September 21, 2020

If It Looks Like a Duck, Walks Like a Duck, It’s a Red Wolf

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“The red wolf had always been a puzzle,” Robert Wayne, a biologist at UCLA, told me. In 1991, he and a team of researchers set out to decipher the red wolf’s origins. At that time, some scientists believed the red wolf was more closely related to the coyote, while others believed it was more like the gray wolf. But the only available evidence was a handful of fossils and historical records. Few scientists had ever worked with living red wolves. Wayne and his team wanted to settle the question of the red wolf’s origins once and for all. “I was hoping to be the first person to sequence DNA from a red wolf,” said Susan Jenks, a biologist at Russell Sage College who co-authored the analysis.

Wayne and Jenks started with blood samples from red wolves living in captivity in American zoos, focusing on 4 percent of the genome. When they sequenced the DNA, however, they were mystified. Every section of red wolf DNA matched almost exactly with the equivalent section of DNA from two other animals: the gray wolf and the coyote. They found no part of the red wolf’s genome that was unique. “I kept running the analyses and checking and double-checking for contamination,” Jenks said. The conclusion, however, was inescapable. “Finally it occurred to me it would make sense that they’re hybrids,” Jenks said.

Source: What’s a Species, Anyways? | New Republic