Written by : Lauren Hennelly, UC Davis Mammalian Ecology and Conservation Unit, USA.
Photos by : The Grasslands Trust/Unsplash.
On a cold night in December, a team of biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India and The Grasslands Trust worked around the clock to capture a wild Indian wolf in Maharashtra. Owing to the ability to survive in human dominated landscapes, these wolves are quick witted and extremely clever – making capturing one very challenging. The goal was to place a collar with a tracking device to study the movement of Indian wolves across their grassland habitats. While on a routine walk to check the foot pad trap, a team member heard rustling, and walking quickly towards the noise, found an Indian wolf in the trap. With the upmost care, this Indian wolf was equipped with GPS collar to record her daily behavior. In addition to studying her specific movements across the landscape, a blood sample was taken to study her species’ deep history through sequencing her genome.
A radio-collared Indian Wolf who bred through multiple years after it was collared!
This blood sample was part of a large project to sequence the first whole genomes of wild Indian wolves and investigate how Indian wolves fit on a family tree of the gray wolf species.
Using 31 other whole genomes of various gray wolves and other wolf-like species, our comparison of Indian wolf genomes to other gray wolves revealed surprising twists to the gray wolf story.
Remarkably, we revealed that the Indian wolf found within the Indian subcontinent is the oldest branch on the gray wolf tree. Instead of being a more recent newcomer to the Indian subcontinent, our findings suggest that Indian wolves have a long history within the ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent. Fossil evidence also points to gray wolves having inhabited southern and western Asia during the heights of the ice-age glaciations. With the Indian subcontinent often serving as a refuge for various species during these ice ages, our results imply Indian wolves also resided here and diverged into an evolutionarily distinct lineage. This is in contrast to how Indian wolves are currently classified, where wolves of India to Turkey are considered as the same population. Our findings indicate that the distribution of this ancient wolf lineage much smaller and potentially restricted to India and Pakistan. Today, this makes the Indian wolf the world’s most endangered and evolutionarily distinct gray wolf populations.