16 November 2007

When does a species cease to exist?

Off Endangered List, but What Animal Is It Now?

The historic Great Lakes wolf is an enigma, with scientists debating whether it is a subspecies of gray wolf or a distinct species. The Fish and Wildlife Service officially considers the western Great Lakes wolf a “distinct population segment” of the gray wolf, found in a discrete geographic area.

That population today is made up largely of hybrids between the gray wolf and coyote, but some 31 percent of the animals carry genetic material from the native wolf, which appears to no longer exist in pure form. The researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA, inherited through the mother and often used to distinguish lineages in humans and animals, from 17 early-20th century wolves and 68 contemporary wolves.

I must admit I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, saving species from extinction resulting from human actions is a noble goal and one that we need to work harder on. On the other hand, there is a point at which a distinct species ceases to exist in a pure form. When that happens, in order for any part of the genome to survive, hybridization happens. There is a point at which it is too late to save a species, and if that species is so lucky as to have a near relative with whom to interbred, its better than going totally extinct.

So should the Great Lakes grey wolf, be taken off the endangered species list? I don't think so. The pure species is still endangered and very possibly totally extinct. The hybrids are not the same species, even if their genome is similar. Just because some animals out there are similar doesn't mean that the animal is safe. This isn't just about the loss of a set genome, its about the loss of an ecosystem and everyone in it. The existence of the hybrids does not change the ideals of the endangered species act.

There is something bigger here that I could talk about, either the political (This administration and their utter disregard for this sort of thing) or more philosophical about the change in populations over time as they interact with other species ( H. sapiens in this case). However an accident here at home has me a bit wiped out so we'll just have to live with the implication that I do in fact think deeper about these things.

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