Galveston coyotes are central to studies of red wolf populations
The coyotes on Galveston Island are different. For a few years now, a team of researchers has been studying exactly how different — thanks to a remarkable amount of shared genetic material with the red wolf, the coyote’s highly endangered canid cousin.
Rangy and moderately sociable, revered by the Cherokee nation, red wolves once were plentiful in the forests along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Today, fewer than 50 wolves on North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula are all that remain in the wild. But, as far as Galveston’s small community of wolf-watchers is concerned, the island’s canids — commonly called “hybrids” or just “red wolves” — are the next best thing.
This fascinating story began several years ago when Ron Wooten, an outreach specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Galveston district, took a photo of several reddish animals — the “largest pack of coyote types that I ever saw,” he recalled — that soon began making the rounds among mammalogists and other interested researchers. One was Bridget vonHoldt, an associate professor of evolutionary genomics and ecological epigenomics at Princeton University, who immediately was impressed with Wooten’s discovery.
“When Ron’s picture ended up in my inbox, it was one of these moments: ‘Oh yeah, there’s something different here,’” she said.
How the Galveston hybrids came about isn’t exactly a mystery. Coyotes and red wolves share a common ancestor and have been interbreeding for centuries, and red wolves’ range once easily extended to the Gulf Coast. They’ve been gone from these parts since at least 1980, but these recent studies have rekindled the hope that red wolves, even in hybrid form, might still have a fighting chance in the wild.
VonHoldt’s colleague, Kristin Brzeski, a mammalogist at Michigan Tech University, has been studying the differences between the island’s canids and their counterparts to the east in Chambers and Jefferson counties, and on into western Louisiana.
“It’s pretty exploratory,” she said of her research. “It’s pretty exciting in that sense. And Galveston’s a real key part of that. Because they look different on Galveston than they look in Louisiana, and so it’s going to be very interesting to see how the genetics help explain some of that.”
Brzeski’s graduate student, Tanner Barnes, estimates five to seven distinct groups of animals compose the island’s hybrid population, with between two to four and six to eight members per group.
And despite urban legend, they’re not hungry for human blood.
“They’re not going to take your child,” Barnes said.
Indeed, Steve Parker, a Houston-based attorney and red-wolf advocate, thinks the animals get a bad rap.
“Coyotes seem to be a scapegoat for a lot of behaviors,” he said.
Although a few residents have begun sounding the alarm about Galveston’s canid population, which thus far has mostly kept to relatively undeveloped parts of the island, they’ve mostly been allowed to go about their business in peace. Their singular genetic makeup presents an opportunity that could have far-reaching implications for red wolves’ future.
In terms of research, the Galveston canids are just the tip of the iceberg, it seems,
“Galveston’s been a really wonderful place to work,” Brzeski added. “These unique animals living there — it’s exciting, and it’s fun, and it’s contributing to science and conservation beyond the island.”