Inbreeding threatens the Iberian wolf

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Iberian wolf hunting banned

After years of persecution and stigmatisation, the Iberian wolf is trying to stabilise its populations on the Iberian Peninsula. However, the isolation of the packs causes a lack of genetic diversity. This can ultimately lead to problems for the species.

The packs of Iberian wolves (Canis lupus signatus) are not having an easy time. After decades of persecution, the wolf now enjoys greater protection. The emblematic predator with its gray coat is no longer allowed to be hunted. Although the animal has been on the ‘protected wild animal species’ list since 2021, the animal still suffers from stigmatisation. This not only ensures that the wolf only lives in small territorial strips, but also that the expansion of the packs is hindered.

Little mutual contact between wolf packs

The fact that the Iberian wolf is not doing so well is evident from the scarce genetic variation within the approximately 300 packs that occur in Spain and Portugal. Research institution CSIC recently concluded that there is inbreeding within the packs due to the fragmentation of the territory. It makes mutual contact between subgroups of the species difficult.

The CSIC indicates that the inbreeding values found could cause problems in the future. The wolves shouldn’t be related. They should disperse and mate with wolves from other packs. The limited genetic variation now visible indicates that the populations are not healthy.

Although there are subpopulations with low inbreeding rates, there is still some disturbing data. Research shows that many wolves are related to wolves that lived in the area seventy years ago. According to Isabel Salado, one of the researchers at the CSIC, this is very strange for an animal species that is supposed to be very mobile.

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Wolves gene pattern weakened

It means that wolf populations occur in small nuclei that breed among themselves. It is a result of decades of poor management of wolf populations by the Spanish government. Due to the scattered nuclei, there is hardly any contact between different packs.

The lack of genetic diversity increases the wolf’s vulnerability. Inbreeding makes the genetic pattern of predators more homogeneous. This will lead to the weakening of the species due to changes in the environment and the arrival of certain diseases. Salado indicates that inbreeding could pose a threat to the wolf population. A similar phenomenon has occurred in the Mexican wolf. Inbreeding caused problems in the number of litters in wolf populations and deteriorated the animals’ bone structure.

Iberian lynx suffered the same problem

In Spain, the lynx has also suffered from inbreeding. As a result, the species almost became extinct. Authorities have used captive breeding programs to ensure that related animals cannot reproduce with each other. This ultimately led to the rapid recovery of the lynx population.

Laura Moreno, from WWF, believes that population management needs to change. “The wolf is excellent at stabilizing itself because it has enough food and is a species that adapts perfectly to the area. However, it is necessary for conditions to improve and also for the wolf to be able to coexist with livestock,” Moreno said. She also emphasizes that there have been numerous cases of poaching in recent years, despite the wolf hunting ban.

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