May 18, 2024


Now: April 20, 2024, 5:17 p.m.

At the Senckenberg Institute in Gelnhausen, Hesse, all genetic samples collected in Germany are tested for traces of wolves. In 2023, there were 640 DNA samples from Brandenburg. Conservation geneticist Kirsten Nowak explains how work is done there.

rbb24: Hello, Mr. Nowak. Your lab will provide DNA evidence to determine whether the attacker may be a wolf or a dog. What are the genetic differences? So what about hybrids, or mixed breeds of wolf and dog?

Kirsten Nowak: The genetic differences between dogs and wolves are very small. This is because dogs were first bred with wolves tens of thousands of years ago. DNA also needs to be examined in detail. However, research has shown that there are many places in which dogs and wolves differ from each other in genetic material. Among these, we will focus on what are called genetic markers. In this way, you not only know whether it was a dog or a wolf, but if the sample quality is good enough, you can tell which individual it was, which pack the wolf belonged to, and which pack it belonged to. You can also get information about whether it belongs to a population. I came from Hybrid vehicles will also be seen on this train.

Does this happen more often with hybrids or is it more of a myth?

Particularly among groups that are skeptical of wolves (e.g., livestock farmers and hunters), there is a widespread myth that hybrids exist in large numbers. And scientists will not recognize them. There are also reports of research results regarding this.

If you look closely, you will see that this subject is very well researched in Europe. In reality, there are always hybrids between wolves and dogs. Some parts of the world have relatively high numbers of wild wolf-dog hybrids, such as southern Europe in Tuscany and Croatia. However, this is extremely rare as there are very few stray dogs north of the Alps. So far, five matings have taken place in Germany out of hundreds of wolf pairs. Therefore, the rate is very low. But it can still happen. It happens sometimes.

What’s actually wrong with hybrids?

If it occurs in small amounts, it is probably not a problem. It’s more about worrying the public and of course the people who make it a problem. Many believe that hybrid wolves can be more dangerous than regular wolves. This is due to the suspected danger of wolves, combined with their friendliness towards humans and shorter flight distances than domestic dogs. However, existing research suggests that wild hybrids generally behave similarly to wolves. That they have the same food spectrum and are kept at the same distance as humans. This is because wolves are most often mothers of wolf-dog hybrids and raise their pups on their own. In Tuscany, for example, this has been well studied.

But there’s a problem. And that’s species conservation. There are well over 100 million domestic dogs in Europe, as well as several thousand wolves. Even if interbreeding occurred only occasionally, over the course of several decades or centuries, the wolf species could simply disappear. Genetically she is likely to be eaten by dogs. Then there would be no more wolves, only hybrids. That’s why science doesn’t actually want hybrids. You should remove them if possible. In practice, this usually means being shot.

What do I need to test my DNA?

As part of our wolf monitoring, we specialize in examining environmental signatures. This means that you don’t necessarily need a blood sample from an animal that has been in an accident or cannot be obtained from a live animal. We work with trace materials found outdoors. These are often fecal samples that wolves use to mark their territory. This will give you information about the boundaries of your territory and who your parents are. Brandenburg does this regularly to count pucks. Genetics can help with this. These can be hair samples, traces of urine in the snow, or the residue of torn saliva from livestock such as sheep.

In places where there are a lot of wolves, wolves are often the culprit.

And in the case of the last hound attacked in Brandenburg, is it possible that the dogs still alive have traces?

Yes, you can also secure traces of animals that are still alive. However, there is no guarantee that you will be able to obtain materials from attacking animals. This is especially a problem with dogs. You will be able to find traces of this dog and possibly other dogs that the dog has come into contact with. DNA analysis is very sensitive and often detects multiple species or multiple animals.

In the past, we have assisted several times in the past to resolve suspected wolf attacks on dogs.

How often, in what percentage of the incidents you investigated, were wolves? Or were they more often dogs or foxes?

It depends on what kind of animal was attacked. If a dog is attacked, it could be another dog. So far this is the usual case. If you look at the number of common DNA analyses, most of them come from cunning livestock such as sheep, and in rare cases from cows. For example, in Brandenburg he tested 640 DNA samples in 2023. Of those, 508 were from wolves. The pet dog was attacked 28 times. In most cases of livestock damage, wolves are the cause.

The situation is different in other parts of Germany, where there are fewer wolves than there are in Brandenburg. In southwestern Germany, for example, many samples were tested, and the results showed that it was far more likely to be a dog or a fox.

In places where there are a lot of wolves, wolves are often the culprit. If the number of wolves is not large yet, but they may be very excited because the first wolves have appeared, samples are sent from animals that were not killed at all but were stillborn, or perhaps died from disease. This often happens. Disease – and the fox sometimes acted as a secondary user.

How much does your DNA test cost and who pays for it?

The test usually costs between 100 and 150 euros. It depends on whether you just want to identify the species or take genetic fingerprints. Using the last one, you can determine if the individual is a wolf. Rush samples are even more expensive. The environmental authority responsible for monitoring wolves pays us this money.

Four wolf cubs are playing in the grass in the Doberitzer Heide, one of which has a bone in its muzzle.  (Source: DPA/Ingolf König-Jablonski)

It is said that a wolf attacked a hunting dog.

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The price range is similar to that of a paternity test.

Yes, but it is more labor intensive for us than a paternity test. The latter are highly standardized and usually involve standardized sampling as well. On the other hand, we need to test environmental samples, which is very complex. Often only very small amounts of DNA are present. Perhaps the effort is actually greater. However, we test thousands of samples each year and are fully funded through cost reimbursement.

How long should I wait for results and why can it sometimes take several days?

It’s getting a little worse due to Corona. [, was ein schnelles Testergebnis angeht, Anm. d. Redaktion]. However, the urgency was much greater and significant funds were invested in developing highly efficient testing methods. The process is also easier and faster. This is much more difficult for us. This is due to non-standardized sampling, many environmental influences, and the fact that multiple species are included in the sample. And no one is more urgent than the pandemic. The DNA is sequenced and, in cases of suspicion, genetic fingerprints are taken. These are much longer steps. Once the sample arrives at the lab, species identification takes an average of 4 to 5 days. If the individual is still identified, it may take several more days. It may take 1 to 2 weeks.

Thank you for the interview.

Interview conducted by Sabine Priess (rbb|24).



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