Research by Life Sciences academic Dr Malgorzata Pilot has revealed new insights into the evolutionary history of the grey wolf in Europe.

Dr Pilot and the international research team analysed the evolutionary relationships among the three largest European populations of grey wolves based on genome-wide variability of these populations.

The results of the study, ‘Genome-wide signatures of population bottlenecks and diversifying selection in European wolves’ have been published in the official journal of the Genetics Society Heredity.

Dr Pilot said: “Our results suggest a continuous decline in wolf numbers in Europe since the Late Pleistocene as well as long-term isolation and demographic bottlenecks in the Iberian and Italian populations.”

The research revealed that Eastern European wolves show more genetic similarity to Asian wolves than to Italian and Iberian wolves. Italian wolves are particularly distinct from other wolf populations, which likely results from a long-term bottleneck that have occurred in this population.

Despite historical bottlenecks, the Italian and Iberian wolf populations do not show signatures of recent inbreeding, i.e. breeding between close relatives. This is in contrast to wolf populations that were recently established (such as in the Scandinavian Peninsula or on Isle Royale, US) or underwent recent drastic declines (such as Mexican wolves).

The fact that long-term historical bottlenecks can be distinguished from recent demographic declines and founder events solely based on genomic data may be important in studies on some endangered species where genetic variability is the only source of information. The team also found signatures of diversifying selection in genes involved in growth and skeletal development, which may influence differences in body size between wolf populations in Europe. Further study is needed to assess the role of these candidate genes in the adaptive diversification of grey wolves and other large canids like coyotes and jackals.