One of my favorite things about living in Houston and studying at Rice University is the sheer number of people that I meet that are completely different from me. From Asians to Latin Americans to Europeans to other Africans, the learning experience and my ability to adapt and survive better in other cultural environments increases every day. But we’ve all heard the pitch about the importance of diversity in America. What you may not know is that diversity, and more specifically, genetic diversity, is important to animal populations too.
Mexican grey wolves are endangered animals found in North America that could greatly benefit from such genetic diversity. With only 75 individuals found in the wild, researchers have found that, to save the Mexican wolf population, it is necessary to have different populations from different parts of the country mingle and breed with each other.
But why is diversity important to these wolves? Cultural awareness is the least of their concerns. The reason behind this logic is that different wolf populations have different genes that account for their unique traits and strengths. Interbreeding will therefore result in new generations of kids that have a combination of different characteristics and strengths that allow them to face a wider range of challenges than their parents.
Based off of this idea, researchers at the Kalmath Center for Conservation Research used a computer simulation model called Vortex that allowed them to predict the effects of having wolf populations close enough to each other to where they can take their occasional vacations to visit their counterparts and possibly start new, multicultural families.
Vortex, the trusty computer model, showed that having wolf populations close to each other to where they can occasionally migrate and interbreed is a major factor in preventing the populations from dying out.
These majestic wolves are currently in the process of being reintroduced in the wild. Because of this, the US Fish and Wildlife Services feels that they are no longer a priority to be protected and that funding should be allocated elsewhere. Do you see the problem with this argument yet? No? Well, the problem is that simply reintroducing them into the wild doesn’t mean they are ready to kick it with the rest of nature and continue to survive for generations to come. As the research mentioned above showed, without constant mingling with other populations, the wolves are bound to eventually go extinct. Unfortunately, such plans are not included in recovery projects when reintroducing the wolves into the wild. Therefore, to say that the wolves are now ready to effectively survive on their own is to throw them into the wild unprepared.
You may be wondering why you should care whether Mexican wolf populations go extinct or not. Aside from the fact that they are extremely cute, you probably do not see the significance of the wolves in your life. They are not typically used for food and probably don’t make for very friendly pets. However, we as humans are responsible for 80% of the wolves’ mortality whether is it by illegal hunting (a sport that I will never understand) or vehicle collisions.
And because we caused their near extinction, we should be responsible for their return to their natural habitat. Even more than that, we should be responsible for ensuring that it doesn’t happen again, one of the ways to do this being increasing the possibility for diversity in their populations. Because diversity matters!