'Red wolf' is a name commonly given to a kind of wild Canis historically found from central Texas to the Atlantic. Since first recorded in colonial times, it variously has been treated as a full species or as a subspecies of the Holarctic gray wolf. Recent genetic research presented by Roy et al. (1996) is one of a series of papers suggesting, through analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA, that the red wolf is not a valid species or subspecies, but instead originated as a hybrid of C. lupus and C. latrans. That there has been hybridization between the red wolf and coyote is not in dispute. The occurrence of hybridization has long has been recognized by all who have looked into the issue and is a major reason that the red wolf is endangered. And, since hybridization did occur, it would not be unexpected to find that genetic material from one species has spread through the other. However, to accept this process of hybridization and consequent decline of the red wolf within the last century, is very different from accepting that the red wolf had a hybrid origin hundreds or thousands of years ago. It requires some effort to comprehend the fundamental difference between the two positions. One argues that the red wolf is an ancient and natural component of its ecosystem but has nearly disappeared, in part because of a hybridization process induced and perhaps controllable by humans. This interpretation demands priority work to save the animal. The other position holds that the red wolf may actually have been a modern creation of a process brought on by human environmental modification, and hence that the animal is nothing more than an artifact that can be discarded. The salvation of the red wolf may hinge upon the effort that is made to grasp this distinction. Hopefully, all parties who have investigated this complex issue will yet reach a consensus, thus allowing the systematic controversy to be put aside in favor of conservation efforts.
Additional publication details
The validity of the red wolf: a response to Roy et al. (1996)