Illustration © Andrei Ivashenko | dreamstime.com
Mystery Canines of Galveston Island
Red wolf/coyote hybrids cause a stir in the wildlife world.
By Russell A. Graves
Driving through the dark at 5:30 a.m., I see a canine shape dash in front of my headlights. I’m winding my way through a neighborhood in Jamaica Beach (adjacent to Galveston Island State Park) looking for the house where Michigan Tech mammalogist Kristin Brzeski and graduate student Tanner Barnes will join me to spend the morning on the lookout for a group of canines that, as of late, may be among the country’s most famous.
Wedged between the Gulf of Mexico to my right and the expansive West Bay to the left, this little sliver of land is one of multiple spots on the island where the mystery canines have been spotted. For years, most who saw these animals dismissed them as coyotes. One local resident, however, suspected they may be something more.
“Good morning, guys,” Ron Wooten whispers jovially as he steps onto the deck from the stairs that lead from below. Like all the houses in this neighborhood, it sits on stilts about a dozen feet off the ground to help mitigate the damage that an occasional hurricane-produced storm surge may bring. For now, it’s a fantastic perch from which we wait for the wild dogs.
“There they are!” says Wooten just a few minutes after he arrives, pointing northeast as the sun starts to peek over the horizon. Three hundred yards away, an adult and three juveniles run and play in the paspalum prairie that snakes intermittently between a smattering of brush. “There are the wolves.”
Photo © Ron Wooten
Galveston canines (above) were found to be half coyote and half red wolf.
A COMPLICATED HISTORY
The settling of North America brought about troubling days for the nation’s indigenous species. Settlement for homes and slash-and-burn agriculture techniques led to habitat fragmentation or all-out destruction. Habitat loss, in turn, forced many species west while some disappeared altogether. So goes the story of America’s wolves.
While the gray wolf retreated to the mountains and plains, the red wolf headed to the coast and the thickets of East Texas. In between, the highly adaptable coyote filled in the gap. Not quite as big as a gray wolf and not quite as small as a coyote, the shy red wolf occupied a low-country niche and scavenged for rabbits, opossums and carrion in the swamps and bottomlands near coastal areas. A strictly Southern wolf, animals of this species are the laid-back cousins of both the coyote and the wolf. In all, they lack the adaptability of the coyote and the aggressive pack mentality of the wolf.
From a historical perspective, much of Texas settlement is relatively new. The original range of the red wolf in Texas is largely unknown because of their secretive nature and the thick underbrush and swamplands they inhabited. From the time the first Anglo settlers arrived in Texas, however, the mammals struck a chord with those who came in contact with them.
In her memoir, early Texas pioneer Dilue Harris recorded her thoughts in December 1833 while on the trail between Harrisburg and Stafford Landing (now the present-day Houston area).
“We were waiting for the woodmen to return, when all of a sudden the wolves began howling,” Harris writes. “They surrounded the camp. Mr. Lytle drove the oxen back and tied them to the cart. The wolves were after the venison. Father would have shot one but said if he killed it the others would eat it and then kill the oxen. Our woodmen got back and made a big fire, which scared the wolves. They ran a short distance, sat down, faced the cart and barked and howled all night.”
While sentiments are changing, our contemporary culture has always deemed wolves as problematic, something to be banished. From the literature of antiquity up until the 20th century, the wolf’s role as an antagonist in our collective cultural lore is well documented. We’ve been at war with the “big bad wolf” for centuries.
‘THESE WERE DIFFERENT’
Of all the people on Galveston Island, Wooten may be the most familiar with the wild canines. By day, he’s a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but he’s also an outdoor communicator with a keen interest in Texas wildlife. When he joined us, he brought along some maps that he’s kept over the years. On the maps, each dot corresponds with a date and canine sighting that he’s crowdsourced from other islanders. From a quick glance it appears that the animals use the undeveloped areas of the island and the seams of land that connect the open habitat.
“I first started seeing these animals in 2008,” he says, looking across the field while Brzeski and her graduate assistant peer through binoculars to observe the animals. “I’ve seen plenty of coyotes before, and these didn’t quite look like coyotes.”
Wooten says that right after Hurricane Ike, the whole island was seemingly dead; homes and ecosystems were devastated by the Category 2 storm. Upon his return home, he noted that birds and all the animals were almost gone, save for coyotes and some free-ranging donkeys. While he was out walking one evening, a pack of canids killed his dog. He could hear the animals in the brush, but, since it was dark, he couldn’t see them. Curiosity then sent him on a 10-year quest to learn all he could about the isolated pack of canines.
In 2013, he got a tip from a fellow islander who had seen the pack. Wooten was able to photograph them at long last. Again, he didn’t think they looked like “normal” coyotes or anything else he’d seen before.
“I started asking questions of biologists and started looking things up online to try to figure this out,” he says. “When I found a couple of dead ones on the side of the road, I took some tissue samples that I knew we’d need if tests were ever run.”
As serendipity would have it, Wooten watched a television documentary about wolves and reached out to David Mech, one of the wolf biologists featured. Mech thought Wooten was on to something and encouraged him to send the DNA samples off for testing. In late 2018, he enlisted the cooperation of Brzeski, and by the end of the year, the results were in: The canines Wooten tested are half red wolf and half coyote. The results surprised many in the biological community.
“You would have expected that because of the huge numbers of coyotes moving into the area, the genetics would be diluted down to nothing by now,” says Jonah Evans, state mammalogist for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, referring to a concept called “hybrid swarm.” Hybrid swarm is a scientific term used to describe the point at which hybridized individuals begin to breed with indigenous species and, over time, slowly breed pure genetics out of the population.
