr. Jeremy Bruskotter that seeks to identify potential future reintroduction sites for red wolves. By synthesizing ecological, social, and wildlife agency data from a variety of locations within red wolf historic range, they can identify which areas are “politically feasible” based on social tolerance for canids and other environmental factors.
Although the current status of wild red wolves seems quite bleak, the unparalleled efforts of Dr. Hinton, his collaborators, and the WCC to save an endangered species serve as an important reminder that science is truly the path towards recovery.
Scientific Webinars to Advance Public Knowledge
Searching for Red Wolf Ghosts - the Gulf Coast Canine Project
The Wolf Conservation Center hosted Drs. Kristin E. Brzeski, Bridgett M. vonHoldt, and Joseph W. Hinton on January 27, 2022 at 6 pm ET for an overview of the research, including next steps. They summarized their current research activities and some preliminary findings to illustrate how these canid populations along the Gulf Coast harbor lost red wolf genetic ancestry and how that ancestry may influence their unique morphology and behaviors. If these canid populations are reservoirs of lost red wolf genetic ancestry, they may be used to bolster the small and vulnerable red wolf population.
Red Wolves: A Cross-Section of Conservation Challenges and Research Opportunities for the Wolf Conservation Center
On September 14, 2021 at 6 pm ET, the Wolf Conservation Center's Senior Research Scientist Dr. Joseph W. Hinton hosted a webinar discussing past and present research on red wolves to illustrate how research at the WCC can be used to resolve key threats to wolves and promote recovery throughout their historical range. Dr. Hinton summarized his past and present research on red wolves to illustrate how research at the Wolf Conservation Center can be used to resolve key threats to wolves and promote recovery throughout their historical range.