The red wolf is an endangered species found in just one state in the southeastern United States. These beautiful and powerful predators play an important role in their ecosystem and have been fighting for survival since they were declared extinct in the wild nearly 40 years ago.
Today, conservationists are working to restore these animals’ numbers and protect them from further decline. A unique population of captive red wolves exist in Florida, and their story offers insight into the importance of preserving wildlife in our state.
In this article, we’ll explore the history, current status, and future prospects of these amazing animals.
Are There Red Wolves in Florida?
There are no wild red wolves in the state of Florida, the last was declared extinct in the wild in 1973. However, there is still hope for the species. In 1987, 17 remaining pure red wolves were taken into captivity.
This marked the beginning of a captive breeding program aimed at saving the red wolf from complete extinction. So it’s possible that one day, red wolves could be reintroduced to into the wilderness of Florida.
What Types of Wolves Live in Florida?
In addition to red wolves, Florida was also once home to a rare subspecies of the red wolf- the Florida black wolf, endemic to Florida. Sadly, this subspecies was driven to extinction in the 1930s.
The Florida black wolf was one of the smallest subspecies of red wolves, boasting an average shoulder height of 24-26 inches. On top of that, it featured a shorter muzzle and larger ears than other varieties as well as longer legs providing added agility in comparison to other red wolves.
The Florida black wolf featured a predominantly charcoal or ebony fur pelt with hints of rust along the back. Its closest relative was not its red brethren, but rather the coyote, making it an intriguing and distinct member of the species.
Gray wolves have never lived as far south as Florida.
Are Red Wolves The Same As Coyotes?
A longstanding myth about the red wolf is that it is not different enough from a coyote to be its own species. In reality, the red wolf is a distinct species of its own.
Research shows that the amount of genetic material that differs between a red wolf and a coyote is significant, and enough to classify the red wolf as a species in its own right.
It should be noted that while they are two separate species, the red wolf and the coyote are genetically similar enough that they can successfully breed.
What Are The Physical Differences Between Red Wolves and Coyotes?
Red wolves boast a notably larger and more muscular stature than coyotes, with males averaging between 40-80 lbs compared to their counterpart’s measly 30-50lbs. The red wolf’s head is broader and rounder in comparison to the coyote. They are also distinguished by their elongated legs and reddish coloring which doesn’t appear on coyotes.
Boasting short and broad snouts with black noses, red wolves have large ears that stand upright on their heads while facial markings extend from the corner of their eyes down to their muzzles. Red wolves also have a reddish hue that coyotes do not have.
Red wolves can be easily identified by the unique sound of their howls, which are a higher pitch and longer duration than those of coyotes. Unlike coyotes, red wolves will also howl in unison.
Where Do Red Wolves Live Today?
Today, red wolves are found only in North Carolina, where they were reintroduced in 1987. The red wolf population in North Carolina spans five counties, including Dare, Tyrrell, Washington, Beaufort, and Hyde. In a reintroduction program managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 401 red wolves were released into eastern North Carolina between 1987 and 2012.
Due to the illegal hunting of red wolves, the population today is at 15. However, red wolves that are bred in captivity continue to contribute to the efforts in North Carolina to return red wolves to the wild.
Why Are Red Wolves Important?
Red wolves are an important species in terms of their role in maintaining the biodiversity of Florida’s ecosystems. They help to control populations of certain prey species, like rodents and rabbits, by limiting their numbers and therefore reducing competition for other species.
Furthermore, they provide food resources for a variety of predators including mountain lions and bobcats. Their role as both predator and prey makes them an essential keystone species. An indicator species as well, the value of these apex predators is hard to overstate.
Can Red Wolves Breed with Coyotes?
As mentioned above, red wolves can and do breed with coyotes. When this happens they produce a hybrid commonly referred to as the “coywolf”. Hybridization is a major concern for conservationists attempting to save the endangered red wolf species since it can lead to genetic dilution or extinction of the species.
Coyotes tend to be more adaptable than red wolves, making them better able to survive in human-altered environments, allowing them to outcompete red wolves for resources. With a higher reproductive rate than red wolves, coyotes and coywolves make it difficult for the red wolf to maintain any genetic separation.
Red wolves are particularly vulnerable to this right now as they try to re-establish themselves in the wild. Predictably, interbreeding with coyotes is one of the reasons that red wolves went extinct back in 1973.
What Climate Do Red Wolves Live in?
Preferring warmer, humid climates, red wolves thrive in temperate deciduous forests with plenty of vegetation and water sources nearby. However, red wolves can also survive in dry climates as long as there is sufficient cover. Red wolves prefer places along rivers, swamps, and wetlands, which provide them with plenty of food and a safe area to rest.
They can also be found in mountainous areas and coastal habitats. Adapting to the various climates across their range allows them to take advantage of changing environmental conditions as needed. In Florida, red wolves historically inhabited marshlands and other wetland habitats.
What is The Difference Between a Black Panther and a Florida Black Wolf?
The similarity between black panthers and the Florida black wolf ends with their coat color and deceptive names. Black panthers are actually not panthers at all, but a melanistic color variant of other big cats, such as leopards or jaguars. Florida black wolves are actually red wolves.
Additionally, the Florida panther is actually not black at all, it’s a tan-colored cougar. Claims of spotting the “Florida black panther” have been attributed to unconfirmed sightings of a large black cat, which would be lumped in with the phrase “black panther.” While black panther sightings are unconfirmed in Florida, they do live in other parts of the world, primarily Africa.
A Future For The Red Wolf
The red wolf is a species that deserves our attention and respect and has a fascinating history in the state of Florida. Unfortunately, their population was extirpated, largely due to human activities. Hopefully, with the help of continued conservation efforts, this species can make a comeback and live in the wild again.