European Wolves Could Be Replaced by Wolf-Dog Hybrids

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When we view dogs as close friends and wolves as dangerous enemies, we tend to forget that both are beasts of the same species. Our loving domestic dog is merely a wolf subspecies, which becomes obvious if you look at their Latin names. In the language of science, the wolf is known as Canis lupus, while the dog is called Canis lupus familiaris. What belonging to the same species also implies is that wolves and dogs can crossbreed – and in reality, they do. This creates wolf-dog hybrids.

While there is a notorious practice of breeding wolf-dog hybrids for pets or in the process of creating new dog breeds, the cross breedings often happen spontaneously when wolves encounter feral or free-roaming dogs. Scientists are now worried that the future of the 17,000 wolves known to live in Europe is in jeopardy because of the “genetic pollution” that comes from dog populations. The wolves could soon lose their genetic identity, which would effectively lead to the extinction of true wild wolves.


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European Wolves (Canis Lupus).  Photo: Emma Websdale, CC BY-SA 2.0
European Wolves (Canis Lupus). Photo: Emma Websdale, CC BY-SA 2.0

The comprehensive study included a large number of scientists – it has reviewed more than 40 scientific views on the topic.  While all opinions are united when it comes to the identification of the problem, they are divided when it comes to the solution. 

The question of how to remove wolf-dog hybrids and free-roaming dogs from the gene pool is an ethical issue. Humane solutions would include the Catch-Neuter-Release technique that is often used for stray dogs, and/or keeping the hybrids in captivity. The other solution an unpopular one – killing the unwanted animals. Unfortunately, the lack of consensus can lead will prolong the much-needed action, leading to the further escalation of the problem.

A wolf-dog hybrid.  Photo: BrandonLord, CC BY-ND 2.0
A wolf-dog hybrid. Photo: BrandonLord, CC BY-ND 2.0

The study’s lead author, Valerio Donfrancesco of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus stated that: “We need to address this issue before wolf-dog hybrids backcross with wolves to the extent that wolf populations will be lost to hybrid swarms, and the conservation of wild populations will become unfeasible (…) The disagreements emerged from diverging ethical values between scientists of different backgrounds, such as ecologists and geneticists, from the lack of data on the effectiveness of different interventions, and from the worry of some scientists that on practical grounds allowing the removal of hybrids would open a legal loophole for the killing of wolves.

Donfrancesco’s worries about the loophole are justified. Although their ecological value has been well-established – and made well-known by George Monbiot’s popular short lecture, wolves remain a dread to livestock farmers and a special treat for European hunters.  The concerns seem to be justified, but the time is merciless – and it is ticking out.

It seems most appropriate to conclude with the study’s co-author Dr Nibedita Mukherjee’s words: “We hope that by highlighting areas of disagreement and why they occur, we will be able to build a more unified scientific opinion, and aid an effective management of this urgent issue.

The Study:

Donfrancesco, V., Ciucci, P., Salvatori, V., Benson, D., Andersen, L. W., Bassi, E., … & Capitani, C. (2019). Unravelling the scientific debate on how to address wolf-dog hybridization in Europe. Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution7, 175. https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2019.00175

Wolf-dog ‘swarms’ threaten Europe’s wolves. (2019, November 22). Retrieved from https://blog.frontiersin.org/2019/09/05/ecology-evolution-wolf-dog-hybrids/

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