Wolves ... Did They Originate In South Asia?

By Dipesh Satapathy

An Indo-U.S. team of zoologists uncovers fascinating evidence about the evolution of wolves in India


Hindus and Parsis connect them to the evil. They were important totem animals in many Native American cultures and pre-Christian Europe, where they were considered powerful and helpful. Epics were written about their bravery and loyalty. It is extraordinary that such diverse traditions endure about one animal-the wolf. Even Hollywood refers to wolves, using wolf howls to make soundtracks more chilling. The history of wolves in fables goes back as far as written history, and the tales, like wolves, are spread across the globe. Now it seems, if a recent joint study by Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in Dehradun and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is correct, that the first ancestors of this legendary animal may have come from India.

Current canine taxonomy has three species of wolves, all members of the genus Canis. The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is the largest species with representatives found in North America, Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, India and the rest of Asia. The second, red wolf (Canis rufus), is under challenge as to whether it is truly a species of wolf or a hybrid offspring of gray wolves mating with coyotes. The third species is the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) that lives in Africa, and was previously classified as a jackal until DNA studies proved it to be a true wolf.

Earlier studies have shown that wolves and dogs share genetic similarities. Dogs originated from multiple wolf ancestors and started distinguishing themselves from wolves about 150,000 years ago. Although the convention is to divide them into Canis lupus and Canis familiaris (domestic dog), many experts feel the two are similar enough to form a single species. Taxonomical jargon describes the two as the wolf-dog clade.

Among all wild terrestrial mammals, the gray wolf has the greatest natural range, besides Homo sapiens, and is found in much of the Northern hemisphere. Out of the 32 odd subspecies of wolves that are currently recognized, two are believed to occur in the Indian subcontinent. Canis lupus chanco or the Tibetan (Hima-layan) wolf is found in the trans-Himalayan region and its range extends into Tibet, China, Manchuria, and Mongolia. The Indian wolf C.l. pallipes ranges over much of peninsular India and scientists think it is likely the same subspecies occurs in Iran and Israel. It is much smaller in size compared to other wolf subspecies.

Individual wolves may travel up to 1,000 kilometers and that is, perhaps, the reason why in spite of genetic variation different wolf populations show considerable mixing of genes. Little effort has been made in the past to genetically study Indian and Himalayan wolves. It was British resident in Nepal and "Father of Indian Zoology" B.H. Hodgson who first described the Indian wolf as a species, Canis laniger, in 1847. The species' very long muzzle, distinct coloration and other features distinguished it from other wolves, he noted. Another British naturalist, W.T. Blanford, who worked for the Geological Survey of India, described the Indian wolf as a species called Canis pallipes in 1888. Blanford distinguished C. pallipes from C. laniger by its smaller size, much shorter and thinner winter coat, and smaller skull and teeth. He, however, clubbed the Himalayan wolf with the gray wolves. The current classification-wherein Indian wolves belong to the C.l. pallipes subspecies and Himalayan wolves to the C. laniger-was put forward in 1941 by British museum taxonomist R.I. Pocock. Late M.P. Shahi, a forest officer from Bihar and a former member of the Wolf Specialist Group of World Conservation Union (IUCN), conducted some limited surveys on wolf statistics in India in 1981-82.

Wolves have been a keen area of interest for wildlife researcher Yadavendradev V. Jhala for more than 15 years. Jhala, who teaches animal ecology and conservation biology at WII, had commenced his research on Indian wolves in 1988 as part of his Ph.D. work at Virginia Tech. When he was a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., in the early 1990s, he shared his interest with Robert C. Fleischer and Jesus E. Maldonado, his colleagues there. "The project became intriguing to Jesus and myself, and when we realized we could help out with training and the ancient DNA part, we were very happy to collaborate," Fleischer says.

The specific objective of the wolf research project was to collect relevant scientific information on the ecology of Indian wolves and study of their characteristics and evolution. Jhala approached the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) which agreed to finance the five-year project from the U.S.-India Fund, set up in 1987 to support joint scientific research. WII and USFWS signed an agreement to this effect on February 28, 1996. The project was later extended for two more years.

Fleischer visited India to help Jhala and co-researcher Dinesh K. Sharma set up their genetics lab at WII and also the field sites in Gujarat. He fondly remembers the beautiful wildlife in Velavadar National Park. The team also received funding and volunteer assistance from WII, National Geographic Society, U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Center for Field Research of Earthwatch Institute in Maynard, Massachusetts, Wolf Society of Great Britain, British Airways and Flora and Fauna International. David Ferguson, branch chief for the Near East, South Asia and Africa in the USFWS Division of International Conservation, and Maryland-based nonprofit Conservation Treaty Support Fund, provided coordination and logistics support.

The USFWS has been engaged in joint wildlife conservation efforts with the Indian government since the late 1970s, says Ferguson. He says, "We invested in the project because we had supported Jhala in his earlier work. He was a talented individual, destined to contribute considerably to the Indian conservation scene."

Jhala says the generalities, adaptability and differences in wolf ecology need to be better understood for formulating a conservation strategy for them. The Indian wolf distribution is continuous within Gujarat, Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and their number may range between 2,000 and 3,000 in the country, according to Jhala. There may be around 350 Himalayan wolves in India and there is no authentic count for these mammals in Nepal and Tibet.

