Major histocompatibility complex variation in red wolves: evidence for common ancestry with coyotes and balancing selection


P. W. Hedrick. E-mail:


We examined variation at a class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene (DRB1) in the captive red wolf population and samples of coyotes from Texas and North Carolina. We found 4 alleles in the 48 red wolves, 8 alleles in the 10 coyotes from Texas and 15 alleles in the 29 coyotes from North Carolina. Two of the four alleles found in red wolves, Caru-2 and Caru-4, were found in both the Texas and North Carolina coyote samples. Allele Caru-1, previously found in gray wolves, was also found in the North Carolina sample. The most frequent red wolf allele, Caru-3, was not found in any of the coyote samples. However, an allele found in both the Texas and North Carolina coyote samples is only one nucleotide (one amino acid) different from this red wolf allele. Overall, it appears from examination of this MHC gene that red wolves are more closely related to coyotes than to gray wolves. There were a number of different types of evidence supporting the action of balancing selection in red wolves. Namely, there was: (i) an excess of heterozygotes compared with expectations; (ii) a higher rate of nonsynonymous than synonymous substitution for the functionally important antigen-binding site positions; (iii) an eight times higher average heterozygosity of individual amino acids at the positions identified as part of the antigen-binding site than those not associated with it; (iv) the amino acid divergence of four red wolf alleles was greater than that expected from a simulation of genetic drift; and (v) the distribution of alleles, and the distributions of amino acids at many positions were more even than expected from neutrality. Examination of the level and pattern of linkage disequilibria between pairs of sites suggest that the heterozygosity, substitution and frequencies at individual amino acids are not highly dependent upon each other.