Despite the widespread belief that there are three sub-species of wolves living in North America, new research shows there’s actually just one.
According to the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances last week, the gray wolf is the only wolf species on the continent. The two other supposed species—the Eastern wolf and the red wolf—are actually hybrids of gray wolves and coyotes.
Red wolves, thought to be native to the southeastern United States, were more coyote-like in their genetic makeup than Eastern wolves, which were believed to reside in the Great Lakes region. But according to Robert Wayne, co-author of the study and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, they’re essentially the same thing.
“These gray wolf-coyote hybrids look distinct and were mistaken as a distinct species,” he said in a statement, adding that they could not find a unique ancestry in either of the wolves that couldn’t be explained by inter-breeding between gray wolves and coyotes.
Even the “pure Eastern wolves” thought to reside in Ontario’s Algonquin Park are hybrids. Researchers studied two samples from this pack and found they were 50 percent gray wolf, 50 percent coyote.
These findings could have big implications for gray wolves, which are currently protected in 48 states under the United States’ Endangered Species Act. In 2014, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a document that asserted it was the Eastern wolf that occupied the Great Lakes region and eastern states, not the gray wolf. Therefore, they argued, the original listing of the gray wolf is no longer valid. They recommended gray wolves be removed from protection under the act, and according to reports, a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could be made as early as this fall.
Although some wolf experts, like Linda Y. Rutledge, have questioned whether this study is sufficient enough to reject the two wolf species, it does highlight the need for a more sophisticated approach to conserving genetic diversity.
Wayne said that when the Endangered Species Act was formulated in the 1970s, biologists weren’t aware of how often species inter-breed with one another, and assumed the ones that did weren’t as fit. They now know that’s not the case.
“We put things in baskets, but it doesn’t work that way in nature,” he told The New York Times. “We need to have a hybrid policy.”
He said that despite these wolves’ coyote DNA, they also carry the DNA of an endangered species, which means they should still be protected. Because regardless of genes, these animals still play a crucial role in their ecosystems.
“If it can kill deer in eastern landscapes, it’s worth saving,” Rutledge told The Times.