Background: Hybridization can be a conservation concern if genomic introgression leads to the loss of an endangered species’ unique genome, or when hybrid offspring are sterile or less fit than their parental species. Yet hybridization can also be an adaptive management tool if rare populations are inbred and have reduced genetic variation, and there is the opportunity to enhance genetic variation through hybridization. The red wolf (Canis rufus) is a critically endangered wolf endemic to the eastern United States, where all extant red wolves are descended from 14 founders which has led to elevated levels of inbreeding over time. Red wolves were considered extirpated from the wild by 1980, but before they disappeared, they interbred with encroaching coyotes creating a genetically admixed population of canids along coastal Texas and Louisiana. In 2018, a genetic study identified individuals on Galveston Island, Texas with significant amounts of red wolf ancestry. We collected 203 fecal samples from Galveston for a more in-depth analysis of this population to identify the amount of red wolf ancestry present and potential mechanisms that support retention of red wolf ancestry on the landscape. Results: We identified 24 individual coyotes from Galveston Island and 8 from mainland Texas with greater than 10% red wolf ancestry. Two of those individuals from mainland Texas had greater than 50% red wolf ancestry estimates. Additionally, this population had 5 private alleles that were absent in the North American reference canid populations used in this study, which included 107 southeastern coyotes, 19 captive red wolves, and 38 gray wolves, possibly representing lost red wolf genetic variation. We also identified several individuals on Galveston Island and the mainland of Texas that retained a unique red wolf mitochondrial haplotype present in the red wolf founding population. On Galveston Island, we identified a minimum of four family groups and found coyotes on the island to be highly related, but not genetically depauperate. We did not find clear associations between red wolf ancestry estimates and landscape features, such as open green space or developed areas. Conclusion: Our results confirm the presence of substantial red wolf ancestry persisting on Galveston Island and adjacent mainland Texas. This population has the potential to benefit future red wolf conservation efforts through novel reproductive techniques and possibly through de-introgression strategies, with the goals of recovering extinct red wolf genetic variation and reducing inbreeding within the species.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Environmental Science(all)
- Genetic introgression
- Ghost allele
- Red wolf