Česká verze

Central Europe as the genetic crossroad of wolf populations

29.11.2017, Charles University, Czech University of Life Sciences, MENDELU

An international team of scientists led by Czech molecular ecologists Pavel Hulva and Barbora Černá Bolfíková recently presented a study of the wolf population structure in Central Europe. Their results were published in a peer-reviewed journal Diversity and Distributions. The study shows that several wolf populations, each adapted to different environmental conditions, meet in this region. By the use of genetic methods, it confirmed the renewed presence of wolves in the Czech Republic after centuries of absence.

Due to its location, Central Europe has the character of a crossroads where different genetic lines of organisms, as well as human cultural influences, come into contact. This also applies to grey wolf. The species was wiped out in many parts of Europe but has been steadily returning to some areas in the last decades, raising both the scientific curiosity and public emotions. At present, wolves from several populations occur in Central Europe. Until now, however, the detailed information on the population status of wolves in the Czech Republic, and particularly on the Carpathian population, was scarce. The Carpathian population is one of the largest wolf populations in Europe. In the Czech territory, though, it is represented only by the sporadic occurrence of individual wolves in the Beskydy Mountains. A male wolf killed in spring on the D1 highway in Vysočina belonged to this population. It is relatively numerous in Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania. The Central European lowland population originated from the Baltic Sea, from where it spread to lowlands in Poland and Germany. In the last decade, it started to expand to the northern regions of the Czech Republic. In the south of our country, wolves belonging to the Alpine and Balkan populations may rarely occur.

A wolf killed on the D1 highwayA wolf killed by car in spring 2017 on the D1 highway in the Vysočina highlands highlights the problems faced by large mammals in the human-dominated fragmented landscape

We discovered that the genetic architecture of the Carpathian population was strongly influenced by the so-called bottleneck effect - a dramatic reduction in population size in the twentieth century caused by human persecution, when the wolves survived only in Eastern Slovakia and small enclaves in the Central Slovakian mountains. Later in the century, the status of the wolf populations in Slovakia improved somewhat and the populations interconnected, probably due to the phenomenon known as "forest transition" - the overgrowing of old pastures at higher altitudes. The improved species protection status also played an important part. In the Carpathians, however, there is a clear evidence of the subpopulation differentiation due to the isolation of mountain ranges reinforced by anthropogenic barriers in the populated valleys (such as the D1 highway in Slovakia). Wolves in Eastern Slovakia are similar to the original populations of the central Carpathians, such as Romania. The Carpathian wolf population has unique genetic features. These include an ancient mitochondrial DNA branch, no longer present in the North America where it was characteristic for robust American wolves during the Ice Age specialized in hunting large mammals such as horses or bison. Carpathian wolves also have characteristic morphology, such as bigger skull compared to neighbouring populations) and archaic food specialization for deer hunting. These unique features, along with the stagnating population trend, make the population an object of special conservation attention.

Wolves in the Kysucka vrchovinaWolves in the Kysucká vrchovina in Slovakia: individuals from the Carpathian and Central European lowland population meet in this highland region.

The Central European lowland population, which includes the animals in Northern Bohemia, has a simpler genetic structure compared to the Carpathian wolves. The population numbers are growing slightly, probably due to its adaptability to the densely populated landscape and the year-round protection. Surprisingly to scientists, small enclaves of lowland wolves were discovered in the middle of the Carpathians. The Czech Republic and the surrounding regions have the potential to further combine wolf populations thanks to their central geographic position. However, this may depend on the adaptations of individual ecotypes and anthropogenic factors.

The paper was prepared by a team of authors from institutions in four Central European countries led by molecular ecologists Pavel Hulva of Charles University and the University of Ostrava, and Barbora Černá Bolfíková from the Czech University of Life Sciences. The study was made possible by the data collected in more than a decade of monitoring of this attractive species, organized in the Czech Republic by Miroslav Kutal from Hnutí DUHA Olomouc (Friends of the Earth Czech Republic) and Mendel University in Brno, and in Slovakia by Vladislav Antal from the State Nature Conservancy of the Slovak Republic. It also presents the integration of genetic and geographic methods provided by the team of Dušan Romportl from Charles University. The study was also a result of the emerging cooperation between several Central European countries, which allowed authors to compare genetic profiles from neighbouring countries including Germany, Poland, and Slovakia and to study the origins of individual wolves.

We would also like to thank the Wolf Patrols volunteers for their help with data collection.

Reference to the original paper: Hulva P, Černá Bolfíková B, Woznicová V, Jindřichová M, Benešová M, Mysłajek RW, Nowak S, Szewczyk M, Niedźwiecka N, Figura M, Hájková A, Sándor AD, Zyka V, Romportl D, Kutal M, Finďo S, Antal V. (2018) Wolves at the crossroad: fission-fusion range biogeography in the Western Carpathians and Central Europe. Diversity and Distributions, 1-14.


Doc. RNDr. Pavel Hulva, Ph.D., hulva@natur.cuni.cz



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