The Secret Identity of a Coyote-Like Creature

A photographer began shooting unusual-looking coyotes on Galveston Island. They turned out to be descended from a very rare wolf species.

A group of canids that carry DNA from a nearly extinct wolf species
A local resident photographed these canids, which turn out to carry DNA from a nearly extinct wolf species. (Ron Wooten)

It started in 2008, when a pack of strange-looking coyotes—or were they coyotes?—ran off with one of Ron Wooten’s dogs. “It wasn’t pleasant,” he says. The dog did not survive.

But Wooten, who by day works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is the kind of guy who keeps a dead rattlesnake and deer hide in his freezer, so instead of getting angry with the wild animals, he decided to investigate them on his own time. To him, the animals in this unusual pack seemed to have the look of Great Danes, and he wondered if they were “coydog” hybrids. He began tracking them around Galveston, Texas, and sending photographs off to experts. “The first year was pretty frustrating,” he says. “Nobody was really interested in taking a look at them.”

Eventually, the photographs made their way to Bridgett vonHoldt at Princeton, who was surveying DNA from wolves and coyotes around the country. And luckily for her, Wooten had saved in his freezer tissue samples from two dead animals he had found as roadkill in Galveston. He boxed up a sample along with ice packs saved from his family’s HelloFresh deliveries and shipped it off to Princeton. (The second tissue sample was initially lost, but he sent the scalpel used to collect the sample and then later the sample itself when he found it.)

The results were even stranger than half-dog. The animals were hybrids all right, but they were part coyote and part red wolf—one of the most endangered and protected species in the world. “Our mouths dropped,” says Kristin Brzeski, a biologist at Michigan Tech who studies the species and collaborated with vonHoldt on the DNA study. Officially, there are as few as 14 red wolves in the wild, all of which live on a refuge in North Carolina. Unofficially, it seems, their “ghost” genes live on in coyote-like hybrids that enjoy no formal protection. Brzeski and vonHoldt published their study about the Galveston animals last year. Around the same time, a second study found substantial red-wolf ancestry in animals in Louisiana, too.

In August, Brzeski finally got to see the animals herself. She and a graduate student traveled to Galveston, where they met Wooten. Over the years, he has built up an informal network of people who send him updates on the animals’ location. He took the scientists to known hangouts: a cemetery, the airport, behind a big-box store.

Ron Wooten

The first canids they tracked down were sitting on a field at the airport. Brzeski watched them run off into a nearby golf course. Then they saw more animals the next day, and the next. No one is sure exactly how many live in Galveston, but they came across at least 16 different individuals over 10 days. Some of them, she says, definitely looked more like red wolves, with their tawny fur and wide, wolflike faces. But coyotes also tend to vary a lot in appearance, so it’s hard to say on looks alone. That’s why the scientists also came to collect more DNA—in the form of scat. “We literally flew home with a cooler of canid poop,” Brzeski says. She hopes to sequence all the DNA in these samples, to confirm both the level of red-wolf ancestry in these animals and their diet. Coyotes are less likely to hunt in packs, which means they can end up eating different prey. Eventually, Brzeski would like to involve more Galveston residents like Wooten in a citizen-science project to study these creatures.

It is still unclear what to call them, though—coyote, wolf, or both? Brzeski is careful to use the generic term canids. The discovery of red-wolf ghost genes along the Gulf Coast, she says, has some people worried that it could distract from the dire situation of the protected animals in North Carolina.

In the past, opponents of the North Carolina program have even argued that red wolves should not be protected, because they previously hybridized with coyotes. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine last year concluded that red wolves are in fact a distinct and endangered species. That same organization has now issued a call for research proposals on whether Gulf Coast canids once considered to be coyotes are actually red wolves.

The very existence of part-coyote, part-red-wolf hybrids does raise questions for conservation. “What protection, or any, should be implemented for an animal that is 50 percent super-endangered species and 50 percent coyote?” asks Ron Sutherland, a biologist who advocates for red-wolf conservation at the Wildlands Network. “The hard-core conservationist in me thinks they should be protected really well, maybe ban canid hunting, but the more pragmatic side says stirring the pot may be the last thing the animals need.”

On Galveston Island, the canids and their unexpected ancestry have fascinated residents like Wooten. But they have also killed the cats and dogs of people less fascinated than he is. They are wild creatures, after all—that is both what makes them worth protecting and what humans desire protection from.