Wildlife Science Center partners in study impacting wolf controversy

Breeding of coyote and western wolf puts eastern wolf’s heritage in spotlight

 

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Born to a western coyote who was inseminated with western gray wolf semen, these pups are being raised at the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus. They are part of a study that adds new information to a longtime controversy about the eastern gray wolf’s heritage. (Photo courtesy of Wildlife Science Center)

Clint Riese
News Editor

A study conducted in part by the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus is adding fuel to the fire of a long-debated mystery involving wolves.

Scientists and geneticists have sought to determine whether the eastern gray wolf is a unique species or merely a smaller version of the western gray wolf created through hybridization with coyotes. Resolution of the controversy could have a direct impact on management of the eastern wolf population. If proven to be a valid species of its own, the eastern wolf could fall under the protection of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Wildlife Science Center last week announced results of the study conducted from 2012-2013. Findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, demonstrate that the interbreeding of the western wolf and the western coyote is possible, at least through insemination of captive animals. Also, a coyote mother can nurture healthy hybrid offspring.

While these findings do not settle the debate, they may add credence to the theory that the eastern wolf is a hybrid of the western wolf, not a unique species.

“Our findings leave the eastern wolf debate open by adding further merit to the hybrid theory rather than disproving it,” said David Mech, USGS scientist and the report’s lead author. “However, the findings are applicable to captive animals and are not necessarily true under natural conditions, so the counter-hybrid theory is not disproved either.”

Wildlife Science Center Executive Director Peggy Callahan partnered with Duke University canid specialist Dr. Brian Hare to study the behavior of six coyote-wolf hybrid pups, which were born at the U.S. Department of Agriculture research center in Utah. Callahan believes useful scientific information can be gleaned for comparison to the eastern wolf, which resides throughout southeast Canada.

Of nine captive western coyotes scientists attempted to inseminate, the pups’ mother was one of three to become pregnant and was the only one whose pups survived.

The pups were raised at the Wildlife Science Center. The facility’s staff continues to monitor their physical growth.

Callahan and Hare found that the “woyotes” exhibit both coyote and wolf behaviors. Pack interaction amongst the pups is less pronounced than that of wolves.

Physically, they have the arched back of a coyote and distinct vocalization patterns that reflect their mixed heritage.

“They start off vocalizing like wolves, emitting deep, strong howls, then partway through, the vocalization changes to one that is more coyote-like, with high-pitched yipping,” Callahan said.

The Wildlife Science Center conducted the study in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Logan Research Station and the St. Louis Zoo’s research department.

The hybrid pups can be seen during tours of the center offered to the public at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. every Saturday. Private tours can also be arranged. Call 651-464-3993 or visit www.wildlifesciencecenter.org for more information.

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