Ron Wooten had a rough introduction to the coyotes of Galveston, Texas. A pack ran off with his dog one night. But the experience turned into a fascination with the canids.

They didn’t look like other coyotes (Canis latrans). He began to wonder, could they have genetic traces of the red wolves that were once abundant in the region. His suspicion was right. Biologists believe these genes could benefit a captive breeding program meant to return the critically endangered wolves to the wild.

“It was a real validation, I think, to the people on the ground—the naturalists and the photographers on the ground saying, ‘We have something special here,’” TWS member Kristin Brzeski, a conservation geneticist, told the New York Times.