Wolves are hybridizing with shepherd dogs in the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia at rate more frequent and rapid than previously believed, according to new research.
Writing in the Journal of Heredity, a research team from Georgia's Tbilisi Zoo and the Institute of Ecology at Ilia State University in Georgia report that after sampling the genetic makeup of regional wolves and shepherding dogs, hybridization was more common than they realized.
About 10 percent of the dogs and wolves sampled had recent hybrid ancestry and about 3 percent of the animals samples were identified as first-generation hybrids.
The find was part of a larger study by Ilia State's Natia Kopaliani, whose work aims to explore human-wolf conflict more in-depth.
"Since the 2000s, the frequency of wolf depredation on cattle has increased in Georgia, and there were several reports of attacks on humans. Wolves were sighted even in densely populated areas," she said.
"Reports suggested that, unlike wild wolves, wolf-dog hybrids might lack fear of humans, so we wanted to examine the ancestry of wolves near human settlements to determine if they could be of hybrid origin with free-ranging dogs such as shepherds," Kopaliani added.
Kopaliani and her team used mitochondrial DNA and microsatellite markers to study hybridization rates between wolves and dogs.
"We expected to identify some individuals with hybrid ancestry, but it was quite surprising that recent hybrid ancestry was found in every tenth wolf and every tenth shepherd dog," said study co-author David Tarkhnishvili.
"Two dogs out of the 60 or so we studied were inferred to be first generation hybrids," he added.
The research counters a popular belief that the region's dog-wolf hybridization has its roots in wolves domesticated in the Far East.
About one-third of the animals studies shared relatively recent maternal ancestry with local wolves, they research team learned.
The find could have interesting implications for livestock owners in the regions who use breeds of shepherds to keep the livestock safe from hungry wolves.
"Ironically, [the dog's] sole function is to protect sheep from wolves or thieves," Kopaliani said. "The shepherd dogs are free-ranging, largely outside the tight control of their human masters. They guard the herds from wolves, which are common in the areas where they are used, but it appears that they are also consorting with the enemy."
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