Though the wolf is believed to have evolved as a temperate species, the Indian wolf is well adapted for living in semi-arid and hot environments. The small body size reduces food demands, permitting it to sustain its populations on smaller ungulates (hoofed mammals), rabbits, hares and rodents. As it is assumed that wolves evolved in boreal forest systems praying on large ungulates, it is rather surprising that the Indian wolf generally avoids forests and, instead, prefers scrubland, grassland and semi-arid pastoral or agricultural landscapes. The Indian wolf probably evolved during the drier stages of the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 11,000 years ago) to exploit a relatively unoccupied niche as a top carnivore of the arid zones. The eastern population of Indian wolves found in Orissa, Bihar and parts of West Bengal is an exception and occurs in moister forested habitats.

Wolves were studied by the researchers in three sites: The Bhal area of Gujarat including Velavadar National Park, the Abdasa and Banni areas of Kutch in Gujarat and the Ozar area near Nasik in Maharashtra. The team, that included Smithsonian's research nutritionist Olav Oftedal and several other forest officials, volunteers and students, compared over 700 DNA sequences of wolves and dogs from around the world with those of Indian wolves and native dogs. It has come up with some interesting findings.

The Indian subcontinent is home to three distinct wolf lineages of which two are very ancient and unique. The peninsular Indian wolves, thought to be Canis lupus pallipes, are genetically different from the rest of the wolves and dogs (the wolf-dog clade), from which they diverged probably about 400,000 years ago. Wolves from the Himalayan region of the eastern Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, parts of Tibet up to eastern Nepal belong to a very ancient, divergent and ancestral lineage of wolves-the Himalayan lineage. It diverged about 800,000 years ago when the Himalayan region witnessed a major geological and climatic transformation-an ideal cradle for development of new species. The lineage of wolves from the northwestern Himalayan region of Kashmir is common to the widespread wolf-dog clade that stretches across the rest of Eurasia and North America, the reseachers found.

Hodgson's C. laniger and Blanford's C. pallipes need to be named distinct subspecies, according to the researchers, who obtained genetic material from one of the same specimens Hodgson used one-and-a-half century ago, that is preserved at the British museum, and found it matches their samples of Himalayan wolves. The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society Biology Letters last year.

Another interesting finding is that wolves evolved in East Asia. The Himalayan wolf was an early form. Only members of the wolf-dog clade spread beyond this region, but the exact reason behind this phenomenon is not clear. One hypothesis says these wolves might have been trapped in areas of more favorable climate surrounded by glaciers during past glaciation events from which they moved on to their current habitats. It is also not clear why Indian wolves and Himalayan wolves do not breed with each other in spite of a potential overlap in Kashmir.

The team also reports that although all Indian and foreign dog samples are genetically linked to the widespread wolf-dog clade, none of the dogs tested share any DNA sequences with either the Indian or the Himalayan wolf. This indicates that Indian wolves-C.l. pallipes or Himalayan C.l. chanco-are not the forerunners of Indian domestic dogs. "Our results suggest that 'Bhutia,' 'Twang,' Tibetan Mastiff and local 'pariah' dog breeds were brought into the Himalayas and peninsular India by humansŠ.It seems likely that South Asia is not the region of origin for the domestic dog," the researchers note.

These findings are in tune with those of another study by Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad which also found that the Himalayan and the Indian peninsular wolf populations are genetically unique within themselves and are different from all other wolf populations recorded worldwide, and represent the most ancient wolf lineages.

Jhala's team says the findings that these wolves form distinct and ancient species are of utmost significance from the perspective of conservation. This is because of their reduced numbers and loss of forest habitat. Moreover, little is known about the ecology, behavior and status of the Himalayan wolves. The persecution of wolves, who often attack livestock, is not uncommon in India. These animals are as endangered as the gray wolves worldwide, zoologists feel. C.l. pallipes features on schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 as an endangered species.

Jhala says loss of habitat-that deprives wolves of sites for proper denning and rendezvous-and the resulting depletion of natural prey pose a major threat. Diseases, such as canine distemper-a viral disease affecting the nervous system-and rabies pose another threat. A rabies outbreak in Kutch in 2001-02 killed most members of his study packs, remembers Jhala. Interaction with dogs or other domesticated animals may transmit diseases like parvovirus (common in puppies) and hepatitis to wolves.

The Smithsonian is interested in researching biodiversity and conservation issues, says Fleischer. He says: "The wolf project fits very well in our long-term goals and the 'ancient DNA' component (getting DNA from old museum specimens) is a specialty of our lab. The Smithsonian also gained by contributing to the development of research capabilities in other nations-in particular this offered training opportunities to postdocs and students at the WII." Fleischer and Maldonado are currently at Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

What did the USFWS gain? Ferguson says data collected on the Indian wolf is being used in a variety of ways to help enhance its status and ensure its survival. "The [U.S.] Endangered Species Act [of 1973] and the FWS program are for the long-term benefit of the endangered species. Any 'gain' is for the species, its habitats and the reduction of conflicts with humans," he adds.

"Though the wolf has probably survived in the Indian subcontinent for the past 500,000 years, its continued existence in the next 100 years is questionableŠ.With the correct attitudes and actions, we should be in a position to ensure its future," Jhala writes in another paper in the Journal of Bombay Natural History Society. This echoes what Bob Ferris, president of Washington, D.C.-based Defenders of Wildlife, once said: "Wolves are very resourceful. All they need to survive is for people not to shoot them.