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Behind the Science: Citizen efforts rediscovered ghost genetics


About the Blog Author: Dr. Bridgett vonHoldt is an Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University. She founded the North American Canine Ancestry Project and is co-founder of the Gulf Coast Canine Project. She is a leader in canine genomics and ancestry genetics, with impacts for endangered species.




As my research on canines (both domestic and wild) has a sort of appeal for a broad readership, the popular media often picks up a press release or prints a new story on the findings. The aftermath is that I tend to receive emails from diverse communities, a feature of my job that I, quite honestly, enjoy. I have responded to emails about dog owners who feel it in their soul that their dog is unique, special, and should be a part of any of my future studies. I have given feedback on wildlife camera pictures where land owners are curious if their local canines are interesting enough to warrant study. I had not realized that responding to the plethora of email was unusual until 2016. Despite the subsequent story being capture in a recent article in the New York Times (3 January 2022) and the final story published in the journal Genes (Heppenheimer et al. 2018), I would like to tell my experience here.

Coyote sleeping on the Galveston Island (Texas) airstrip. Photo credit: Ron Wooten in 2016.

It was another day and I received an email from a citizen in Galveston Island, Texas, who also takes quite beautify and stunning photos of local wildlife. His name is Ron Wooten. His story is told in the aforementioned NYT article. Here, I want to focus on the original photo he had sent me. It was of a coyote sleeping on the airstrip of the Galveston Island airport, taken from a significant distance. The animal had a beautiful mixture of reddish and white coloration with a seemingly very wide skull. I normally do not hesitate to tell the inquisitor that canine phenotypes can be misleading. Many of us may have experiences with dog DNA testing for breed ancestry. My own family members have had a priori ideas about the composition of their dog’s breed mixture, which gets nearly obliterated when they receive the results. The animal goes from being thought of as a shepherd/collie mix to perhaps a boxer/terrier mix.

But this picture was something different. I zoomed in to try and get a better feel for what it could be. Then, I decided to follow my instinct. In all honesty, it wasn’t solely instinct. I had some knowledge about the geographic area having served as a source for the near-extinct red wolves in the mid 1970s. I also knew there was likely interbreeding between coyotes and red wolves in the region in the early 1900s. I knew that if we found what my instinct was thinking we had, remnant genetics of red wolves that are long gone from the Gulf coast, it could be big. But if I was wrong, this original effort was only sequencing two samples and thus, I could confidently report to Ron the outcome. Either way, Ron has never stopped expressing his gratitude for my gamble.

Our first publication on these coyotes did indeed reveal a shocking amount of genomic red wolf ancestry (~28%), and private alleles, carried by the two samples Ron shared with us (Heppenheimer et al. 2018). Since his first email, I continue to work with Ron, his friends, neighbors, community, among dozens of others who want to learn as much as they can about these unique animals. From this, the Gulf Coast Canine Project was established in 2021 and is directed by Dr. Kristin Brzeski, a former post-doctoral researcher in my group. The research studies continue to grow, diversify, and fueled by a community that is hungry to learn about their treasure.

I find something uniquely satisfying when I get to connect with people who also have a passion about the world, but perhaps do not quite have the avenues to obtain the desired insights. In responding to Ron and his community about their unique coyotes in 2016, we find ourselves now facing uncharted territory for conservation and challenging species concepts and definitions. Ron, and much of the Galveston Island community, have embraced their unique coyotes. The fate of the red wolf and their genes, which still exist on the wild landscape, must clearly be credited to Ron for his persistence in reaching out. And I encourage scientists to remember to connect with people, talk to communities, and find ways to support their commitment to biodiversity.


Heppenheimer E, Brzeski KE, Wooten R, Waddell W, Rutledge LY, Chamberlain MJ, Stahler DR, Hinton JW, vonHoldt BM (2018) Rediscovery of red wolf ghost alleles in a canid population along the American Gulf coast. Genes. 9: 618.

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