By Virginia Morell
In the high grasslands of Earth’s tallest mountains lives a group of wolves known for their long snouts, pale woolly pelts, and low-pitched calls. Now, their genes are also setting them apart. A new study suggests these wolves—which range across northern India, China, and Nepal—are genetically distinct from the gray wolves that live nearby, thanks to genes that help them cope with the thin air above 4000 meters.
“This is a very exciting study,” says Ben Sacks, a canine evolutionary ecologist at the University of California, Davis. It “provides the first compelling evidence for the distinctiveness of [the Himalayan] wolf.” The finding supports previous calls for it to be recognized as a separate species, and it also suggests the wolf’s range is twice as large as was thought.
Himalayan wolves live at higher altitudes than grays, which range across eastern China, Mongolia, and Kyrgyzstan, and their habits are different, too. Whereas gray wolves primarily eat rodents, Himalayan wolves add the occasional Tibetan gazelle to the mix. And Himalayans howl their own tune, with cries of a shorter duration and lower frequency than those of grays.
Now, samples of wolf feces collected across the Tibetan Plateau of China, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan provide genetic evidence that it is a different breed. Researchers extracted DNA representing 86 Himalayan wolves from the samples. Analysis showed that, unlike gray wolves, Himalayans carry specialized genes that help them overcome a lack of oxygen, including ones that strengthen the heart and boost the delivery of oxygen through the blood. The adaptations, which the team reports today in the Journal of Biogeography, resemble those of Tibetan people and their dogs (which are believed to have been interbred with Himalayan wolves), and domesticated yaks.
The widespread presence of scat from Himalayan wolves also suggests they are not restricted to the Himalayas, but roam the entire Tibetan Plateau at elevations above 4000 meters.
Together, these findings suggest the high-living wolf should be considered a distinct species—or at least as an “evolutionary significant unit,” the researchers write. And they support previous research suggesting these little-studied canids are the oldest lineage of modern wolves, having diverged from other wolves between 630,000 to 800,000 years ago.