EUREKA, Mo. — A Mexican wolf pup born this month at a wildlife centre in suburban St. Louis is offering new hope for repopulating the endangered species through artificial insemination using frozen sperm.
The Mexican wolf population once roamed Mexico and the western U.S. in the thousands but was nearly wiped out by the 1970s, largely from decades of hunting, trapping and poisoning. Commonly known as “El Lobos,” the species, distinguished by a smaller, more narrow skull and its grey and brown coloring, was designated an endangered species in 1976.
Even today, only 130 Mexican wolves live in the wild and another 220 live in captivity.
The wolf was born April 2 at the Endangered Wolf Center about 24 miles southwest of St. Louis, using semen collected last year by St. Louis Zoo research and animal health staff and stored at the Saint Louis Zoo’s cryopreservation gene bank. A University of California-Davis professor and veterinary doctor administered the insemination Jan. 27 with assistance from St. Louis Zoo animal health staff.
Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the centre, learned for the first time Monday that the pup is a boy. He’s gaining weight — now at 4.7 pounds after being less than 1 pound at birth — and appears to be progressing well, she said after an exam of the wiggly pup, which has not yet been named.
“He’s big and strong and healthy!” Mossotti said as other wolves howled from a distance.
The centre has collaborated with the other organizations for 20 years to freeze semen of Mexican wolves. The semen is stored at the St. Louis Zoo’s cryopreservation gene bank, established specifically for the long-term conservation of endangered species.
A procedure to inseminate the mom, Vera, was performed Jan. 27.
“The technology has finally caught up,” Mossotti said.
It’s a big deal, experts say, because using frozen semen allows scientists to draw from a larger pool of genes, even from wolves that have died.
Mossotti said it’s possible the new pup will eventually be moved to the wild, where it would feed largely on elk, deer and other large hoofed mammals. An adult Mexican wolf will weigh 60 to 80 pounds.
According to a joint news release from the Endangered Wolf Center, St. Louis Zoo and the Living Desert Zoo & Gardens in Palm Desert, Calif:
“Reproductive technologies, such as frozen semen and artificial insemination, were developed to support gene diversity by allowing reproduction between genetically valuable individuals at different locations and even after natural death of a male.”
According to stltoday the he Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona starting in 1998, though the effort has been hurt by everything from politics to illegal killings and genetics. Many of the wolves in the wild have genetic ties to the suburban St. Louis centre.
The non-profit was founded in 1971 by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a St. Louis native best known as the host of TV’s “Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom.” Perkins died in 1986.
Mossotti said wolves are a “keystone” species that play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem. She said the caricature of the “Big, Bad Wolf” is a myth about an animal that actually shuns humans.