Indian Wolf is One of World’s Most Endangered Wolves

It's also one of the most evolutionary distinct.

Indian wolves
Indian wolves.

Mihir Godbole / The Grasslands Trust

Very little is known about the Indian wolf. A medium-sized, light-colored subspecies of the gray wolf, the animal looks different from its relatives because it has less of a shaggy coat.

Researchers sequenced the genome of the Indian wolf for the first time and uncovered more about this enigmatic canine.

Results showed the Indian wolf (Canis lupus pallipes) is genetically distinct from other neighboring gray wolves. The Indian wolf is also one of the world’s most endangered gray wolf populations and could represent the most ancient surviving lineage of wolves.

The findings were published in the journal Molecular Ecology.

Lead author Lauren Hennelly, a doctoral student with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Mammalian Ecology Conservation Unit, first learned about the species while on her first trip to India in 2013. That sparked her interest in Indian wolves.

“Early genetic research based on mitochondrial DNA also suggested that Indian wolves may be evolutionarily distinct, which I grew more and more interested in studying these little-known wolves,” Hennelly tells Treehugger.

“In 2014 to 2015, I conducted fieldwork in Maharashtra to study Indian wolf behavior and saw first-hand the many challenges these wolves face in their shrinking habitats. Being able to observe these wild Indian wolves during this fieldwork was inspiring and provided me with strong motivation that propelled me throughout the ups and downs of research.”

Studying DNA

Indian wolf howling
Indian wolf howling. Mihir Godbole / The Grasslands Trust

To take a closer look, Hennelly and her colleagues sequenced the genomes of four Indian and two Tibetan wolves and compared those to 31 other canid genomes.

They found that Indian and Tibetan wolves are distinct from each other and from other gray wolf populations.

“Early research on the mitochondrial DNA hinted that Indian wolves were somewhat distinct within gray wolves. However, the mitochondrial DNA suggested Indian wolves were not as evolutionarily distinct as Tibetan wolves,” Hennelly says. 

“So I was very surprised that our research using the entire genome showed that Indian wolves are the most evolutionarily distinct gray wolf population.”

The researchers are recommending that the populations be recognized as evolutionarily significant units (ESUs). That’s an interim designation until more research can be done and scientists can discuss whether the species should be classified separately.

The temporary designation would help with conservation measures in the meantime.

“These findings will have taxonomic-level changes to the Indian wolf and will strengthen on-the-ground efforts towards their conservation. Currently, all wolves spanning India to Turkey are considered as the same population. Our study highlights a need to reassess taxonomic designations of the Indian wolf, which will significantly affect their conservation priority,” Hennelly says.

“This change in taxonomy and greater recognition of their endangered status will strengthen the on-the-ground efforts led by NGOs, universities, and governmental agencies to help protect these wolves. Hopefully, Indian wolves can serve as a flagship species for conserving the remaining grassland ecosystems in India and Pakistan.”

Ancient and Endangered

gray wolf distribution
Gray wolf distribution. Lauren Hennelly, UC Davis

The findings indicate Indian wolves are only found in India and Pakistan, where their habitat is threatened by land use changes and human population shifts.

“Our study suggests that Indian wolves represent the world's most evolutionarily divergent wolf lineage. Additionally, our study highlights that this evolutionarily distinct Indian wolf lineage is potentially only found within the Indian subcontinent,” Hennelly says. 

“Currently, there is no population estimate for Indian wolves in Pakistan. In India, the last population estimate for the Indian wolf was done almost 20 years ago, and it estimated around 2,000-3,000 individuals. That means there are likely more tigers in India than there are Indian wolves—highlighting how endangered the Indian wolf populations are."

Both Indian and Tibetan wolves come from an ancient lineage that is older than Holarctic wolves, which are found in North America and Eurasia. The researchers say their findings suggest that Indian wolves could represent the most ancient surviving lineage

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

View Article Sources
  1. "Indian Wolf." Animalia.

  2. Kerlin, Kat. "Indian Wolf Among World’s Most Endangered and Distinct Wolves." UC Davis, 2021.

  3. Hennelly, Lauren M., et al. "Ancient Divergence of Indian and Tibetan Wolves Revealed by Recombination‐Aware Phylogenomics." Molecular Ecology, 2021, doi:10.1111/mec.16127

  4. Lead author Lauren Hennelly, a doctoral student with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Mammalian Ecology Conservation Unit