A Hybrid in Wolf's Clothing

When is a wolf not a wolf? Scientists are asking that question after genetic tests showed that most gray wolves in the Great Lakes region -- where the species lost its Endangered Species Act protective status earlier this year -- are not true wolves, but wolf-coyote hybrids.

According to the research, the Great Lakes wolves -- of the Eastern Timber Wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) subspecies -- mixed not just with the local coyote (Canis latrans) population but also with wolves of another subspecies, the Eastern Canadian Wolf (Canis lycaon).

One of the study's authors, Dr. Jennifer A. Leonard of Sweden's Uppsala University, tells the New York Times that the Great Lakes wolves should now regain their protective status while more research is done to determine if the pure genetic line of the Eastern Timber Wolf in the region can be saved.

The Times also reports that, apparently, wolf-coyote hybridization is nothing new, but it did not have an impact on the historic population.

So why did this hybridization occur in modern times? It's the same old story: habitat loss combined with rampant hunting forced the remaining animals into smaller territories, where populations crushed up against each other in more ways that one.

Here's the original research paper: "Native Great Lakes wolves were not restored", Biology Letters (rsbl.2007.0354).

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