Trent University Ph.D. Study Disrupts Long-held Beliefs about Historic Grey Wolf Distribution in Eastern North America


Dr. Linda Rutledge’s study of 16th century skull fragments suggests eastern wolves, not grey wolves, inhabited forests of eastern North America prior to arrival of European colonists

Tuesday, June 22, 2010, Peterborough

A research study conducted by Dr. Linda Rutledge, during her time at Trent University as a Ph.D. student in the Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program, and published this week in the journal Conservation Genetics, has the potential to impact wolf restoration efforts in the northeastern United States.

“This study brings the whole historic distribution of grey wolves into question,” said Dr. Rutledge, who is currently a post-doctoral researcher with the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre (NRDPFC) at Trent. “The results challenge the idea that only grey wolves occupied eastern North America prior to the arrival of European explorers.”

The study, done in collaboration with anthropologists from Trent University, the University of Western Ontario (UWO), and McMaster University, compared the size and DNA of an approximately 500-year old jaw bone excavated from a pre-historic Iroquois village site in London, Ontario, to that of current wolf and coyote populations.

“We didn’t find any evidence that grey wolves inhabited southern Ontario in the 16th century, so these results are in direct contrast to the idea that a grey wolf subspecies inhabited the temperate forests of eastern North America,” Dr. Rutledge said. “That our results demonstrate the presence in this area of a distinct eastern wolf species rather than a grey wolf is really quite important for conservation because it makes us question the original distribution of grey wolves in the east.”

Once ranging across most of the United States, wolves were extirpated from all but a few regions by the mid 20th century. In eastern North America, these wolves were typically considered to be a grey wolf subspecies, but the genetic and morphological evidence presented in this new study reveal a different image of the wolf that roamed this area prior to European settlement.

Commenting on her research project, Dr. Rutledge said: “As a biologist, being able to collaborate with the Anthropology departments at three universities was really exciting, and being able to utilize the extensive resources available at Trent was really essential to the success of this project. The work wouldn’t have been possible without the ancient DNA facility in the Anthropology department and the sophisticated technological tools and genetic database available through the Biology department and the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre (NRDPFC). I think future collaborations between the departments of Anthropology, Biology, and Indigenous Studies hold real promise for helping us unravel the natural history of wildlife populations. Ancient DNA really is the key to clarifying questions about extirpated and extinct species.”


To view the complete research article, see:
Rutledge LY, Bos KI, Pearce RJ, White BN. 2010. Genetic and morphometric analysis of sixteenth century Canis skull fragments: implications for historic eastern and gray wolf distribution in North America. Conservation Genetics 11: 1273-1281.


For more information, please contact:
Dr. Linda Rutledge, Post-Doctoral Researcher, Trent University,; or

Dr. Bradley White, Chair, Biology Department, Trent University,