North America's lone wolf unmasked

Researchers, using DNA, have discovered a new species of wolf in Canada, one that continues to evolve, writes Philip Lee.

Philip Lee
The Ottawa Citizen

Adrian Wyld, The Canadian Press / For decades, biologists had been arguing that the wolves in Algonquin Park were hybrids, a combination of grey wolves and western coyotes. That theory has now been blown apart by new research that shows they are a separate species.

After four years of pioneering scientific investigation, a team of Canadian wildlife geneticists has rewritten the history of wolves in North America.

The team's findings, published in the December issue of the Canadian Journal of Zoology, have the potential to revolutionize wolf management policies throughout North America, including multimillion-dollar wolf reintroduction programs in the United States and the cross border trade in coyote pelts.

The researchers studied genetic signatures in wolves throughout North America, and ran DNA tests on specimens of wolves more than a century old, to identify a new species they call the eastern North American wolf.

This month's publication is pure science, but has political implications on both sides of the border.

Government must decide what to call the new species. Only two species of wolves are recognized in the United States: The highly endangered red wolf (canis rufus) and the grey wolf (canis lupus). The killing of wolves is outlawed in the U.S., but coyotes (canis latrans) are fair game.

Many of the thousands of animals being killed for their pelts in the U.S. may in fact be eastern North American wolves.

Bradley White, a biology professor at McMaster University, who led the research team, said the new research has far-reaching implications, including how the issue will be treated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

The scientists have proposed that the new species take the Latin name canis lycaon.

The scientific detective story began in 1996, when John Theberge, a University of Waterloo ecology professor, who for many years has worked to protect the wolves in Algonquin Park, asked Dr. White to do some genetic tests to study the dispersal of males and females in wolf packs. Mr. White runs wildlife DNA laboratories at McMaster and Trent universities.

The Algonquin wolves, which are smaller than grey wolves and feed mainly on deer instead of larger animals such as moose or caribou, were believed to be a grey wolf and coyote hybrid. When Mr. White began to study the genetic patterns of Algonquin wolves, he expected to find characteristics of grey wolves.

"We weren't finding that signature," he recalls. "This animal was supposed to be a particular subspecies of grey wolf."

For decades, biologists had been arguing that these animals were hybrids, a combination of grey wolves and western coyotes. According to this theory, the Algonquin wolves emerged some time after coyotes started expanding into Eastern Canada in the early 1900s. If true, the animals still should have been showing grey wolf genetic signatures.

"We were wracking our brains for a while before we realized that maybe it never was a grey wolf," Mr. White says.

As they conducted further genetic testing, they realized that the wolves in the park shared genetic markers with the endangered red wolf found in the southeastern United States.

Mr. White's team, which included his graduate student Paul Wilson, who runs the DNA laboratory at Trent University, hypothesized that the wolves in Algonquin park and throughout the Eastern Seaboard were in fact a separate species of North American wolf that evolved independently of the grey wolf.

They began searching for historic specimens of wolves that were killed before western coyotes began to migrate east at the turn of the century. They needed to find samples of wolf that could not be a grey wolf and coyote hybrid. They collected samples of hides and teeth from New York, Maine and New Brunswick, some of them more than a century old.

At the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, they took a sample of a stuffed wolf that is labelled as the last wolf killed in the Adirondack Mountains in the late 1800s, before the expansion of the western coyote into the area. What kind of animal is this museum piece?

"It is an eastern wolf," Mr. White says. "If it was a sub-species of grey wolf, it should have grey wolf in it. It doesn't have grey wolf in it. That lends support that the whole of the East Coast of North America had this wolf and it was not a grey wolf. It was one big population." Mr. White says researchers believe the red wolf is simply the southern remnant of this wolf.

"Our data supports the fact that it is a real species and that this species was in fact the dominant wolf from east of the Mississippi, the Gulf Coast north up to the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence. That was the eastern timber wolf that the original colonial people would have seen."

The story of the eastern wolf begins one to two million years ago when there was a common wolf ancestor in North America. Some of these wolves travelled to Europe and Asia over the land bridge where they evolved independently into the grey wolf. The wolves that remained in North America evolved into the smaller eastern North America wolf. About 300,000 years ago, an offshoot of this wolf evolved into the western coyote.

Also about 300,000 years ago, the grey wolf returned to North America over the ice bridge.

When European settlers arrived in North America, they began clearing land, farming and killing wolves. The wolves that survived migrated north into Canada, a more pristine environment away from the slaughter.

"It's a bit like the Loyalists as I see it, as the Americans were killing so effectively, basically there was this movement to the north," Mr. White says. "It's very much a story of North America."

Five hundred years ago, Ontario and Algonquin Park would have been occupied by grey wolves. North American wolves would have roamed territory south of the Great Lakes. As Ontario was deforested, the grey wolves migrated north and the eastern wolves moved in following the expansion of deer herds.

"Our view is that Algonquin Park presently has a wolf in it that has only been there since 1850 or so, when the park was heavily logged," Mr. White says. Western coyotes reached Ontario in the early 1900s, and became a larger animal as it moved eastwards.

"Our genetic data suggests that was a result of the western coyote hybridizing with the eastern wolf to create the eastern coyote, which is a significantly larger animal, and that animal moved across southern Ontario, Eastern Ontario and Quebec, populated New York and the New England states from the north, and then finished up in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the 1950s and 1960s. That animal has a higher amount of this wolf in it as well."

In North Carolina, the red wolf reintroduction managers are using the Canadian laboratories to try to protect a pure genetic strain of wolf. The wolves they have reintroduced to the wild are breeding with coyotes. Biologists are removing hybrids and coyotes to protect the genetic purity of their endangered wolves. Mr. White thinks such a program is a mistake and ultimately may be doomed.

"We're acting as God," he says. "I don't think there's such a thing as pure. It's very hard to know what's pure and whether it has any meaning. I take a much more functional view of the world.

"We need top-end predators in these various ecosystems and we need them to be suitable."

He uses the evolution of the eastern wolves in Algonquin Park to make his point. There, wolves have been evolving according to changes in the ecosystem. The wolves on the southeast edge of the park have been breeding with coyotes. Wolves in the north have been breeding with grey wolves.

"Whether in between that is a more pure one, whatever that may mean, is anybody's guess," Mr. White says. "We can, from the genetics, show that there is really one large population that expands from Manitoba, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, through Ontario and Quebec. That population is exchanging genes among themselves. There is an evolution going on.

"I view this as a wonderful kind of reflection of Canadian biodiversity, in that we've got three species that have put their genes into the mix. We've got a landscape that's been heavily impacted by humans and we're watching how this might unfold."