More Dogs, Fewer Wolves - A Threat to Biodiversity
Anthropogenic hybridization, which is recognized by many scientists as one of the main causes of the loss of biodiversity at the global scale, occurs when humankind promotes the interbreeding of different wild populations (both plants and animals) leading to a loss of genetic identity and conditioning their morphology, physiology, ecology and the consequent socio-cultural value that distinguishes them. In particular, in the case of wolf-dog hybridization, the risk is markedly greater than in the past due to mankind’s destruction of natural habitats, wolf killing and a large number of free-ranging dogs, especially in some Italian regions.
An international group of over forty scientists, including Paolo Ciucci and Luigi Boitani from the Department of Biology and Biotechnology “Charles Darwin” at Sapienza University, conducted a sociological study to understand the causes that could lead to mismanagement of wolf-dog hybridization. The results have been published on Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution Journal.
The urgency of this issue is caused by the fact that these hybrids are fertile. This means there is a concrete risk that dog genes may pollute wolf populations and lead, over time, to a completely hybrid population with the consequent risk of genomic extinction.
The authors of the study suggest that the lack of common action and strategies in the scientific community are at the basis of the insufficient management and prevention of this phenomenon. Indeed, a scientific consensus is fundamental to raise awareness on this issue at a media, political and institutional level and adopt adequate measures.
The researchers have identified three major aspects that determine the lack of consensus amongst scientists on this issue: specialization in different subject areas, such as genetics and ecology, lead scientists to have different ethical points of view, especially concerning the use of lethal control methods; moreover, the lack of specific studies on the efficacy of alternative management approaches leaves too much leeway for subjective intuition; and, finally, many scientists are against the removal of hybrids as they fear this may provide a legal precedent for killing wolves.
There is, however, a consensus on the need to educate people on the impact of free-ranging dogs, the need to reduce the number of stray dogs and the call to control hybrids from small-sized and recolonizing wolf populations.
“If greater research opportunities were allowed on the feasibility and efficacy of alternative management interventions,” concludes Paolo Ciucci, “it would be easier to reach a consensus amongst scientists. Continuing to deny the problem of anthropogenic hybridization only because it is too complex to manage, seems to be an unforgiveable error.”
Unravelling the Scientific Debate on How to Address Wolf-Dog Hybridization in Europe - Donfrancesco, V., Ciucci, P., Salvatori, V., Benson, D., Andersen, L. W., Bassi, E., ... & Capitani, C. - Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 2019, 7:175. DOI: 10.3389/fevo.2019.00175
Department of Biology and Biotechnology “Charles Darwin”, Sapienza University of Rome