5 things to know about the 'ghost wolves' along the Gulf Coast

The 'ghost wolves' are a hybrid of a coyote and red wolf roaming the Gulf Coast.

The 'ghost wolves' are a hybrid of a coyote and red wolf roaming the Gulf Coast.

Chester Moore

The Texas Gulf Coast is home to a wide range of wildlife, including so-called "ghost wolves," a hybrid of a coyote and red wolf roaming Galveston.

Residents and visitors of Galveston Island have increasingly reported sightings of possible ghost wolves, according to the City of Galveston Facebook page, with public interest and the rise in sightings resulting in a town hall meeting in Galveston with Animal Services supervisor Josh Henderson and Gulf Coast Canine project researchers Bridgett vonHoldt and Kristin Brzeski this month.

Researchers presented their plans to asses the genetic ancestry of the ghost wolves, goals to understand the ecology and behavior with efforts to inform conservation and educate management practices for both coyotes and the hybrid species.

Here are five things to know about the ghost wolf

The "ghost gene" and how the wolves received their name

The ghost wolves "harbor an ancestral genetic variation, this ghost variation," a gene previously thought to be extinct, Bridgett vonHoldt explained in a New York Times report.

Canids are the scientific term for the biological family of dog-like carnivorans that communicate via scent signals and vocalizations. The canids or ghost wolves researched on Galveston carried genetic variants not present in any other North American canids researchers analyzed, including the contemporary red wolves, vonHoldt told the New York Times.

Why the sudden increase in potential sightings?

The last known red wolves were captured in Southwestern Louisiana and Eastern Texas in 1980 to establish a captive breeding population, according to a study published in Science Advances.

The theory is that the genetics were passed down from the wild red wolves roaming the region and that some red wolves evaded the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "dragnet" back in the late 1970s. According to the research, red wolves or their descendants bred with local coyotes in Texas and Louisiana.

“There was surely a little slippery one that got away or a couple,” vonHoldt told the New York Times.

How to tell the difference between a coyote and a red wolf 

Body size and weight are two ways to differentiate between coyotes and red wolves. According to a study published in Science Advance, coyotes with higher red wolf ancestry were, on average, heavier animals.

The nonprofit Red Wolf Coalition posted a picture of a coyote compared to a red wolf.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department posted a video of a possible "ghost wolf" sighting. 

What's the ghost wolf population on Galveston Island?

The amount of ghost wolves on the island is not exactly known. 

Coyotes across Galveston Island have been found to carry red wolves genetics in their DNA, though not all coyotes have the DNA, according to the study published in Science Advances, some of the animals researched carried as high as 69% of the red wolf genetic ancestry.

The previously captured coyotes and ghost wolves in Galveston are now collared with GPS devices to help better understand these animals, according to a report from the Gulf Coast Canine project. The GPS device program is funded in partnership with Princeton University and Michigan Technological University to study the data collected from the GPS devices for conservation efforts.

What's next for hybrid canids research in Galveston?

Researchers are identifying ways to preserve the critically-endangered red wolf species, including methods such as “bio-banking,” according to the research presented during the Town Hall in Galveston.