Hybrids are the result of two different species that mate with each other. Often, these hybrids are born sterile. That means that these animals cannot reproduce. You could see it as a back-up plan from nature, in case a hybrid was born by ‘mistake’. Some hybrids are very well known. For example, when a lion and tiger mate, or a donkey with a horse. In most cases, people do not worry much about hybrids. But lately there has been a lot of discussions on the so-called wolf hybrids.
As similar as your neighbour
What worries many people is the fact that we know wolves as wild carnivores, while dogs became our best friends and eat dog food. Some believe that wolf hybrids are wolf-like animals, which are extra dangerous to humans. They supposedly carry dog- and wolf-traits, so they are not shy towards humans, but are aggressive hunters.
There are two ways in which wolf hybrids can occur. A male wolf can mate with a female dog, or a male dog mates with a female wolf. In both cases, there is no reason to be afraid. It is a principle of ‘nature versus nurture‘. In the first case, a male wolf mates with a female dog. The female dog will raise her cubs, most likely at somebody’s home. They may look a bit different, but learn from their mother to eat dog food, play with rubber chickens and walk beside their owner on a leash. In the second case, a male dog mates with a female wolf. The female wolf will raise her cubs in the wild. They might look a bit different from their mother, but learn from her to be part of a wolf pack, hunt and avoid risky situations.
Wolves and dogs are actually very close relatives, if you look at their ancestors. In fact, the genes from a wolf and domesticated dog are 99.96% identical, scientists discovered. To put this in perspective, two humans share 99.6 to 99.9% genetic similarities on average. So, it is safe to say that wolves and domestic dogs are just as similar to each other as you and your neighbour down the street.
Wolf hybrids are fertile, why?
As mentioned in the beginning, hybrids are often sterile. This prevents them from spreading the ‘mixed genes’ further. Why is it that wolf hybrids are not sterile, and can reproduce? That has all to do with our terminology. Since wolves and domesticated dogs share so many genes, they are actually the same species. Domesticated dogs are just a sub-species of wolves. So, technically speaking, the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris) is a sub-species of the wolf (Canis lupus).
Since we don’t talk about two distinctive species, the term ‘hybrid’ is actually not correct. On the other hand, it is good to use this term to avoid confusion amongst people. So, should we be afraid of wolf hybrids? No. In case a female dog raises the hybrids, they will behave as taught by their mother. In case the female wolf raises hybrids, they will be just as much wolf as any other one.
German wolf hybrids not killed, for now
Wolves have shown how they can help European nature. Take a look at our poster on how wolves restore nature’s balance in Europe. The Swiss authorities of Graubünden confirmed that the presence of wolves leads to healthier forests. The Swiss Hunting Department even clearly stated that the famous Calanda wolf pack helps to regulate numbers of red deer, resulting is less human hunting pressure. Also, researchers found that killing wolves is less effective than improving herd management, in order to minimise livestock depredation.
In a case in Thuringia, central Germany, authorities decided not to kill 6 wolf hybrids. A female wolf currently raises the cubs on a military training ground. However, authorities will try to capture the hybrids before they become fertile in a few months. The local ‘wolf management plan’ states that hybrids are not allowed to breed for biodiversity reasons. If captured, the hybrids will find a new home in a German animal park. However, in case capturing fails, killing the 6 young hybrids is still the back-up plan.