The US government recognizes three wolf species in North America: the red wolf, eastern wolf, and gray wolf. Two, it turns out, aren't true wolf at all. In a new genetic study, scientists at UCLA say the gray wolf is the last wolf species on the continent and all others are simply hybrids. After studying the genomes of eastern wolves, red wolves, gray wolves, and coyotes, they found "no evidence for distinct eastern or red wolf species," study author Robert Wayne tells the Los Angeles Times. In fact, the red wolf found in the southern US has about 25% gray wolf and 75% coyote ancestry, while the eastern wolf of central Ontario has about 75% gray wolf and 25% coyote ancestry. Scientists say the two species began mixing hundreds of years ago in the American South and about a century ago in the Great Lakes area.
Previous research has found genetic and morphological evidence that the red and eastern wolves are unique, so this study might not have the final word, reports the New Scientist. But it could have consequences: The gray wolf is protected under the Endangered Species Act based on a traditional geographic range including the Great Lakes region and 29 Eastern states. But in 2014, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed removing the animal's protections because it found the eastern wolf occupied that territory instead, making the gray wolf listing invalid. This study shows the gray wolf did live in the range and "should keep its endangered species status," Wayne says in a release. A decision could come this fall. The Endangered Species Act doesn't currently recognize hybrids, though Wayne says that should change. (The "golden wolf" was just discovered.)