The Himalayan wolf is a proposed clade within the Tibetan wolf (Canis lupus filchneri) that is distinguished by its mitochondrial DNA, which is basal to all other wolves including other Tibetan wolves. The taxonomic status of this wolf clade is disputed, with the separate species Canis himalayensis being proposed based on two limited DNA studies. However, the 50% likelihood provided by the model on which the study was based provides only weak support for this proposal.
The wolves of Tibet were first described by British zoologist Brian Houghton Hodgson in 1847 as Canis laniger. In 1907, the German zoologist Paul Matschie described a type specimen of a wolf that lived in the Gansu and Qinghai regions of China, which he named Canis filchneri Matschie (1907). In the third edition of Mammal Species of the World published in 2005, the mammalogist W. Christopher Wozencraft listed under the wolf Canis lupus the taxonomic synonyms for the subspecies Canis lupus filchneri, under which he included filchneri Matschie (1907) and laniger Hodgson (1847).
In 1941, Reginald Pocock had referred to the Tibetan wolf as Canis lupus laniger and classified it as a synonym under C. l. chanco. There are some researchers who still refer to Pocock's classification of the Tibetan wolf as C. l. chanco, which has caused taxonomic confusion.
Two DNA studies in 2004 and 2007 found that some of the Tibetan wolves living in the Trans-Himalaya region were basal to all other wolves, and proposed a new taxonomic classification of Canis himalayensis. The taxonomic reference Mammal Species of the World does not recognize Canis himalayensis, however NCBI/Genbank does list Canis lupus himalayensis.
DNA sequences can be mapped to reveal a phylogenetic tree that represents evolutionary relationships, with each branch point representing the proposed divergence of two lineages from a common ancestor. "The term basal taxon refers to a lineage that diverges early in the history of the group and lies on a branch that originates near the common ancestor of the group." In 2004, a study compared sequences of 582 base pairs in length from the mtDNA control region for 27 wolves from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. The phylogenetic tree generated from the sequences indicated that there were 5 related haplotypes formed a clade that was basal to all other wolves. This clade included one sequence from Ladakh in eastern Kashmir, nine from the Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, four from Nepal, and two from Tibet. Seven wolves also from Kashmir did not fall into this clade. Hodgson (1847) described the Tibetan wolf as C. laniger. A study of the mitochondrial control region of the specimen that Hodgson collected (labelled BM184.108.40.206) was found to fall within the proposed Himalayan wolf clade. However, the 50% likelihood provided by the model on which this study rested provides only weak support for this proposal. A criticism of this study is that it was based on zoo specimens and it is known that all zoo specimens have been captive-bred from only two females. Therefore, the study did not provide a representative sample. Additionally, the wolf population in the Kashmir valley is known to have recently arrived in that area.
In 2007, a study compared sequences of 1,300 base pairs in length from the mtDNA control region for 18 wolves from the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park near Darjeeling in West Bengal, northern India. The study found that the wolves were basal to all other wolves and formed one haplotype, indicating that they shared a common female ancestor. The study did not ascertain if the zoo specimens were all related. The conclusion supported the 2004 study that the Himalayan wolf differed from other Tibetan wolves. A criticism of this study is that it was based on limited data with no samples collected from the Kashmir valley population, despite suggesting that Kashmir is an area of potential contact of the closely related wolf clades. Instead, the samples were collected from Indian zoos or museum specimens. Additionally, the areas under study are part of the same landscape, and the question of what ecological or behavioral barriers could be facilitating such strict divergence, particularly when no striking morphological differences occur between the wolves from Tibet and Indian Trans-Himalaya, remains unanswered.
In April 2009, the Latin binomen Canis himalayensis was proposed for this clade as a separate species of wolf through the Nomenclature Specialist on the CITES Animals Committee. The proposal was based on one study that relied on only a limited number of museum and zoo samples that may not have been representative of the wild population. The committee recommended against this proposal but suggested that the name be entered into the species database as a synonym for Canis lupus. The committee stated that the classification was for conservation purposes only, and did not "reflect the latest state of taxonomic knowledge". Further fieldwork was called for.
Other researchers have questioned this proposed taxonomic classification, claiming that recent genetic studies have not provided a complete picture. The 2007 argues that the Himalayan wolf is different to the wolves from Tibet. As these areas are part of the same landscape, the question of what ecological or behavioural barriers could be facilitating such strict divergence, particularly when no striking morphological differences occur between the wolves from Tibet and Indian Trans-Himalaya, remains unanswered. Another problem is related to limited data as none of the studies have collected samples from the Kashmir valley population, despite suggesting it as the area of potential contact of the closely related wolf clades. Instead, the samples have been collected from Indian zoos or museum specimens.
