A litter of critically endangered red wolves was born at the Tallahassee Museum on Friday, April 21 – one female and three male pups. This is the first litter born at the Museum since 2005, and is only the fourth time a red wolf has given birth here in 28 years.
The four newborn puppies are now 13 days-old, and are being closely monitored by animal care staff and veterinarians.
“The pups appear to be thriving, and their mother is doing a great job taking care of them” said Mike Jones, Animal Curator.
This is the mother’s second litter – her first litter was born at the Riding Reflection Arboretum and Nature Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The mother was brought to the Tallahassee Museum in January, per the direction of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) – a collaborative breeding and management program developed by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) to maintain a genetically viable population in captivity.
Red wolves were once a top predator in the southeastern United States, but there are now less than 50 remaining in the wild according to the SSP. In 1988, the Tallahassee Museum became the sixth institution in the United States to join the Red Wolf SSP, and the Museum’s red wolves have been important contributors to the SSP research and recovery project that seeks to bring the native species back from the brink of extinction.
“We felt the Red Wolf SSP was a good program for the Museum, since the species was native to our region and we wanted to play a role in saving it,” said Jones.
Each year, eligible animals in the Red Wolf SSP are evaluated for health and genetics to formulate the breeding recommendations for the coming year.
“The SSP began with the last 14 red wolves known to exist, so maintaining genetic diversity is paramount to success,” said Jones.
The two pairs of adult wolves at the Museum are among the 200 red wolves maintained at several dozen facilities across the United States under the Red Wolf SSP. The Museum’s animal staff had witnessed one of the wolf pairs mating several times earlier this spring, and was hopeful the two wolves would successfully breed.
“In early April, our team saw signs that puppies were probably on the way,” said Jones.
Two video cameras mounted in the den and habitat enabled the staff to monitor the wolves day and night, so when the birthing began at 4:00 am, staff became aware of the activity and were able to observe the process without disturbing the mother.
The new family remains in the Museum’s Red Wolf exhibit, but it may be a while before visitors can actually view the pups since they won’t begin to spend time outside the den until age four to six weeks. The pups will stay with the mother and father in the exhibit through the summer and fall.
As a participant in the Red Wolf SSP, the Tallahassee Museum also works with partners to provide biological materials to help in reproductive and health research of the wolf population. The Museum’s animal care team recently worked with Will Waddell, Red Wolf SSP Coordinator and Dr. Ashley Franklin, a postdoctoral research fellow from Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., to collect semen samples for research on the wolves’ sperm quality.
Museum veterinarian Dr. David Hale administered the anesthesia and assisted with the procedure. The samples were evaluated to determine the wolves’ viability, then frozen and added to the genome resource bank for red wolves, with the possibility for future use in artificial insemination.
The Museum’s red wolves have also been involved in testing for stress hormones and other bio-markers through fecal assays. Museum staff has prepared fecal samples from our wolves and sent them to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute laboratory for analysis. Researchers look for genetic variants believed to be linked to stress hormones that may contribute to health issues. These variants have been identified in several family lines of red wolves.
This research will help identify and reduce stressful conditions in the wolves’ environment and address problems ranging from digestive disease to reproductive and behavioral problems.