Ancestry genetics of North American canids

This is a collaborative project represented by multiple institutions and experts to explore the genetics of canine ecology, demography, and population dynamics. Our objective is to explore the genetic consequences of admixed ancestry in the context of selection and the impact on an expanding species range. We also will work to estimate the extent and timing of gene flow between coyote and wolves across North America during the past 1,000 years.

As ubiquitous as coyotes seem on the landscape, they are not well understood. They evolved in the Great Plains of North America yet have remained elusive as they recolonized the continent over the last century (Photo credit: Cook County, ILL., Coyote Project & Gehrt, OSU; Nature (2012) 485, 296-297). They are found in every habitat available, from wilderness to downtown Los Angeles, continent-wide. Their presence in townships and cities results in an increased frequency of human interactions. These mysterious canines are highly flexible and adaptable.

Previous research has found wolf DNA in the eastern canids. Much of this has been proposed to be the consequence of previous admixture with wolves as western coyotes dispersed along the northern edge of the Great Lakes towards the east coast during the last century. These events (even if rare) transferred wolf DNA into the coyote genome, and was geographically spread with the colonizing animals. These admixture events with subsequent backcrossing may explain the high frequency of coyote ancestry found in northeastern canids and quite possibly the phenotypic variation observed (e.g. body size, color variation). We also aim to explore the fitness correlations that may exist with these new phenotypes. For example, larger coyotes may provide them with new opportunities to hunt larger prey, or may attract better mates. This pattern may also be expected (and detected) as coyote alleles entering and dispersing among wolf populations.

We also aim to explore the taxonomic ramifications and challenges as a result of inter-specific gene flow. The Endangered Species Act and other federal agencies often rely upon a discrete species boundary for wildlife management efforts. Admixture is not a new event among mammalian species; we are entering an era in which genetic technologies allow us to identify and characterize these processes with fine-scale methods. The consequence is a complicated insight into the past demography of species and species complexes - hopefully leading us to update the ways in which we classify and view the world.


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