Two later studies compared sequences from the wolves of the Himalayas against worldwide wolf sequences and confirmed their basal position, however these studies did not include wolves from Tibet. In 2012, a study compared sequences of 300 base pairs in length from the mtDNA control region of the scats of 2 wolves from remote and widely separated areas in the Upper Dolpa, Nepal and found that these sequences matched the Himalayan wolf. In 2016, study compared sequences of 220 base pairs in length from the mtDNA control region from the fecal remains of 4 wild wolves from the Upper Mustang region of the Annapurna Conservation Area, Nepal. The study showed that they fell within the Himalayan wolf clade but formed a separate haplotype to those previously studied.
Later in 2016, a study compared wolf mitochondrial DNA sequences of 582 base pairs in length. The phylogenetic tree generated from the sequences revealed that the two most basal clades were formed by specimens from India and the Himalayas (the "Himalayas" classification included specimens from Tibet as well as from the Himalayas for the purpose of this study). Within the Himalayan/Tibetan wolf clade also fell some specimens from China and Mongolia, indicating a common maternal ancestor and a wider genetic distribution.
A study should be undertaken to collect and analyse the genetic samples from wolves from all areas in the Himalayas. This will provide good representation and therefore more reliable results of genetic relatedness among the different wolves. The recognition of a separate species or subspecies is pending on more DNA evidence from nuclear markers (taken from the cell nucleus rather than from the cell mitochondria).
Morphological appearance of the wolves from different parts of India shows certain dissimilarities. Skulls of the two males from Chumar, Ladakh were measured by Allen (234 and 236 mm), which are the largest for wolves in India, but smaller compared to North American wolves, which can measure up to 290 mm. Canis lupus pallipes has the smallest skull length, measuring maximum up to 220 mm. Zygomatic widths of the skull of wolves from Ladakh (129 and 128 mm) were also comparatively larger than those of peninsular wolves from India (90.2–109 mm). Upper cheek teeth, i.e. canine to last molar of two wolves from Ladakh measured 105 and 98.4 mm, which is larger compared to those of peninsular wolves and Arabian wolves (93.6–97 mm and 81.3–93 mm respectively)14–16. The wolf from peninsular India appears smaller in size and more brownish in colour, whereas wolves from the Himalayan regions are large and whitish. Peninsular wolf weighs 25 kg on an average, which may be the lowest among all wolves, whereas wolves from the Himalayan region weigh about 35 kg, similar to Tibetan wolves. The wolves from Upper Mustang, Nepal are characterized by their "distinct white coloration around the throat, chest, belly and inner part of the legs; woolliness of body fur; stumpy legs; unusual elongation of the muzzle, a muzzle arrayed with closely-spaced black speckles which extend below the eye on to the upper cheeks and ears; and smaller size compared to the European wolf."
The proposed Himalayan wolf is found in northern India in the Ladakh region of eastern Kashmir and the Lahaul and Spiti region in the northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh. It is also found in Nepal in the Upper Dolpa and Upper Mustang regions. A population of them can also be found in Tibet. The Indian population consists of 350 wolves with a range of 70,000 km2 (27,000 sq mi). In 2004, a group of 33 Himalayan wolves were spotted in the Spiti Valley in the northeastern part of Himachal Pradesh. In the same year, the wolf was spotted for the first time in Nepal in the Upper Mustang region.
The Himalayan wolf is listed as an endangered species in certain areas of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand. A large portion of the wolf population in these areas exists outside of the protected area network, which is alarming for the initiatives of their conservation and suggests that management for conservation in these areas should equally consider the area outside protected areas. Their scarce populations and evolutionary uniqueness have been underlined in some recent studies. Lack of information about their basic ecology in this landscape is a severe hindrance towards a sound conservation plan for these animals.
It has been suggested by several biologists in India for recognition as a critically endangered species of canid. Although the Indian government has added the Himalayan wolf to its endangered species list in 1998, it still lacks legal protection in Tibet.
Eighteen Himalayan wolves are being bred in captivity. They were captured in the wild and are now being preserved in the trans-Himalayan region of India, at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Shiwalik Hills on the lower range of the Himalaya in West Bengal, and in the Kufri Zoo with Kufri Himalayan National Park located in Himachal Pradesh province.
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