There has been considerable discussion on the origin of the red wolf and eastern wolf and their evolution independent of the gray wolf. We analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and a Y-chromosome intron sequence in combination with Y-chromosome microsatellites from wolves and coyotes within the range of extensive wolf-coyote hybridization, that is, eastern North America. The detection of divergent Y-chromosome haplotypes in the historic range of the eastern wolf is concordant with earlier mtDNA findings, and the absence of these haplotypes in western coyotes supports the existence of the North American evolved eastern wolf (Canis lycaon). Having haplotypes observed exclusively in eastern North America as a result of insufficient sampling in the historic range of the coyote or that these lineages subsequently went extinct in western geographies is unlikely given that eastern-specific mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplotypes represent lineages divergent from those observed in extant western coyotes. By combining Y-chromosome and mtDNA distributional patterns, we identified hybrid genomes of eastern wolf, coyote, gray wolf, and potentially dog origin in Canis populations of central and eastern North America. The natural contemporary eastern Canis populations represent an important example of widespread introgression resulting in hybrid genomes across the original C. lycaon range that appears to be facilitated by the eastern wolf acting as a conduit for hybridization. Applying conventional taxonomic nomenclature and species-based conservation initiatives, particularly in human-modified landscapes, may be counterproductive to the effective management of these hybrids and fails to consider their evolutionary potential.
Keywords: Canis; Y-chromosome; Y-intron; eastern wolf; hybridization; microsatellites.