It works like this: As wolves were depleted from their range, coyotes moved in and filled the ecological void. When red wolves and coyotes bred, a hybrid (half of each) was created. Over time, the hybrids bred back to coyotes since they were the area’s most common wild canine. Eventually, the original wolf genetics became diluted generation after generation. With the discovery of coyote/wolf hybrids with a high percentage of wolf genetics, it seems as if the red wolf genetics weren’t diluted as fast as suspected.
“That’s the really interesting thing: There’s actually a significant amount of red wolf genetics in the wild,” Evans says. “Maybe there’s some mechanism by which the hybrids are being more selective in their breeding so that they are maintaining more pure genetics. That’s a real question mark.”
Photo © Russell A. Graves
Red wolves like this one in a Fossil Rim Wildlife Center breeding program used to roam the Southeast.
Photo © Ron Wooten
Red wolf hybrids have been maintaining a population on Galveston Island and "could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry," researchers say.
SEEING IS BELIEVING?
While I am no classically trained mammalogist, like Wooten I’ve spent countless hours in the field and have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of coyotes. These seven canines in the field before us, after long and measured observations, do vary from the physical characteristics that I’ve seen in coyotes. They are lankier and a bit bigger than most coyotes, are slick haired and, most notably, have large ears and white fur lines around their muzzles.
Wooten points out each of these traits as we intently watch the group. His initial reaction to seeing these animals was correct — they are indeed different from a typical coyote.
Not as large and imposing as the big gray wolf, the red wolf is just a bit larger than its coyote cousins, and hence, it looks a lot like a coyote to the casual observer. When full grown, the males reach about 50 pounds (compared to about 33 pounds for an adult coyote). In length, the red wolf is about 30 percent longer than the coyote.
“Phenotypes can be deceiving,” says Brzeski. “Just because these animals we’re witnessing look different from typical coyotes doesn’t mean they aren’t coyotes.”
There’s a lot of variation in the way coyotes look.
“That’s why we’re here working on this project,” she explains. “We want to find out what’s going on genetically with these animals and try to find the extent of where these wolf/coyote hybrids exist.”
On this visit they plan to collect scat, hair and tissue samples as well as deploy game cameras to document the canines. Brzeski’s study is part of a larger canine ancestry project that she’s been working on for some time now.
In the published scientific paper Rediscovery of Red Wolf Ghost Alleles in a Canid Population Along the American Gulf Coast, Brzeski and her co-authors (including Wooten) were surprised to find the red wolf genetics (which were thought to be long since extinct in the wild). The discovery, they believe, offers a ray of hope in conserving one of the nation’s most endangered mammals.
“Through interbreeding with coyotes,” they write, “this endangered genetic variation has persisted and could represent a reservoir of previously lost red wolf ancestry. This unprecedented discovery opens new avenues for innovative conservation efforts, including the reintroduction of red wolf ghost alleles to the current captive and experimental populations.”
Before Brzeski’s paper was published, it was conventionally accepted that the red wolf had long been extirpated from Texas and the rest of the southern woods and swamps it called home. By the early 1980s the secretive species was thought to be completely gone from its range.
Therein lies the conundrum: It seems that the red wolf was so secretive and seemingly rare, it’s been hard to understand how many red wolves once existed and where they roamed. Some in the scientific community used to believe that the red wolf is actually a hybrid of the gray wolf and the coyote, but additional evidence produced in the 1970s proved otherwise. Essentially, the red wolf disappeared before anyone really paid any attention to them.
In the 1960s, wildlife biologists roamed red wolf country in East Texas and used a siren to elicit a howl from local wolf packs. By 1980, the howls went silent.
In 1962, Austin College professor Howard McCarley hypothesized that many of the animals that people thought were red wolves were actually wolf-coyote hybrids. He believed that the red wolf was slowly being nudged out by an ever-changing landscape and the breeding aggressiveness and adaptability of the coyote.
A 1974 edition of The Mammals of Texas states, “All of the recent, so-called red wolves I have examined from eastern Texas have proven to be large coyotes. Consequently, it appears that in Texas, red wolves are now restricted to the Gulf Coast counties and are on the verge of extinction.”
In the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an all-out campaign to save the red wolf. In a four-year span from 1974–78, more than 400 red wolves were trapped in Texas. Once these individuals were genetically tested for purity, 17 wild specimens remained. These individuals made up the base population from which breeding programs were initiated.
As of now, only a single population of known red wolves roam the wild in a five-county area on the Albemarle Peninsula of eastern North Carolina where they were reintroduced. Even those wolves are in trouble. Once numbering just over 100 individuals, now there are only about 30. The decline is thought to be due to the unintended consequence of the legalization of night hunting for coyotes.
While it’s been nearly 40 years since a genetically pure red wolf was confirmed in Texas, the rediscovering of a creature with such a high percentage of red wolf genetics offers a glimmer of hope that somehow the red wolf has hung on against the odds. Just last summer, a wild-caught, captive-raised coyote in the Panhandle was genetically tested and shown to have as much as 35 percent red wolf genetics. In the world of red wolves, there seem to be more questions than answers. Brzeski says that’s the “fun” part of science: trying to solve ecological mysteries like the one Wooten discovered in the unlikeliest of places.
“What does all this mean for conservation?” she asks. “Will it call for restoration of this unique animal on the landscape? Or maybe there is no next step for conservation. I don’t know. Those are the questions we’ll have to ask.”
Russell A. Graves is a writer and photographer. Find more of his work at russellgraves.com
Photo © Russell A. Graves
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