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Sickly shades of grey: disease outbreaks influence the color of wolves across North America

New research from the University of Oxford, Yellowstone National Park, and Penn State, published today in the journal Science, may have finally solved…

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New research from the University of Oxford, Yellowstone National Park, and Penn State, published today in the journal Science, may have finally solved why wolves change colour across the North American continent.

Credit: Daniel Stahler/NPS

New research from the University of Oxford, Yellowstone National Park, and Penn State, published today in the journal Science, may have finally solved why wolves change colour across the North American continent.

If you were to travel from Arctic Canada and head south down the Rocky Mountains into the US toward Mexico, the further south you go, the more black wolves there are. The reasons why have long puzzled scientists.

Professor Tim Coulson from the Department of Biology, University of Oxford who led the work explains, ‘In most parts of the world black wolves are absent or very rare, yet in North America they are common in some areas and absent in others. Scientists have long wondered why. We now have an explanation based on wolf surveys across North America, and modelling motivated by extraordinary data collected by co-authors who work in Yellowstone.’

Coat colour in wolves (Canis lupus) is determined by a gene called CPD103. Depending on the variant of the gene a wolf has, its coat can either be black or grey.

The researchers postulated that this gene also plays a role in protecting against respiratory diseases such as canine distemper virus (CDV). This is because the DNA region containing the gene also encodes for a protein that plays a role in defending against infections in the lungs of mammals. They predicted that having a black coat would be associated with the ability of wolves to survive an infection with CDV.

To test this idea, they analysed 12 wolf populations from North America, to examine whether the probability of a wolf being black was predicted by the presence of CDV antibodies. If a wolf has CDV antibodies, then it has caught CDV in the past and survived. They found that wolves with CDV antibodies were more likely to be black than grey. They also found that black wolves were more common in areas where CDV outbreaks occurred.

The researchers analysed over 20 years-worth of data from the wolf population at Yellowstone National Park. They found that black wolves were more likely to survive CDV outbreaks compared with grey wolves. These results led them to hypothesise that in areas where distemper outbreaks occur wolves should choose mates of the opposite coat colour to maximize the chance their cubs would have black coats.

They used a simple mathematical model to test this idea. Excitingly, the predictions from their model closely matched the observations that black and grey wolves were more likely to pair in areas where CDV outbreaks are common. This competitive advantage is lost in areas where CDV outbreaks do not occur.

These results are consistent with the idea that the frequency of CDV outbreaks across North America is responsible for the distribution of black wolves, because having the gene for a black coat may also provide protection against the virus. It also explains why mating pairs in Yellowstone, where canine distemper outbreaks occur, tend to be black-grey.

Peter Hudson, Willaman Professor of Biology, Penn State said ‘It’s intriguing that the gene for protection against CDV came from domestic dogs brought by the first humans entering North America, and the CDV disease virus emerged in North America many thousands of years later, once again from dogs.’

‘What I love about this study is how we have been able to bring together experts from so many fields and a range of approaches to show how disease can have remarkable impacts on wolf morphology and behaviour. We are learning that disease is a major evolutionary driver that impacts so many aspect aspects of animal populations.’

The researchers speculate that other species may follow a similar pattern to wolves. Many insects, amphibians, birds and nonhuman mammals have associations between colour and disease resistance. It might be that the presence a disease, or how frequently a disease outbreak occurs, is an important factor affecting the colour of mate an animal prefers.

ENDS

Notes to editors

The paper will be published in Science on 20 October at 14:00 ET, 18:00 GMT/UTC. To view the manuscript before this, contact the Science editorial board: scipak@aaas.org

Interviews with Tim Coulson are available on request. Media contact below:

Megan Harvey, Communications Manager

megan.harvey@biology.ox.ac.uk

07485187131

Additional details

Black coat colour in North American wolves can be traced to a single mutation event that occurred between 1,598 and 7,248 years ago. Up to now, it has been a mystery why the frequency of black wolves varies in North America despite there being no geographical barriers to prevent gene flow.

These findings are not conclusive and none of the analyses, on their own, provide conclusive support for the hypothesis that the frequency of black wolves across North America is determined by the frequency of CDV outbreaks. Together, the complementary lines of evidence provides strong support.

About the University of Oxford

Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and ​number 2 in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.

Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 200 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.

The Department of Biology is a University of Oxford department within the Maths, Physical and Life Sciences Division. It utilises academic strength in a broad range of bioscience disciplines to tackle global challenges such as food security, biodiversity loss, climate change and global pandemics. It also helps to train and equip the biologists of the future through holistic undergraduate and graduate courses. For more information visit www.biology.ox.ac.uk.


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