The world of wolves just got a little bigger thanks to some new research in Nepal. Based on historical anecdotes of large, “woolly” wolves inhabiting the Himalayan region, a study of wolf species and subspecies was conducted to determine if these sightings represented a novel species or an unknown distribution of existing wolf species.
An article published last month in the online biology journal ZooKeys describes how the lead researcher in this study, Madhu Chetri, used DNA testing of wolves’ stool samples to positively identify the woolly Himalayan wolf, Canis himalayensis, as its own species and not a subspecies of gray wolf as was previously thought. Past research has been unable to locate the wolf’s habitat, since sightings of the rare animal in the wild are scarce. To complicate the research, there are reports of conflict between the wolves and humans in the remote regions of Nepal where this study was conducted. According to Chetri’s article, many of the region’s human residents are herders, and the wolves can threaten livestock populations:
…local communities persecuted wolves mainly in retaliation for livestock depredation. In some parts of the conservation area, livestock depredation from wolves was found to be a cause of concern for local livelihoods.
The Himalayan wolf is unique in the wolf world due to its relatively isolated evolutionary ancestry. This species began branching away from other wolf/dog species long before the common gray wolf did, and thus occupies a distinctly different branch on the tree of wolf life. The Himalayan woolly wolf is slightly smaller and stumpier than normal gray wolf species and features white fur around the underbelly and throat. The most defining physical trait of this species its uncharacteristically woolly fur which lends the Himalayan wolf its nickname.
The study is already making waves in the animal conservation world, since the new evidence of the wolves’ habitat challenges many assumptions about the distribution of endangered or otherwise rare species in the remote Himalayas. While the human world continues to get smaller and more interconnected, studies like this one prove that when it comes to the animal world, there still remains much to be discovered.