A Mexican wolf born this month at a wildlife center in suburban St. Louis is offering new hope for repopulating the endangered species through artificial insemination using frozen sperm.
The Mexican wolf population once roamed Mexico and the western U.S. in the thousands but was nearly wiped out by the 1970s, largely from decades of hunting, trapping and poisoning. Commonly known as "El Lobos," the species, distinguished by a smaller, more narrow skull and its gray and brown coloring, was designated an endangered species in 1976.
Even today, only 130 Mexican wolves live in the wild and another 220 live in captivity, including 20 at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri.
A litter of Mexican wolves was conceived by artificial insemination in Mexico in 2014. But the birth April 2 at the Missouri center was the first-ever for the breed using frozen semen.
Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the center, learned for the first time Monday that the pup is a boy. He's gaining weight — now at 4.7 pounds after being less than 1 pound at birth — and appears to be progressing well, she said after an exam of the wiggly pup, which has not yet been named.
"He's big and strong and healthy!" Mossotti said as other wolves howled from a distance.
The center has collaborated with the other organizations for 20 years to freeze semen of Mexican wolves. The semen is stored at the St. Louis Zoo's cryopreservation gene bank, established specifically for the long-term conservation of endangered species.
A procedure to inseminate the mom, Vera, was performed Jan. 27.
"The technology has finally caught up," Mossotti said.
It's a big deal, experts say, because using frozen semen allows scientists to draw from a larger pool of genes, even from wolves that have died.
Mossotti said it's possible the new pup will eventually be moved to the wild, where it would feed largely on elk, deer and other large hoofed mammals. An adult Mexican wolf will weigh 60 to 80 pounds.
The Fish and Wildlife Service began reintroducing Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona starting in 1998, though the effort has been hurt by everything from politics to illegal killings and genetics. Many of the wolves in the wild have genetic ties to the suburban St. Louis center.
The nonprofit was founded in 1971 by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a St. Louis native best known as the host of TV's "Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom." Perkins died in 1986.
Mossotti said wolves are a "keystone" species that play a vital role in a healthy ecosystem. She said the caricature of the "Big, Bad Wolf" is a myth about an animal that actually shuns humans.