Remember Galveston, Texas? The Gulf Coast Island is the site of the worst recorded natural disaster in US history. In 1900, a hurricane swept through Galveston and killed between 6,000 to 8,000 people. That’s more than three times the fatalities the city of New Orleans would come to suffer at the hands of Hurricane Katrina about a century later.
Galveston may yet become known for a more exciting (and less morbid) bit of history. That’s because, on Galveston Island, there is a strange canid species afoot.
It all started when local resident Ron Wooten lost his dog to a pack of coyotes in 2008. Out of pain and curiosity, Wooten tracked down the remains of the dog and caught a glimpse of the canid culprits. “They were just beautiful,” he said, but they “didn’t look right. I thought at first they must have bred with Marmaduke or something because they had super-long legs, super-long noses.” In color, they were much redder than traditional coyotes, and had white patches on their muzzles, too.
Are these canids wolves, or are they coyotes? The answer: yes!
Source: New York Times
Over the years, Wooten collected two dead specimens of the canids, storing them in his freezer, hoping to pique interest in genetic study of the animals. Eventually, he sent a sample of skin tissue to canid DNA expert Dr. vonHoldt. Looking closely at the DNA, “it was really a kind of lovely chaos,” said vonHoldt in an article in The New York Times.
It turns out that the canids are 70 percent coyote. The other 30 percent? Red wolf. Red wolves were thought to have disappeared from the wild in 1980. As of 2019, only 14 individual red wolves existed throughout the US, all concentrated on a refuge in South Carolina.
Said vonHoldt: “They harbor ancestral genetic variation, this ghost variation, which we thought was extinct from the landscape. So there’s a sense of reviving what we thought was gone.”
From ligers to jagleops to grolar bears, hybrid animals often pose thorny ethical questions to those worried about “integrity” of species. Yet for those studying the canid species, the Galveston animals offer a window into the past and hopes for the future. Scientists can use the genetic material to a) understand historic red wolf populations and b) improve the genetic health of the extremely small existing population.
Low genetic diversity often dooms species to oblivion. The recent findings in Galveston could help change the endgame for a species long thought to be on the brink of extinction in North America. Dr. vonHoldt’s goal is to establish a “biobank” of specimens to “increase the genetic health of the captive red wolf population.”