Conservation news

Unprecedented sightings of maned wolves in Amazon herald a changing landscape

  • The maned wolf has been spotted 22 times in the Amazon over the past 25 years, 10 of those times in areas where it had never been seen before.
  • Scientists posit that South America’s largest canine is spreading north as human-driven deforestation and climate change eat away at the fringes of the Amazon, turning the rainforest into the dry shrubland that the maned wolf is accustomed to.
  • In its traditional range across the Cerrado savanna, the maned wolf is being squeezed into increasingly fragmented spaces and pushed into human areas.
  • This puts it at risk of being hit by vehicles, catching disease from domestic pets, and being killed by farmers.

A mammal native to South America’s savannas, the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) now lives in the Amazon Rainforest. That’s the finding of a recent study by researchers in the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso, Amazonas and Rondônia, which recorded 22 sightings of maned wolves in the Amazon over the past two decades. Ten were in new territory, effectively widening the animals’ normal geographic distribution by more than 51,000 square kilometers (20,000 square miles).

“Our data raise the hypothesis that the maned wolf’s distribution has been expanding, given the fact that sightings in these new regions have been very recent,” says study co-author Almério Câmara Gusmão from the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA).

Historically, the Amazonian biome marks the northern boundary of the maned wolf’s known range. But human occupation where the rainforest borders the Cerrado biome has brought about serious changes to the natural landscape over the past 50 years. Native rainforest vegetation has largely been replaced by pasture and grain monoculture, making it more appropriate for the propagation of native savanna species like the wolf apple (Solanum lycocarpum). As the name suggests, this wild tomato species is a fundamental part of the maned wolf’s diet — another reason why it’s now being spotted well outside its normal range.

Intensive deforestation, fires, and a warming climate are wreaking unprecedented impacts on the Amazon. A study published last year in the journal Environmental Science and Policy shows how the shrubland and savanna of the Cerrado are bleeding into the Amazon as a result of these factors. As intense changes in soil use and coverage inside the so-called Arc of Deforestation spread, the study suggests that a new boundary be drawn, showing a different transition from one biome to the next than the currently accepted zone. As the maned wolf’s natural habitat is in grassland, shrub areas and savanna, the newly deforested areas and the transition from Cerrado to Amazon have made the species’ range expansion easier.

But some experts say the animals sighted are not necessarily part of established populations. They’ve been spotted occasionally, mostly in recently deforested areas that are becoming pastureland. In contrast, there are established populations in the Atlantic Rainforest, such as in Itatiaia National Park between the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, and in the Paraíba Valley between São Paulo and Minas Gerais states. In both regions, the maned wolf has occupied previously deforested but recovering areas, avoiding the damp rainforest, as shown in the doctoral thesis of Rogério Cunha de Paula at Universidade de São Paulo (USP).

Locations of new maned wolf sightings reported in the study are indicated by white circles. Yellow circles indicate sightings from the literature. The green area represents the Amazon; the orange is the Cerrado and, in light yellow, areas that have lost their original vegetation to deforestation. Image © 2020 da Silva et al.

Loss of habitat is greatest threat

The maned wolf, chosen to be on Brazil’s new 200-real bill that was issued in September, is considered near threatened on the IUCN Red List, and vulnerable by the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity (ICMBio), the administrative arm of Brazil’s Ministry of Environment. The Cerrado biome, which is its main habitat, lost 28.5 million hectares (70.4 million acres) of native vegetation between 1985 and 2019, a far greater proportion of its land area than any other biome in Brazil, according to a MapBiomas study. In absolute terms, the Amazon lost the greatest amount of tree cover, while Brazil as a whole lost native vegetation cover equivalent to 10% of its national territory over the same period.

Loss of its natural habitat is the most significant threat to the maned wolf, South America’s largest canine species. There are an estimated 24,000 of the animals in Brazil, only 4% of them inside conservation areas. Gusmão says the conclusions of the new study warn that “changes in habitat can bring about many behavioral changes in wild species, as is happening with the maned wolf.”

The conversion of the maned wolf’s natural areas of occurrence to urban area or farmland increases the potential threats. It means a compromised environment with less prey and fruit available, exposure to pesticides, the proliferation of highways where wildlife are frequently hit and killed by vehicles, disease resulting from contact with domesticated animals, and aggression from humans, especially because maned wolves are known to prey on domesticated birds like chickens.

In addition, the fragmentation of native vegetation means access to adjacent areas is limited, reducing connectivity and leaving certain populations isolated. These populations become subject to inbreeding, running the risk of losing their genetic diversity and dying off. This makes the survival of the species particularly dependent on the mosaic of permanent preservation areas (PPAs), conservation units (CUs), and legal reserves on private properties.

This combination of factors means the maned wolf is unable to reproduce at the same speed as it is losing individuals. In addition, half the population is either too young or too old to reproduce. Experts from the Lobos da Canastra conservation project estimate that only one or two pups born in a litter of five may survive to reproductive age. The species is in decline and, in certain places like the Pampas, where sightings are few and far between, nearly extinct.

In search of safe territory

Maned wolf conservation projects follow specific strategies to solve the problems in each region. The Lobos da Canastra project, which works in Serra da Canastra National Park in Minas Gerais, focuses on the part of the Cerrado with the largest concentration of the species, some 200 animals. At one point, the main problem there was hunting. Aside from research carried out on the animals, many environmental education measures were implemented to improve local inhabitants’ perception of the wolves, including individual actions to reduce conflict, especially with chicken farmers. Between 2007 and 2015, 150 chicken coops were built on farms adjacent to the park. Today, people rarely kill wolves in the region.

The Pro-Carnivores Institute in São Paulo state takes a “one health” approach, which focuses on health care for domesticated animals, wild animals, and the environment at large. In general, improving connectivity of native vegetation and the maned wolf’s habitats are the main objectives of conservation projects for the species.

Banner image of a maned wolf by Tambako The Jaguar via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 19, 2020.