Evidence of Red Wolves in the Ouachita Mountains

 By Brandon Lentz

The published story of the red wolf (Canis rufus) begins in the late 1700s. Naturalist William Bartram spent much of the 1770s exploring the wilds of Florida, keeping meticulous notes of the flora and fauna he observed. In 1791, his notes were compiled and published into a book now known as Bartram’s Travels. Bartram described wolves that displayed taxonomic differences from the wolves that lived in other parts of the continent, namely color variance. He reported observing a pack of wild canids that exhibited black, white, and spotted coats. He surmised the animals were a subspecies of the gray wolf, and dubbed them Canis lupus niger.

They remained as such until 1851, when naturalists James Audubon and John Bachman published The Quadrupeds of America: Volume 2. Audubon and Backman, in this book, were first to use the red descriptor. The authors studied all manner of fauna in Texas and the bordering states, where they observed wolves with a red color variance that was not seen in any other part of the continent. They hypothesized the distinctive red color was a result of the gray wolves of the north occasionally breeding with Bartram’s black wolves in the south. Audubon and Bachman assigned to it the unique species Linnaean classification of Canis rufus.

 

John James Audubon’s Red Texas Wolf


In 1889, Harvard taxonomist Outram Bangs designated the Florida wolves as a separate species under the name Canis ater. In 1905, mammologist Vernon Bailey officially acknowledged C. rufus as a distinct unique species, albeit restricted to Texas. Forty years of classification debate followed until 1945 when zoologist Edward Goldman assigned the Florida and Texas wolves under the same C. rufus designation. 
 

AP Photo/Gerry Broome


Sadly, the population had already suffered massive losses by this time. Industry took over Texas. White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) reached a historic low, mostly due to loss of habitat. With their main food source scarcely available, combined with state mismanagement of predator control programs, red wolves could no longer sustain a healthy population. 

By 1920, C. rufus had virtually disappeared from the southeast. By the 1930s, only two known viable populations remained in the wild. One in southeast Texas; the other in the Ouachita Mountain Ecoregion in Oklahoma/Arkansas. By 1944, those were thought to be wiped out. The species continued to struggle until 1980, when they were officially declared extinct in the wild. Only captive animals remained.

That brings us to today. Thanks to species recovery programs and a protected status, a small handful of wild red wolves remain, all of which are in North Carolina. The current known population is believed to be around 40 animals.

Known population.  Could wild red wolves still exist outside of North Carolina?

There are examples of mammals previously thought to have been extinct that have been rediscovered in the wild. Kashmir musk deer (Moschus cupreus) were thought to have disappeared from Afghanistan in the 1940s, until an expedition led by U.S. scientists confirmed the species persisted until at least 2008. Vanzolini's bald-faced saki (Pithecia vanzolinii), a large fluffy-haired monkey endemic to the Amazon, was thought to have been extinct since 1937. That changed in 2008 when primatologists rediscovered a population in a remote Brazilian watershed that had not been explored for decades. The most notable example is the New Guinea singing dog (Canis lupus dingo), which was thought to have been extinct for a half-century. Remarkably, a 2016 expedition to the New Guinea highlands revealed evidence of the rare canid’s existence in the form of a footprint in the mud. Subsequent camera trap operations captured 15 individual animals, including pregnant females.

These examples share a common theme: Each species was rediscovered in extremely remote, inhospitable areas yet undeveloped by man.

The Ouachita Mountain ecoregion also features areas that are largely undeveloped. There, a group of citizen scientists in the North American Wood Ape Conservancy (NAWAC) are taking part in an ongoing, observational-field-study expedition deep in a valley near the Oklahoma/Arkansas border. The NAWAC hypothesizes that there is an unrecognized species of bipedal primate living in the region. Its mission is to offer substantial evidence of the species to science and government to gain official recognition and federal protection. Toward that end, the NAWAC uses every tool at its disposal.

In 2018, the NAWAC purchased and deployed two Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4 autonomous recording units to aurally track wildlife in the area through recordings of their vocalizations. 

 

On the night of September 19th, 2018, one of the units captured seven canid-like deep, moaning howls. I happened to be there on an expedition at the time and heard the howls in person. They struck me as too sustained and deep for a coyote. The file is available for download here.

For comparison, here is an example of a captive red wolf’s howl, captured by the Wolf Conservation Center in New York.

A spectrogram of the howls revealed the vocal range of the animal to be well within those of C. rufus and nearly twice as long in duration as those of C. lupus.


A visual hertz comparison of the unknown Ouachita canid and those of wild red wolves captured in the 1970s by Professor Howard McCarley show the close parallels of each.

 
Recall that red wolves were believed to have disappeared from the Ouachita Mountain Ecoregion nearly eighty years ago. The howls captured here may suggest otherwise.

It is within the realm of possibility that a wild pack of C. rufus, long thought to have gone extinct west of North Carolina, are persisting undetected. Habitat conservation is paramount to the survival of every creature in the Ouachita biome to which the NAWAC remains committed. Research in the area is ongoing.



Citations: 

Bartram, W. (1996). William Bartram: Travels And Other Writings. New York, NY: Library of America.

Phillips, M. K., Henry, V. G., & Kelly, B. T. (2003). Restoration of the Red Wolf. USDA National Wildlife Research Center - Staff Publications. 272-288

Audubon, J. J., & Bachman, J. (1854). The Quadrupeds of North America.

McCarley, H. (1978). Vocalizations Of Red Wolves (Canis rufus). Journal of Mammalogy, 59(1), 27–35.

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

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