New Trent research is helping shape a hotly debated topic: our understanding on the origins of eastern wolves.
The research by Biology professors, Dr. Paul Wilson and Dr. Linda Rutledge, recently published in Ecology and Evolution, shows that eastern wolves, specifically the eastern timber wolf and the red wolf, likely descended from large wolf-like coyotes who mated with gray wolves during the end of the last Ice Age.
This distinct evolutionary history supports species-at-risk consideration of eastern wolves across North America.
“Our study describes a new paradigm that can frame future hypotheses on wolf evolution,” Professor Wilson says. “While this contribution is important, the research is far from complete.”
Helping science evolve
Scientists have debated the taxonomy of eastern wolves for three decades. The main argument has been whether the eastern wolves represent a species independent of the gray wolf and more related to the coyote, or if eastern wolves are a hybridization between gray wolves and coyotes.
Profs. Wilson and Rutledge re-analyzed previously published DNA sequences from Ice Age wolf specimens and compared them to sequences in eastern wolves. They put these DNA sequences in context by considering the fossil evidence and the type of wolves and coyotes that lived on the landscape during the last Ice Age. They concluded that the DNA sequences in the eastern wolves corresponded to these coyotes and not gray wolves.
“The eastern wolf origins debate is an excellent example of how new results and interpretations shape our understanding of evolutionary history and help science evolve,” Prof. Wilson says.
DNA labs support research
Many undergraduate and graduate students supported this research over the past 20 years in Trent’s cutting-edge research facilities, including state-of-the-art DNA laboratories.
Going forward, Prof. Wilson says new technology, including applying genomics to modern specimens and analyzing ancient DNA, will provide even greater insight into the relationship between Ice Age and modern wolves and coyotes.
“Ultimately the evolutionary debate over eastern wolves is more complex than previously presented and likely blends the two theories of their origins,” Prof. Wilson says.