Are wolves and dogs the same species?

Hybridization Wolves and Dogs: Why Mingling is a Problem

The little message sounds quite dramatic: "Experts warn - more wolf-dog mixed breeds are to be expected in Germany", reads the headline of a short message, a few lines long, which a news agency sent in mid-June. The Ministry of the Environment of Rhineland-Palatinate warns that so-called hybrids between wolf and dog could theoretically be created wherever dogs and wolves meet. In Germany, a nation full of dog lovers, that would mean: practically everywhere.

Is there a serious threat to the Federal Republic of a wave of wolves and dogs mixing up?

When asked, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Environment said that there was no current alarming case, that they had only responded to a media inquiry. In other words: The colleagues at the news agency were probably looking for a topic for the summer slump and had simply sent an email. In fact, only two cases have been reported in which a wolf and a dog had joint offspring since the wolves immigrated from Poland to Germany in the early 2000s.

In 2003 a female wolf gave birth to six mixed breed cubs who were later captured and put to sleep. That was near the village of Neustadt / Spree in East Saxony. The second case is the she-wolf at the Ohrdruf military training area in southern Thuringia, who has been employing shepherds, the public and politics since summer 2017. She gave birth to six cubs, three of whom have apparently died so far, while the other three are still roaming the woods.

Are hybrids more dangerous to humans?

Basically, mixed race should not be touched by humans. Because the wolf is under strict conservation, its young are also protected, even if they are hybrids. In practice, however, conservationists also argue in favor of "taking" the animals, that is, shooting them down or at least capturing them. But why actually?

One reads again and again that the wolfhounds could be more trusting to people, be less shy, simply because of their dog ancestors. With dogs, breeders have tried in thousands of years of work to select the willingness to cooperate with humans in the genome. However, there is no practical evidence that such behavior can pass from dogs to wolves. On the contrary, when an attempt was made in 2003 to capture the Lusatian she-wolf's mixed breed boys and keep them in an enclosure, they died from the stress of captivity.

There are no indications that wild hybrids are more dangerous for humans, writes the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation at the request of MDR-Wissen and cites the Italian biologist and wolf researcher Luigi Boitani. There is no evidence that hybrids are more likely to seek proximity to human settlements, nor that they prefer to attack farm animals such as sheep. The Austrian wolf researcher Kurt Kotrschal from the University of Vienna also considers the proportion of behaviors bred into the genes in dogs to be low.

There are actually no cultivated behaviors, almost everything dogs do comes from wolves. Only the worldview and willingness to behave have changed.

Kurt Kotrschal, University of Vienna

How different are wolf and dog?

Of course there are differences between wolves and dogs. For example, many experiments show that wolves understand mechanical relationships faster and better and cooperate better with one another. The reason for this is selection, writes philosophy professor Mark Rowland in his book "The Philosopher and the Wolf". The animals survive there, and they quickly understand whether a fallen tree is a safe bridge over an abyss or not. Dogs, on the other hand, do significantly better in tests that aim to understand what a person wants.

There are no indications that these abilities pass from dogs to hybrids, says Carsten Nowak, nature conservation geneticist at the Senckenberg Society and member of the German Wolf Observation and Advice Center (DBBW).

Rather the opposite is the case, the hybrids behave more like wolves. This also becomes a problem for dog breeders who partner with wolves because they believe it will make their breed stronger. In doing so, they often lose traits that have been painstakingly selected over many generations in dog breeding.

Carsten Nowak, Senckenberg Society

Species conservationists see the problem with mixed wolves in a different place: They fear that one day, due to uncontrolled mating between wolves and dogs, genetically speaking, wolves will no longer exist. Geneticists call this process "introgression": adult mongrels could mate with other wolves and thus carry more and more dog genes into the wolf population.

Why mixing is a problem

From a biological point of view, mixing dogs and wolves is not a problem. Both belong to the animal family of the canids - i.e. the canine species - and are so closely related that Kurt Kotrschal thinks it wiser not to speak of different species. Geneticist Carsten Nowak says that the differences in the DNA are minimal and can only be found using special methods.

There are very few places in the genome where dogs and wolves differ. The differences between different wolf populations can be greater than between a wolf pack and a dog species. But you can see that there are certain places that differ depending on whether a dog species has been domesticated or whether it is a wild species, i.e. a wolf or a jackal. It can be seen that these point mutations were selected out through breeding.

Carsten Nowak, Senckenberg Society

This "introgression" does not necessarily have to lead to problematic behaviors. It is also a problem for conservationists simply because diversity is lost when all the different genetic variants mix with one another in such a way that in the end there is only one.

The US biologists Judith Rhymer and Daniel Simberloff warned in 1996 that genetically different populations could be wiped out in many species because hybridization asserts a certain type and makes the other types disappear. In the essay "Extinction in Hybridization", the two cite the example of the European stick.

The common bird, which lives in numerous ponds and pools in Germany, is on the verge of making the duck species indigenous there disappear through crossbreeding, for example in New Zealand or Hawaii. More and more of these birds would also look like the European subspecies on the outside. On the one hand, this is a problem for genetic diversity, which is significantly reduced as a result. On the other hand, such hybridization can also lead to a loss of adaptability.

The Alpine ibex provides an example of this: when conservationists wanted to reintroduce this species, which was once native to the High Tatras and has been extinct there, they mixed the animals with another species of goat from the Middle East. As a result, their offspring lost their ability to only give birth to offspring at times of the year that are favorable to the climate. The animals had their young even when it was too cold for that in the High Tatras. The ibex population that had just settled died out again.

No new hybrid cases in sight at the moment

Such problems are not to be seen with the wolf-dog hybrids. Species conservationists fear, however, that crossed dog genes can spread uncontrollably, especially when the wolf population is still small, and that hybrids then become the predominant subspecies. But would people still be willing to grant nature protection to these animals? Geneticist Carsten Nowak considers this question of acceptance to be the greatest problem and therefore the strongest argument to prevent hybridization if possible.

In fact, the danger of new hybrid beings does not seem to be great at the moment. Almost everywhere wolves can only be found as pairs or packs and as long as the animals find wild partners, their interest in dogs is low, say researchers and authorities. According to current monitoring, a single she-wolf who roamed a territory in eastern Lower Saxony a year ago has apparently moved on or died. And even in Ohrdruff, where the she-wolf still lives without a wolf partner, there are currently no signs of new offspring, according to the Federal Forestry Office.