Rufus and Lobo: A Note on the Value of Recognizing Species and Subspecies

Red Wolf. Image source:

A recent, in-depth study on the genetic composition of the populations currently recognized as Red Wolves, Coyotes, Gray Wolves, and Mexican Gray Wolves posited that, despite claims by not only numerous opponents of protecting apex predators such as these but even the US Fish and Wildlife Service itself, the critically endangered Red Wolf is in fact a valid, genetically distinct species, and the Mexican Gray Wolf a valid subspecies, both deserving protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Academy of Sciences published a staggering 93-page article on the topic, aiming to settle the debate with finality on whether or not red wolves were in fact taxonomically valid or just hybrid intergrades between gray wolves and coyotes. The studies suggest that, while at one point their speciation may indeed have occurred as a hybridization between the other two species, and that shockingly enough the red wolf is genetically allied closer to coyotes than it is actual gray wolves, their lineage has remained separate from their relatives long enough to produce a unique species in and of its own right. Similarly, the Mexican Gray Wolf (also referred to by the term Lobo) as seen below has been a target of opponents to protection in the American Southwest and lobbied as simply a disjunct population of the standard northern gray wolves still being reintroduced into other states. If it were simply a separate population of the same taxon, no special protections would be allocated to it under the ESA; this article belays that notion, positioning the Lobo also as a unique subspecies from the northern race, and thereby requiring protection and rehabilitation.

Mexican Gray Wolf, or Lobo. Image source:

Why is it so important that these two taxa are recognized as distinct, some might ask? What is the value of taxonomy even, the recognition of not only separate species but the subspecies and variations within? The full answer, admittedly, is complex more so than can be covered in one short blog post. For the wolves directly, in value it's a means of furthering protections for the apex predators of regions that need them, as the top animal on the food chain regulates everything below it and so protecting the top protects all else.

Recognizing separate species and subspecies and making sure adequate protection is given each also provides understanding of the complexity of the natural world and how the diversity seen is beautiful, valuable, irreplaceable. It also helps us understand how our current world developed. Our terms for nature around us are limited, boxes that we seek to place everything within so that they're easier to categorize, understand, or sweep under the rug if it so suits us, but nature is not held in a box; God was far too creative to leave evolution to have perfectly spaced an equal end results. No, every species is divided into a multitude of unique groups within itself oh so often, each different aspect of that species unique to its own particular location and role to play. In the case of the wolves, we see the northern gray wolf as the ruler of the boreal and adjoining temperate forests; the red wolf king of the eastern/southeastern deciduous forests, coastal swamps, and savannahs; the coyote roams the plains and meadows between; the Lobo oversees the deserts of New Mexico, Arizona, once Texas, and south of the border. Each cannot adequately survive (or in the case of the adaptable coyote, regulate the landscape properly) in the environment of another's realm, adapted to their particular space as they are, and sculpted as such. To lose one is to lose a key component of that habitat, so to view them all in one category (say, canines) is too little detail to properly appreciate and protect them. Species alone (gray wolf, red wolf, coyote) isn't even enough to appreciate the individual roles played by each, so further separation and protection of the lower categories is required; the Lobo is not the same as the northern gray, though kindred they may be. Thus, for proper protection of diversity laws and regulations must be (and at least in some cases have been) written to recognize the greater variation.

This is not a singular case either; similar battles have been waged over the status of the Florida Panther, the Kodiak and Brown Bears of Alaska or the Kermode black bears of the Pacific Northwest, a thousand different birds, reptiles and amphibians, and plants that are imperiled or could soon be without oversight. One species may be widespread (the Brown bear occurs across not only in North America but Europe and Asia), but unique subsets may be imperiled in far more limited territory (Kodiaks only found in the Alaskan Kodiak Archipelago). See them only as a singular species, then there is little reason to add protections to one small component. 'If that population goes extinct, so what? The species is still found elsewhere after all.'

But protect the subspecies, and be able to recognize what comprises a unique species or subspecies, and it's another safeguard against losing the species or genus as a whole, not just that population. One widespread unprotected species could be whittled away bit by bit from many sides until eventually it is recognized as endangered, and maybe beyond saving, but if this population here is protected now, along with that one there, and another off this way, then each is safeguarded, can be rebuilt, and a greater proportion of the species as a whole and its diversity is preserved and can persist in the world. Diversity is survival in nature, and diversity keeps the environment healthy which in turn helps keep us healthy, for we too thrive on diversity both physically and emotionally. Thus, if we learn to recognize and value not just the big picture but the essential components within, we are likely to live all the better for it as well.