An unusual animal once roamed the Savannah River Site. Nobody knows how it got there, or exactly what it was.
The mysteries surrounding the strange creature will probably never be solved.
In 2010, researchers working at the U.S. Department of Energy facility found a beast they thought was a huge female coyote.
“She was wolf-like in size and appearance, but she also looked like a great big coyote,” said John Kilgo, a research wildlife biologist with the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station. “Everybody who saw her was shocked by how large she was.”
The scientists were conducting a study about the effect of removing coyotes on the survival of baby deer when they captured the super-sized animal. She weighed 64 pounds, which was surprising because adult coyotes typically weigh 20 to 50 pounds.
Testing revealed the odd creature had gray wolf DNA in her genetic makeup.
“The classification of canids, which include dogs, wolves and coyotes, is complicated and controversial because so much hybridization has gone on for thousands of years,” Kilgo said. “When you get an animal like this and try to put it in a pigeonhole as one or the other, it's not black and white.”
Because the testing wasn't sophisticated enough, it couldn't answer all the questions that the researchers had.
“All I can tell you is that there was some wolf DNA in her, but I can't tell you how much,” Kilgo said. “We can't say whether she was a full-blooded wolf, a first generation hybrid with a coyote parent and a wolf parent, or coyote that just had some wolf DNA in her from way back in her genetic lineage hundreds of generations ago.”
As part of the study's protocol, the scientists euthanized their surprising find, and there are no plans to analyze her hereditary material further.
“The contract lab in Canada that did the testing for us might still have sufficient tissue that they could work from, and we have a skull,” Kilgo said. “Out of curiosity, it would be interesting to find out more, but there isn't any money for that.”
A group of reintroduced red wolves live in the wild in eastern North Carolina. However, the testing done on the scientists' discovery “suggested” her tissue contained “gray wolf DNA from the Great Lakes region,” Kilgo said.
No other animal like it was found among the nearly 500 coyotes involved in the study. Nothing else like it has been spotted among the other coyotes observed at the Savannah River Site.
“The bottom line is that we don't know where she came from,” Kilgo said. “But we do know there are wolves in captivity all over the continent, and that people move wolves as well as coyotes around, legally and illegally. It's impossible to tell whether she was an animal that escaped from captivity or was released illegally somewhere nearby. It's not impossible that she came here from the Great Lakes region, but it's highly unlikely.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.