Guest Essay by Kip Hansen
Carl Zimmer of the New York Times gives us this story: DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America.
“The first large study of North American wolf genomes has found that there is only one species on the continent: the gray wolf. Two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA, the scientists behind the study concluded.
The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.”
Bridgett M. vonHoldt of Princeton University who studies the genome of the canids (mammals of the dog family – Canidae) – that is domestic and wild dogs, wolves, foxes, jackals and dingoes — in her most recent study, highlighted by Zimmer, concludes that all North American wolves are genetically one species with variants, like the Eastern Wolf and the Red Wolf, being hybrids between Grey Wolves (Canis lupus) and the Coyote (Canis latrans).
Interesting, but so what?
Two months ago, in the same newspaper, Joanna Klein, writing in the science section’s Trilobites series, gave us: Red Wolves Need Emergency Protection, Conservationists Say.
“Conservation groups submitted an emergency petition last week requesting that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service increase protection for the only wild population of red wolves left in the world.
Red wolves, which are bigger than coyotes, but smaller than gray wolves, are the only wolf species found completely within the United States.”
“It also seeks an upgrading of the status of red wolves, which are endangered, from “nonessential” to “essential.” The change in status would grant reserved habitat to the species and require consultations with biologists over how changes to land use would affect the wolves.”
At the end of May, conservationists were lobbying the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service to declare the Red Wolf an “essential” species, in part because the “North Carolina’s Wildlife Resources Commission, a state-run conservation agency funded in part by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, which has called the [federal Red Wolf Recovery Program] a failure and claimed that wolves have damaged private land.” The details of the program themselves are a matter of controversy and conflict between state and federal biologists.
Carl Zimmer reports that “The gray wolf and red wolf were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s and remain protected today, to the periodic consternation of ranchers and agricultural interests. In 2013, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service recognized the Eastern wolf as a separate species, which led officials to recommend delisting the gray wolf. Conservationists won a lawsuit that forced the agency to abandon the plan.”
Furthermore, vanHoldt’s study not only identifies the three canids (Grey, Eastern and Red wolves) as a single species (albeit, the latter two are wolf-coyote hybrids), but her paper states bluntly:
“The red wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1973, initiating a captive breeding program by the USFWS. The program began with 12 of 14 founding individuals that reproduced, selected from a panel of several hundred captured individuals that were thought to represent the ancestry spectrum ranging from coyote to pure red wolf and various admixtures of the two forms. These 12 founders were considered to be pure red wolves based on phenotypic characteristics and the lack of segregation of “coyote-like” traits in their offspring. The descendants of these founders defined the ancestry of the several hundred red wolves produced by the captive breeding program and have been the source for a single reintroduced population in eastern North Carolina.”
The sad fact is that not only is the Red Wolf known to be a hybrid of the Grey Wolf and the Coyote, and has always been since it was first identified and studied, believed to have originated in the last century, but the Red Wolves of North Carolina are a human created species, created in an intentional federally financed breeding program, similar to the creating and breeding of dog breeds. Well intended but hardly the purpose of the Endangered Species Act
vanHoldt and her team use their study to encourage the extension of the Endangered Species Act to cover such hybrids.
Why write of this little biologists’ tiff here?
To me, it demonstrates how far astray science and the science/policy interface can drift when the science itself is vague, blurry — based on words and concepts that do not have solid, agreed-upon definitions that are based on solid science understandings.
The word in this story is SPECIES. If you think that there is one and only one common and agreed upon definition of the word species in the world of biology, you have been criminally under-educated or remain willfully misinformed. For a brief glimpse of the controversy, you can look at the entirely unauthoritative Species Problem wiki page, which states “there are at least 26 recognized species concepts.”
Several years ago, I personally attempted to discover the “current definition” of species being used by academic biologists. I had foolishly believed that they must have one, by this time, 40 years after my university education. My search finally ended when I had a protracted email conversation with a well-respected, well placed academic biologist, whom I had approached based on my digging deep into some journal article of his. We had quite an extensive discussion only to arrive at his admission that “biology, as a subject, does not have a firm definition of species – never has – and may never have.”
This lack of a firm, scientifically-based definition makes the application science-related policies, enshrined as law, such as the Endangered Species Act – which can have far-reaching social and economic effects on civil society – problematic at best and, worse, subject to “science fads” and whimsy.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
As always, I will be glad to answer your questions about my experience with the definition of the word species.
This essay is a simple comment on the implications of science and science-based-policy that depend on vague definitions and the trouble it can cause.
Disclosure: I once owned a German Shepard/Wolf cross who was a sweet thing but had the unfortunate habit of playing too rough with my four small children – she would race alongside of them, leap up, take them in her teeth by the backs of their necks, and throw them to the ground, place her fore-paws on their chests and woof: “I win!”. I placed her with an ex-soldier who worked with dogs.
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