Canids of Northeastern United States

Effective biodiversity conservation requires the use of the best available science and technologies. This is especially true for wildlife genetics, where advances in sequencing technology have led to the creation of new methodologies for population monitoring programs1. For instance, with high-throughput sequencing we can now develop and implement, at a relatively reduced cost, custom noninvasive genotyping panels, referred to as genotyping-in-thousands sequencing (GTseq). Based on DNA extracted from scat samples, a tailored GTseq panel has the power to identify and sex individuals, determine relatedness and ancestry, or assess population structure in a consistent, reliable, and cost-effective way. (Credit: J. Tournel)
Nowhere is this more needed than in the northeastern United States (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont), where recovering Great Lakes and Ontario wolf populations are expanding and northeastern resident canids represent a unique population with mixed genetic ancestry. Isolated cases of wolves have been reported in the northeastern US, but evidence of an established population has not yet been documented. There is the need for a systematic, consistent tool for monitoring wolf expansion in the region. This is complicated by historic and contemporary hybridization among gray wolves (Canis lupus), eastern wolves (C. lycaon or C. l. lycaon), and coyotes (C. latrans)2, resulting in an admixed eastern coyote population. Hybrids and admixed individuals represent a rich spectrum of phenotypic and behavioral variation which challenges species identification. The integration of genetics will help with the confident resolution of species present in the region, their genetic ancestry, and their evolutionary relationships. (Credit: K. Davis)
In September 2022, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) received genomic testing results from Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt (the founder of the North American Canine Ancestry Project) that the animal killed by a hunter in NY's Otsego County in December 2021 was indeed a gray wolf. New York State now has included wolves in their draft Species Status Assessment for their 2025 State Wildlife Action Plan (or SWAP) update, see the Mammals section ("Wolf" starts on page 128). Despite the genetic testing pointing towards Great Lakes gray wolf genetic ancestry for the Otsego canid, the SWAP has included eastern wolf in all possible taxnomic designations (Canis lycaon, C. lupus lycaon, or C. lupus x C. lycaon).In Canada, the eastern wolf is listed as a species of "special concern, provincially and nationally" under COSEWIC. (Credit: K. Dirago)
We are launching a region-specific collaborative project that will explore the incredible genomic uniqueness and potentially high conservation value of canids in the northeastern region of the United States. Our goals are to:
  1. Understand the geographic locations where wolf genetic variation is found;
  2. Explore the relationships among individual canids across a landscape;
  3. Infer the genetic ancestry or admixture in these canids; and
  4. Develop a genetic tool for broad usage beyond our group for non-invasive sample genotyping.
We are currently developing such tools with the support of our partnerships and broader community. Although this will take a fair amountn of time and financial resources, we will work to share all of our research findings and tools.
(Credit: F. Hart)

Howling in the northeast (Credit: J. Boutin)
(Credit: P. Coppolillo, WD4C)
We are excited for our new collaboration with Working Dogs for Conservation! Our long-term vision is for dog training to discriminate on species identities but also now for various canid admixtures, given the complex demographic and genetic history of the northeastern canid system. This is a challenge posed to WD4C and we are excited to continue to show the amazing capablities of dogs as a critical member of species conservation. (Credit: P. Coppolillo, WD4C)

Project Directors

Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt (Associate Professor, Princeton University): Closely related species that readily hybridize are often the center of controversy over taxonomic status and priority for conservation management. Ancestry of potentially mixing populations is difficult to resolve when the parental species are closely related. Using a genome-wide approach across a geographic sampling of putatively admixed populations, resolving the ancestry assignment of genomic segments will assist in mapping out not only geographic hybrid zones (e.g. Great Lakes region for wolves and coyotes) but also estimate the timings of the initial admixture event. Dr. Kristin Brzeski (Assistant Professor; Michigan Technological University): I am broadly interested in the fitness and behavioral consequences associated with inbreeding and loss of functional genetic variation in small populations. I recently finished my PhD at Louisiana State University evaluating inbreeding depression, disease susceptibility, and mate choice in endangered red wolves. In my research, I strive to evaluate questions that have applied conservation and management implications as well as theoretical value.

Click on each Partner Logo to learn more!

Video courtesy of Jennifer Rosado

Native Peoples of the Northeastern United States

Wabanaki Nation, the People of the Dawn

The Wabanaki Nation is made up of four Indian tribes: Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy. They are the "People of the Dawnland." Each is a sovereign community and maintains their own tribal government, schools, cultural center, and regulations for management of their Nation's lands and natural resources.To learn more about Wabanaki people, please visit Wabanaki REACH, Penobscot Nation, and the Passamaquoddy Trive at Indian Township

Citizen Science

We are developing a custom GTseq panel3,4 that can accurately differentiate between canid species (coyotes, gray wolves, and eastern wolves) and assign ancestry proportions using low-quality samples such as feces or hair. This research is tailored to northeastern wolves and eastern coyotes with their unique mosaic genetic ancestry, while simultaneously developing a genetic tool which can be used by conservation practitioners across the region.

(Photos courtesy of J. Way)

1. Meek and Larson (2019) The future is now: Amplicon sequencing and sequence capture usher in the conservation genomics era. Molecular Ecology Resources, 19, 795
2. vonHoldt et al. (2011) A genome-wide perspective on the evolutionary history of enigmatic wolf-like canids. Genome Research 21, 1294
3. Campbell and Narum (2009) Quantitative PCR assessment of microsatellite and SNP genotyping with variable quality DNA extracts. Conservation Genenetics, 10, 779
4. Campbell et al. (2015) Genotyping-in-Thousands by sequencing (GT-seq): A cost effective SNP genotyping method based on custom amplicon sequencing. Molecular Ecology Resources, 15, 855