A wolf-dog hybrid has been confirmed in India for the first time

A strange canine was spotted in a pack of wolves near Pune in western India, but it stood out for its lighter coat and dog-like facial features. It was confirmed to be a wolf-dog hybrid through genetic sequencing.

A hybrid canine that is part dog and part wolf has been found in India after locals noticed what was thought to be a wolf with an unusually tawny coat. Despite being commonly documented in Europe and North America, this is the first time a wolf-dog has been confirmed in India.

Suspected wolf-dog hybrids
Siddhesh Bramhankar

In a nation with millions of dogs on the streets, the chance of free-roaming feral dogs sharing space with wolves is high. Rumours and photographs of suspected wolf-dog hybrids have circulated in recent years, says Uma Ramakrishnan at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in India. “There are lots of pictures of potential hybrids – people are talking about them all the time.”

The odd canine was spotted in a pack of wolves near the city of Pune in western India, but its lighter coat and dog-like facial features made it stand out. Wolves are threatened and legally protected in India, which has limited scientists from taking blood or tissue samples that could confirm the animals’ ancestry. However, hair samples shed by the animals are fair game. A local conservation group watched where the pack rested during the day and then collected the suspected hybrid’s fur when they moved on.

They sent the fur to Ramakrishnan’s team for analysis. The researchers analysed DNA from the animal’s fur and compared it with genetic material from free-ranging dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and wild species like grey wolves (Canis lupus) and golden jackals (Canis aureus). Canine genetics can be particularly tricky to parse, thanks to closely shared ancestry and a long legacy of interspecies breeding.

Their results showed that the mystery canine shared genes with both dogs and grey wolves, suggesting a parent of each species. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, this animal looks funny’,” says Ramakrishnan, “but to show [it’s a hybrid] with data is important.” Pups tend to stick with their mother’s pack, so the team suspects the canine’s mother is a wolf and its father is a dog.

Unlike many species, when different canines breed with each other they can produce fertile male and female offspring. But once wolves hybridise with dogs, they aren’t afforded the same legal protections, which could pose a significant conservation threat to wolves.

Researchers suspect more such canines are out there, though rare, and encourage close monitoring of those groups should hybrids become more common.

Journal reference:

Ecology and EvolutionDOI: 10.1002/ece3.10100

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