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Endangered Indian wolf is one of the world’s most distinct species

According to a new study published in the journal Molecular Biology, the Indian wolf could be much more endangered than previously thought. After sequencing their genome for the first time in history, scientists at UC Davis  found the Indian wolf to be one of the most evolutionarily distinct species of gray wolves and one of the most ancient surviving lineage of wolves. 

Indian wolves inhabit the grasslands of lowland India and Pakistan, areas which are currently threatened by human expansion. 

“Wolves are one of the last remaining large carnivores in Pakistan, and many of India’s large carnivores are endangered,” said study lead author Lauren Hennelly, a Ph.D. student in the Mammalian Ecology Conservation Unit. “I hope that knowing they are so unique and found only there will inspire local people and scientists to learn more about conserving these wolves and grassland habitats.” 

Prior to this research, Indian and Western Asian wolves have been considered as one population. However, by sequencing the genomes of two Tibetan and four Indian wolves, Hennelly and colleagues found that these two species are evolutionarily distinct. The genetic analysis also revealed that the two wolf species stem from an ancient lineage predating the rise of Holarctic wolves, which are found widely in North America and Eurasia. 

This is the first study to investigate the entire genome of these wolf populations, including their nuclear DNA. Previously, scientists sequenced the mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited only from the mother and could not thus offer a full picture of the species’ evolutionary lineage.

“Mitochondrial sequencing alone was not sufficient to make a case,” explained study senior author Ben Sacks. “Nuclear DNA is the big picture, and it changes the picture. You might assume most genetic diversity of gray wolves is in the northern region, where most wolves are found today. But these southern populations harbor most of the evolutionary diversity and are also the most endangered.” 

According to Hennelly, these discoveries could be a first step toward implementing better conservation policies for Indian wolves. “I knew that if we sequenced the wolves and the results indicated a divergent lineage, answering that question could really help their conservation at a policy scale that could trickle down and bolster local efforts to help protect these wolves.”

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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