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What’s a Species, Anyway?

The practice of introducing endangered predators to a new area of land has always been controversial, because the people who live there must deal with the consequences. The Red Wolf Recovery Program introduced four pairs of endangered red wolves into North Carolina in 1987. They reproduced and wandered from their reserve into populated areas. Citizens were terrified, but it’s illegal to shoot a red wolf. However, it is legal to shoot a coyote, and the two canids look very much alike. Over about ten years, the red wolf population in North Carolina dropped from 120 to between 50 and 75 animals. But are they worth saving? Don’t be shocked; the question of the red wolf goes back to how we define “species” in the first place.    

When the Fish and Wildlife Service decided to save the red wolf, its first challenge was to separate the wolves from the coyotes. Genetic testing was primitive and impractical, so the agency relied instead on morphology. It trapped some 400 animals, weighed each of them, compared their howls, and measured their skulls using X-rays. It then compared the cranial measurements with red wolf skulls from the 1940s, a time before hybridization with coyotes was believed to have started. In the end, it identified just 14 animals as true red wolves. The animals were transferred to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, and the red wolf was declared extinct in the wild.

Since then, DNA analysis has advanced remarkably. A 1991 analysis of the red wolf’s genome found that it had no unique sequence that wasn’t also found in either gray wolves or coyotes. Could the entire population of red wolves be hybrids and their progeny? That question raises even more questions: are hybrids a species? How do the fit into evolutionary taxonomy? Should we go to great lengths to save a hybrid species? Were there ever red wolves that weren’t hybrids? An article at New Republic explores these questions in general, as well as how they pertain to red wolves. -via Digg 


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