Representative image: Indian gray wolf pups.  (Molina Khimani/ TOI Jaipur)

Representative image: Indian gray wolf pups.

(Molina Khimani/ TOI Jaipur)

We’ve all heard the ancient idiom wolf in sheep’s clothing! While this cautionary tale warns of potential treachery, a citizen science initiative in Pune has now spotted such a real-life concoction that it could threaten the entire wolf population in India.

A campaign led by citizen scientists and researchers from the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore has confirmed the presence of a wolf-dog hybrid, an individual who is part wolf and part dog for the first time in India.

The earliest known wolfdog hybrids in India

While speculation about wolf-dog hybridization in India has been circulating for several years, until now there has been no conclusive empirical evidence in the form of genome analyses!

It all started in May 2021 when a group of nature enthusiasts led by Siddhesh Bramhankar spotted an outlier looking wolf in a pack near Pune. This wolf-like individual was distinguished by its unusually tawny coat. Observers photographed and documented two such cases. And they left in search of more!

Like true scientists, these science-enthusiastic citizens collected samples along the way. The noninvasive samples included the shed hairs of two individuals, which showed markedly different appearances.

After being tested on dogs, wolves and other genetically known canid species, including jackals and dholes, these samples yielded startling results.

This is the first evidence-based documentation of wolfdog hybridization in the country and also the first time citizens and scientists collaborated on such a discovery, lead researcher Uma Ramakrishnan told the Times of India.

Possible serious implications of hybridization

In a country where millions of dogs are found roaming the streets, they likely end up sharing space with wild wolves, especially since human interference has left the wildlife confined to fragmented habitats.

Having common ancestry, these dogs share a complex dynamic with gray wolves and golden jackals near human-modified landscapes, providing competition and potential for hybridization.

Interestingly, these hybrid individuals of the canine family are fertile. This feature is peculiar because in other mammalian hybrids, such as ligers or tigons (lion-tiger hybrids), at least one sex is usually sterile. Thus, due to the reproductive ability of wolf-dog hybrids, there is a greater propensity for repeated transfer of genetic information between the two.

And it seems that wearing the clothes of other canine members as well is not a good idea for wild wolves.

Wolfdog hybridization may lead to a significant reduction in specific adaptations in wolves that could lead to declines in their populations, the researchers said.

Introgression or mixing of dog genomes with wild wolves and vice versa can also threaten wolf diversity. It can tear apart wolf packs, disrupt their social structure, and push wild wolves into a vortex that could ultimately lead to extinction through increased interbreeding.

Therefore, the researchers have pushed for broader research into how wolf-dog interactions operate under current circumstances to find a roadmap that leads to conservation.

(With contributions from The Times of India)

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