Meet the World’s Most Ancient Wolf: Studies Show Indian Wolves’ Lineage on Brink of Extinction

by Jon D. B.

New genome research shows Indian wolves to be a genetically distinct lineage, one that traces back eons – and may be on the way out forever. That is, if no one intervenes.

Courtesy of new findings published to Molecular Ecology this September, we now know far more about the incredible Indian wolf. The news, however, is equal parts fascinating and damning.

“This paper may be a game-changer for the species to persist in these landscapes,” says the paper’s co-author Bilal Habib. Habib is a conservation biologist with the Wildlife Institute of India, and his own statement adds that “People may realize that the species with whom we have been sharing the landscape is the most distantly divergent wolf alive today.”

That’s the fascinating part. Onto the bad news: Indian wolves may also be on the verge of extinction.

Now, biologists will be able to recognize them as a genetically distinct, ancient species. Yet this also brings about grave concerns over their survival.

“Wolves are one of the last remaining large carnivores in Pakistan, and many of India’s large carnivores are endangered,” explains lead author Lauren Hennelly. She’s a doctoral student with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Mammalian Ecology Conservation Unit, and sees the Indian wolf’s situation as dire.

“I hope that knowing they are so unique and found only there will inspire local people and scientists to learn more about conserving these wolves and grassland habitats,” Hennelly adds.

Indian Wolf’s Distinct, Ancient Lineage in Danger

INDIA – MARCH 03: Indian Wolf (Canis indica), Canidae. Member of the rare species stands in a conservation area. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images).

Specifically, her team’s research shows Indian wolves are a distinct lupine lineage. They’ve done so by sequencing the genome of four individual Indian wolves alongside two Tibetan wolves. These two populations have long seen classification under the same genus. But Hennelly’s team shows this shouldn’t be the case. With a base of 31 additional canid genomes as comparison, she says the results speak for themselves.

In fact, press releases from recent studies already confirm the Tibetan wolf lineage to be far older than gray wolves. The Indian now looks to be far older still. Their DNA shows distinct populations that may stretch back 700,000 years.

As a result, Hennelly’s team is moving for these populations to be recognized as two distinct units. Each brings their own evolutionarily significant stories after all, their genomes show. This would serve as an interim classification until biologists can agree on new taxonomic classifications for the canines.

This would be an important first step in helping local scientists and conservationists alike gather support for protecting the Indian wolf. Like the extremely rare red wolf here in the United States, the species stands to disappear forever. Current population estimates cite around 2-3,000 wolves remaining in the region. The team’s genomic data shows the Indian wolf as distinct to small ranges in Pakistan and India only, however. The rest of this population is now believed to be the Tibetan wolf – leaving the Indian species’ number far fewer.

To find out how you can help with the conservation of these ancient wolves, visit the International Wolf Center online. Through their “support” tab, fellow Outsiders can become members, donate to the cause, and more.