A critically endangered Mexican gray wolf living at the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) made a priceless contribution to the recovery of her rare and at-risk species on Monday – she had pups! On May 22, Mexican gray wolf F1226 (affectionately nicknamed Belle by supporters) gave birth to a litter of three pups – each no larger than a Russet potato. This is the second litter born to mom (age six), and dad, (age nine).
Although F1226 is currently keeping her newborn pups out of sight, WCC staff anticipates the pups will begin to emerge in a few weeks and be visible to a global audience via live webcams.
“It will be an exciting season,” said Rebecca Bose, WCC Curator and member of the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan Management Team. “With parents, newborns, and the pair’s three yearlings born in 2016, we have an opportunity to study the complex social structure of a multigenerational pack. Unbeknown to the wolves, our webcams allow us to observe their behavior 24/7, so it’s easier for us to make the best recommendations with respect to which wolves are most suitable for release.”
Accessible via the WCC website, webcams allow an unlimited number of viewers to enter the private lives of wolves.
“Over 300,000 people tuned in to the webcam last year to watch F1226 in labor,” said Maggie Howell, WCC Executive Director. “These Mexican wolves are really popular on webcam and have been exceptionally effective in demonstrating the importance of family. This is what makes wolves and humans so similar. As the pups and yearlings mature this year, the public will have an opportunity to witness the gestures of intimacy and enthusiasm that form the unique emotional bonds and shape the foundation of the pack.”
Raising pups is a family affair; it is natural for all the wolves to pitch in. The yearlings will assist their parents in rearing their younger siblings by regurgitating food for them, playing with them and even baby-sitting. Moreover, the parents will demonstrate critical parenting strategies and techniques for the yearlings to employ when they have pups of their own.
Passing down knowledge from one generation to the next also allows the family to maintain traditions unique to that pack.
“Hopefully some of these younger wolves will one day be able to apply what they learn today to raise pups of their own in the wild in the future,” said Bose. “So far three of our Mexican wolves have been released – two in Arizona and one in northern Mexico.”
Beyond being adorable, the wolf pups represent the Center’s active participation in an effort to save a species on the brink of extinction. The Mexican gray wolf 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.
Because the entire existing Mexican wolf population descended from just seven founders rescued from extinction, genetic health is the primary consideration governing most recovery efforts.
“Addressing the Mexican wolf’s genetic imperilment requires an active program of releasing more genetically diverse wolves into the wild. Currently, the captive population is more diverse than the wild population; we need to capitalize on this with more captive-to-wild release efforts as soon as possible. Mexican wolf recovery cannot exist in captivity alone,” said Bose.
The WCC is one of 55 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.
Currently 13 Mexican wolves call the WCC home. In the U.S., there is a single wild population comprising only 113 individuals – an increase from the 97 counted at the end of 2015.