Status: Critically endangered
Known as: Red Wolf
Estimated numbers left in the wild: 100 (formerly 0)
The red wolf is a medium-sized wolf confined to the United States, measuring 95 to 120 centimetres long exclusive of tail, and weighing 20 to 35 kilograms. This sleek, agile candid is smaller and lighter than grey wolves, with an almost fox-like appearance in some regards. The fur is charcoal grey, but with red accents which can range from just a hint of russet to a cinnamon pelage with just a few dark grey flecks. Male red wolves are slightly larger than females. Though it was thought for a time that red wolves were merely coyote/grey wolf hybrids, advanced modern genetic studies suggest strongly that they are a separate species.
Habitat and hunting: In their natural state, red wolves are apex predators in several specialized habitats, such as swamps and coastal prairies, plus forests in the south-eastern quadrant of North America. These wolves are equally adapted to being solitary or pack hunters, mostly feeding on rabbits and nutria when alone, and killing white-tailed deer when cooperating with others of their kind. Packs tend to be small and consist of one monogamous, dominant pair and their young. Like other wolves, red wolves communicate by howling, though they also use scent marking and other signals to convey information. Young wolves often disperse from the family pack to seek other wolves and start small packs of their own, thus preventing inbreeding.
Dens are built in sandy knolls, large hollow trees, as burrows in the midst of thick, concealing vegetation, or as riverbank excavations.
These animals tend be secretive, keeping to terrain where lines of sight are limited and emerging mostly at dusk or dawn (that is, they show a crepuscular activity cycle). Red wolves are strongly territorial, and are seldom killed by other predators.
Black bears will occasionally chase these wolves away from a kill, however. Individual wolves can live up 15 years, but the hardships of their environment usually claim them when they are 7 to 8.
Location: Today, all wild red wolves exist solely because of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which created a captive breeding program to rescue the species from extinction. Therefore, they are largely confined to the spots where humans chose to reintroduce them, though the population seems to be multiplying naturally and will eventually spread. Thus, the red wolf today is found only in five counties in North Carolina, in several National Wildlife Refuges. Formerly, it ranged throughout the south-eastern United States in coastal habitats, swamps and wetlands, and the vast hardwood forests that once grew in the region (and which survive in a fragmented state today).
Threats: The red wolf was mainly wiped out by persistent, irrational human hunting, which ascribed almost mythic livestock-killing abilities to this retiring predator. Habitat loss also caused declines in the animal’s population, including by causing isolated wolves to mate with coyotes and thus hybridize their bloodline out of existence. Disease also takes its toll, and the threat of shooting or trapping is ongoing.
Conservation efforts: The species owes its survival to concentrated conservation plans on the part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which gathered the last few animals into captivity in the 1970s. There are now several hundred wolves in captivity, breeding successfully, and reintroduction efforts are under way, but the problem of where to reintroduce these elegant predators remains a stumbling block on the road to recovery.
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