A population of strange canids in Texas could hold the key to reviving the highly endangered red wolf. From a distance, the canids of Galveston Island, Texas, look almost like coyotes, prowling around the beach at night, eyes gleaming in the dark.
But look closer and oddities appear. The animals’ bodies seem slightly out of proportion, with overly long legs, unusually broad heads and sharply pointed snouts. And then there is their fur, distinctly reddish in hue, with white patches on their muzzles.
The Galveston Island canids are not conventional coyotes — at least, not entirely. They carry a ghostly genetic legacy: DNA from red wolves, which were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.
For years, these genes have been hiding in plain sight, tucked away in the seemingly unremarkable animals that scavenged for food behind housing developments and roamed the grounds of the local airport.
Their discovery, which came after a determined local resident persuaded scientists to take a closer look at the canids, could help revive a captive breeding program for red wolves and restore the rich genetic variation that once existed in the wild population.
“It doesn’t seem to be lost any longer,” said Bridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University, referring to the genetic diversity that once characterized red wolves. “We might have a chance to bring it back.”
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