Ecological Authenticity

Breaking down genetic analyses of wolves

By Dave Skinner

Want a break from Montana’s timber woes? OK!

In late July, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published a significant paper by a nine-person team on “Whole-genome species analysis” of wolf DNA. Big news? For some – really, really old news to others.

Turns out gray wolves are, yep, mostly wolves, nonetheless with about 8 percent coyote. But other “wolf-like canids” were, as the scientists put it, “generated through admixture.” Red wolves, listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)? 80 percent coyote. Mexican wolves? 85.8 percent! In plain English, mutts!

Upon reading the news, I flashed back to a multi-year wolf/coyote hybridization experiment being conducted by L. David Mech, PhD, without question America’s top name in wolf science. I contacted Dr. Mech for an update. He replied: “The hybrids reproduced when 1 years old. I am currently writing this up for publication.”

Well, duh. It’s a pretty basic fact of biology that animals of the same species breed fertile offspring, while related species give sterile offspring. Rainbows and cutthroats? Fertile cutbows. Donkeys and horses? Sterile mules.

I then chased down my copy of the new genome paper. Amazingly, and to everyone’s credit, AAAS and the authors (led by Princeton evolutionary biologist Bridgett M. vonHoldt), made the full 14-page paper in Science Advances freely available.

Dr. vonHoldt’s whole-genome team builds on a prior 2007 genetic analysis of offspring from the 1994 Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. Aside from the deep detail, the “vonHoldt 2007” team concluded successful re-introductions should have a large and diverse population of founders, and furthermore, “given the choice, wolves avoid breeding with close relatives.”

The “vonHoldt 2014” team sequenced 28 genomes from a “diversity of large canids” to get their over 5 million “SNP” data points, an epic feat.

Making matters more interesting is the emergence of two warring academic camps in wolf genetics. As Jens Hegg, PhD candidate at University of Idaho blogged, one faction is the “2-species” gang, believing “canids” (wolves and coyotes) came over the land-bridge from Eurasia several times during the Pleistocene (Ice Age).

The “3-species” gang believes a canid species originated in North America, then land-bridged to Eurasia, evolved significantly into wolves, then the evolved wolves land-bridged back to North America. In the meantime, the canids that stayed turned into red wolves, Mexican wolves and coyotes, while almost too conveniently remaining distinct from re-invading wolves – and, of course, “distinction” is hugely critical for Endangered Species Act listings.

Trouble brewing? Yep. Hackles up, I contacted another high-profile researcher, PhD biologist Rob Roy Ramey. Dr. Ramey is a scientific heretic, hounded in 2006 out of his position as curator of vertebrate zoology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science because his genetic tests concluded in 2003 that the so-called Preble’s meadow jumping mouse (on Colorado’s booming Front Range) was improperly protected under the Endangered Species Act in 1998.

Well, other researchers found in 2013 the “Preble’s” mice were “part of a single lineage that is ecologically indistinct and extends to the far north” – as in Alaska, to New Mexico, and east to Georgia. This lineage of “meadow jumping mice” furthermore is ranked by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as “least concern” – vindicating Ramey.

After a brief warm-up, Dr. Ramey pointed me at the “Conservation Implications” section of vonHoldt 2014: Even though the researchers found “admixture” all across America, the kind that would render wolves/coyotes anything but endangered or threatened purebreds, the authors declare “[t]he overly strict application of taxonomy to support endangered species status is antiquated,” a “Victorian typological concept.”

The vonHoldt team therefore suggested the ESA be “interpreted in a modern evolutionary framework.” Policy could therefore “follow the ‘ecological authenticity’ concept, in which admixed individuals that have an ecological function similar to that of the native endangered taxon […] warrant protection [under the ESA].”

Ecological authenticity, explains Ramey, is “a really bizarre conclusion, counter to all logic,” but perfectly sensible if researchers want to “protect their funding streams, prestige and power.” Bad? Yes, but worse, Dr. Ramey points out: “We have so many bona fide, unique species, example elephants and rhinos, which truly deserve conservationists’ full attention and resources.”

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