The North American Red Wolf

Red Wolf in action (Canis rufus rufus)

The red wolf Canis lupus rufus is the only surviving wolf that evolved in North America. It was originally identified in 1851 by naturalists John Audubon and John Bachman as the species Canis rufus, distinct from the gray wolf Canis lupus. However, there is a present dispute between biologists, over whether the red wolf is a true species or a hybrid caused by the interbreeding of coyotes and gray wolves.

Red Wolf (Canis lupus rufus)In defense of the red wolf's right to claim its own species, though early specimens suggest that it began to interbreed with the coyote Canis latrans around 1900, there is really no evidence that the red wolf originated as a hybrid of the gray wolf and coyote.

A common belief is that the coyote, the gray wolf and Eastern North American wolves all decended from one prehistoric ancestor, the Canis edwardii of the Pleistocene epoch. The Eastern North American wolves are then believed to have evolved into the eastern wolf of today and the red wolf. However, with all that said, the red wolf has been most recently classified in 2005 as the gray wolf subspecies Canis lupus rufus. In addition, Canis edwardii is most recently believed to have evolved into the Canis armbrusteri

Red wolves were once present throughout the southeastern United States from the Atlantic Coast to central Texas and from the Gulf Coast to central Missouri and southern Illinois. It may have occurred as far north as Maine. The red wolf's natural home could vary from 25 to 50 square miles. Any land which provides adequate food, water, and heavy vegetation would provide viable habitat for red wolves.

Red wolves are smaller than gray wolves, with a more slender and elongated head and shorter coarser fur. In comparison to the coyote, they are larger and more robust with longer legs and larger ears. The red wolf measurements range from 15 to 16 inches shoulder height, 55 to 65 inches in length (nose to end of tail), weighing anywhere from 40 to 90 pounds. Its color is usually mainly brown with blended colors ranging from cinnamon red to almost black. Light markings above the eyes are also common.

The red wolf is known to hunt mainly at dusk and/or dawn. They feed mostly on small to medium animals such as grouse, raccoons, rabbits, hares, rodents, carrion and domestic livestock. They also prey on young white-tailed deer when available. Other than prarie chickens, the red wolf very seldom feeds on birds.
Red Wolf Pups at 5 weeks - Chattanooga Nature Center, Tennessee

Mating season occurs in February and March, and gestation lasts about 60 days. In April or May, an average of 3 to 6 pups are born. They usually remain with pack for 15 to 20 months and reach sexual maturity at about 22 months. Both the mother and father usually mate for life and both participate in rearing their offspring. The direct family is usually what makes up the pack. Their dens are formed around dense vegetation, a river bank, in a hollow tree stump, or an abandonded den of some other creature.

Between 1900 and 1920, red wolves were annihilated from most of the eastern portion of their range by means of predator control programs using poison, along with heavy hunting and trapping. By 1980, the Canis rufus that used to inhabit almost all of the southeastern United States was declared extinct in the wild.

40 red wolves were captured in the late 1970's and of those, 14 were found to be genetically pure and were used for captive breeding. Since 1987, hundreds of red wolves have been reintroduced to the wild. However, they are still seen as unwanted intruders by some people and are hunted down. In addition, the threat of hybridization with the Coyote still exists.

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