Today, there are three different, recognized wolf species in North America: the gray wolf (Canis lupus), the red wolf (Canis rufus) and the coyote or "brush wolf" (Canis latrans). The origin of the red wolf has been debated extensively, as some biologists believe that it is simply a gray wolf/ coyote hybrid. Others believe that it is a true species.
In addition to these three wolf species, some authorities have suggested that the wolves of eastern Canada (Canis lupus lycaon) may be unique enough to be considered a separate species. Physically, they do indeed look quite different from the other gray wolves of North America. They have brownish, salt- and-pepper coloured coats with cinnamon coloured fur behind their ears. They are also much smaller that the rest of Canada's wolves, as they weigh, on average, only 40 pounds, whereas the rest of Canada's wolves weigh 64 pounds (on average). They also have rather long legs, narrow muzzles and large ears.
The eastern gray wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) is currently found in eastern Canada, in the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence region of Ontario and Quebec. Because of the many coyote-like characteristics they possess, some ecologists became concerned that eastern Canada's wolves had been breeding with coyotes. Numerous studies were undertaken to determine if that had indeed occurred, and the results ended up suggesting that eastern Canadian wolves were genetically distinct from other North American grey wolves.
The first test done compared the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) of Algonquin park's wolves (which would be Canis lupus lycaon) to the mtDNA of coyotes, red wolves and other gray wolves. mtDNA differs from nuclear DNA in that it is inherited only maternally. In addition, parts of it evolves faster than most nuclear DNA sequences, and is often used to study the differences between two or more groups of organisms that diverged fairly recently. The tests found that some of Algonquin's wolves did possess coyote mtDNA (so therefore, the wolves had been hybridizing with coyotes to a limited extent). The study also found that the Algonquin wolves that did not possess coyote mtDNA had entirely unique sequences of mtDNA that did not match the mtDNA of any other gray wolves. Interestingly, it was more similar to red wolf mtDNA.
The second test done examined the microsatelite loci of Algonquin wolves, red wolves, coyotes and gray wolves. Microsatelite loci are regions on a chromosome that contain a short sequence of DNA that is repeated over and over. Each loci has two alleles, and each species has a different number of these alleles at different locations on their chromosomes. The location and frequency of each allele was found for each animal used in the study, and the data was used to construct the most parsimonious phylogenetic tree for the four species studied. Again, the data showed that the Algonquin wolf was rather distinct and more closely related to red wolves than to other gray wolves.
Because of these findings, some authorities have suggested that eastern wolves be reclassified as Canis lycaon, and not as a subspecies of the gray wolf. Others have suggested that they be reclassified as a subspecies of the red wolf, because of the similarities that exist between the two. It has been proposed that red wolves originally inhabited the forests of eastern North America from the Gulf of Mexico up to southern Canada, and that after settlers had wiped out central populations of the wolves, the southern animals were labeled as red wolves and the northern ones (mistakenly) were labeled as gray wolves.
In addition, these studies suggest that the red wolf could be a valid species after all, and not a coyote/gray wolf hybrid or even a subspecies of gray wolf. The studies done on the Algonquin wolves will most likely bring about new and interesting (and controversial) theories about the evolution of North America's wolves. The new identity of the eastern wolves will also affect wolf management policies and conservation programs, and it will also likely be challenged by many authorities. More research into the identity of the eastern wolves will be conducted. The World Wildlife Fund and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources are sponsoring an in depth examination of the viability of the Algonquin wolves to be completed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In February, 2000, a Population and Habitat Viability Assessment workshop, which was sponsored by the WWF (Canada) and Environment Canada , was held in Ontario. Participants compiled a list of issues affecting the wolves of Algonquin park. The final list of issues included a list of management recommendations which will be used to develop new policies related to the management of the Algonquin wolves.