Wolf-dog ‘swarms’ threaten to wipe out Europe’s wolves as hybrids threaten the genetic diversity

Cross-breeding between wolves and dogs could drive Europe’s wolf population out of existence, according to research. 

Wolf-dog hybrid is a term used to describe an animal that is part wolf and part domestic dog.

The study, by the University of Exeter, said that such hybridisation threatens the ‘genetic identity’ of wolves, but that scientists are divided on how to deal with it.

Habitat destruction driven by human encroachment and global warming is leading to more encounters between wolves and free-roaming dogs. 

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Cross-breeding between wolves and dogs could drive Europe's wolf population out of existence. 'Swarms' of wolf-dog crossbreeds could drive Europe's wolves out of existence, according to new research . Pictured here, a wolf and a wolf-dog hybrid (darker coat) in Italy

Cross-breeding between wolves and dogs could drive Europe’s wolf population out of existence. ‘Swarms’ of wolf-dog crossbreeds could drive Europe’s wolves out of existence, according to new research . Pictured here, a wolf and a wolf-dog hybrid (darker coat) in Italy

Forty scientists discussed the issue of interbreeding between the species and found there was no general consensus on how to tackle the problem.  

Wolves and dogs are interfertile, meaning they can breed and produce viable offspring and these offspring are capable of reproducing themselves.

They are members of a wider group, the genus Canis, which makes them able to breed. 

The researchers warned that they come up with a way to resolve this before the wolf species is ‘completely lost to hybrid swarms’.

Scientists, who were allowed to share their views anonymously, revealed agreement that people should be educated about the impact of free-roaming dogs.

‘We need to address this issue before wolf-dog hybrids backcross with wolves to the extent that wolf populations will be lost and the conservation of wild populations will become unfeasible,’ said lead author Valerio Donfrancesco.

Mr Donfrancesco, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation from University of Exeter, says that it’s crucial to ‘encourage decision-makers to act’.  

They all agreed that governments should remove wolf-dog hybrids from small and recovering wild wolf populations.

The issues they differed on were how to remove hybrids and free-roaming dogs, on  whether they should be kept captive, sterilised and released or even killed.

The study, by the University of Exeter, said that such hybridisation threatens the 'genetic identity' of wolves but that scientists are divided on how to deal with it. Because of habitat destruction driven by human encroachment wolves encounter more free-roaming dogs

The study, by the University of Exeter, said that such hybridisation threatens the ‘genetic identity’ of wolves but that scientists are divided on how to deal with it. Because of habitat destruction driven by human encroachment wolves encounter more free-roaming dogs

WHY CAN WOLVES AND DOGS INTERBREED?

Wolves and dogs are interfertile, meaning they can breed and produce viable offspring and these offspring are capable of reproducing themselves.

They are members of a wider group, the genus Canis, containing multiple species such as wolves, coyotes, jackals, dingoes, and dogs

The members of Canus can potentially all potentially interbreed.

Dogs and wolves share an evolutionary past and thus share many physical and behavioural traits.

Dogs evolved from wolves through a centuries-long process of domestication which led to an alteration of the dog’s life cycle and behaviour. 

People who own wolf-dog hybrids often find that their pet’s behaviour makes it a challenge for them to care for. 

The diversity of genetic composition leads to inconsistent behaviour and makes them more difficult to predict.

Wolves and dogs mature at different rates, which makes the physical and mental development of a hybrid animal unpredictable. 

Sexual maturity of wolves signals a shift in hormone quantity and balance. 

This hormonal change is often coupled with these changes in the animal.

‘The disagreements emerged from diverging ethical values between scientists of different backgrounds, such as ecologists and geneticists,’ said Mr Donfrancesco.

There is a ‘lack of data’ on the effectiveness of different interventions causing some scientists to worry that on practical grounds allowing the removal of hybrids would open a legal loophole for the killing of wolves.

‘The fact that we know so little about the ecology, behaviour and social acceptance of the wolf-dog hybrids adds a layer of concern to the issue,’ he said.  

Co-author Paolo Ciucci, of the Sapienza University of Rome, said: ‘The management of hybrids and wolf-dog hybridisation should not be a taboo topic, especially within the scientific community.

‘There are margins to develop further consensus among scientists if further research addresses topical issues such as the effectiveness and the feasibility of control measures and their social acceptability.

‘Scientists should not avoid the problem just because its management appears overly complex.’

Co-author Dr Nibedita Mukherjee, from the University of Exeter, said that by highlighting the areas of disagreement they will be able to build a more unified scientific opinion, and aid an ‘effective management of this urgent issue’.

An estimated 17,000 wolves live in Europe, in populations of varying sizes in countries as far apart as Spain, Greece and Finland.

The paper is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. 

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