Most of the Allegheny Plateau in West Virginia has been abandoned. Where once homesteaders grazed herds of cattle and flocks of sheep steep ridgetop pastures and grew corn and oats in rocky river bottom fields, the forest has returned. It is not the forest primeval that stood here when the first European came. Instead, it is the forest of relatively young trees that allow quite a bit of undergrowth to flourish. Everywhere there are edifices of autumn olive and strands of the multiflora rose that stretch out their thorny branches in wads and entanglements of organic barbed wire.
It is the closest thing to a temperate jungle that I can imagine. Even if the hills were cleared of brush, the land would be hard to traverse. Steep hillsides and narrow ravines dominate the topography, and if you have to negotiate the thorny bushes as well as watch where you put your feet, it is impossible to move easily through the country. The only respite are are these flattened out areas that are known as benches, where the oak trees grow tall and you can stand up without being totally lopsided.
But in these often impenetrable temperate jungles, there are plenty of wild beasts. When the land was intensively farmed and grazed, the main wildlife were bobwhites, rabbits, and red foxes. But as restored woodland, they are home to a growing populations of black bears, Eastern coyotes, wild turkeys, and white-tailed deer.
These animals are better hidden in the thickets, and the bears, deer, and turkeys are better fed with the acorns from red and white oaks.
A jungle can be fine with all these creatures roaming it, but what it really needs is a tiger.
Of course, the Americas have only one pantherine, and jaguars don’t live here.
There were once many cougars roaming this land, but they were soon killed off in the name of progress and civilization.
One cat remained, a diminutive lynx that we call the bobcat, but those in the true Southern Appalachians call “wildcats,” perhaps in confusion with the Scottish feline that is actually part of the same species as the domestic moggie.
Bobcats, like all other Lynx, descend from the Issoire lynx of Eurasia. This cat was large and robust, and it was more than capable of bringing down deer-sized prey. The modern Eurasian lynx is still a fairly large cat that hunts a lot of deer, and when the ancestral lynx came into North America, it was forced to become smaller in order to fit a new niche as a somewhat lesser cat.
The bobcat lineage has been in North America for around 2.6 million years. They’ve been the little cats that lived among the Smilodons, jaguars, and American lions. They lived as the secondary cat to the cougar when Europeans arrived.
They are survivors, and they do so because they are so elusive. I know some of my readers in the West see bobcats fairly regularly, but I have never seen one on the wild. The closest I ever came to one is when my dad hit one with a car while I was sitting in the backseat.
I see their tracks and bleached white scat in the woods, and I’ve been able to get bobcats on trail camera a few times.
But this week, I tried out a new camera that has low glow technology, and I got this photo of a bobcat standing right in front of the device. It just sits there while the camera takes photos, and the last photo on the set is the cat turning to go back into the woods.
I’ve not been able to get anything like this with the older cameras. They make too much noise, and the red lights scare off the predators. Setting up flashing red lights that go all night are a common tool that is used to protect poultry from bobcats and foxes, so it makes sense that switching the technology would have a much better result.
This camera has been able to photograph an animal as elusive as a bobcat. This impresses me very much. It’s a Moultrie 1100i, a bit pricier than the models I’ve used before.
But if the results are this good, I wonder what else I’ll capture with it.
It finally got me a good image of this beast, the tiger of the Allegheny jungle. It returned to its lair in the thorny thickets and steep ravines.
Hooked claws and springing muscles and piercing canines are its living. Its squalls in the night air announce its savagery and its simple independence. It lives according to the edicts of meat and the edicts of bobcat behavior. It stands up to coyotes that dare to take its kills and bluffs off stupid dogs who think they’ve just encountered an overgrown barn cat.
It lives hissing and spitting and squalling.
Yet it does so with an elegance that can be seen only in the cat family.
If any beast met the West Virginia slogan of “wild and wonderful,” it is the bobcat.
The wild and wonderful tiger of the Allegheny jungles.
When it comes to predators, we like to think that it’s the large predators that dominate the landscape.
And where they still exist, they are quite impressive.
But the world that now exists is not necessarily friendly to these larger meat-eaters. Indeed, if you look up the population stats of virtually every terrestrial carnivoran that weighs over 100 pounds, you will find that almost all of them are in decline.
The world is so much nicer for the little ones.
Where once the Holarctic wolf pretty much ran over the entire Holarctic, the most common wild dog roaming its former range is the red fox*,
Red foxes, unlike wolves, really do well in a world dominated by modern civilization. A red fox can be a bit of a problem with poultry, and they do take a few lambs. But unless you have sheep or free range poultry, the worst red foxes can do to you is give your dog mange.
Wolves need large game meat in their diet. There is no way of getting around it. They have to kill large ungulates to survive, and we humans value our domestic ungulates almost beyond all reason.
To be able to kill such large quarry, wolves have evolved fairly large size, which varies with the subspecies, powerful jaws, and fairly large brains that require consuming lots of red meat to maintain.
Even when meat is easily accessible, wolves have ways of maintaining their populations. They live in territories. They have social suppression of estrus and behavioral mechanisms that prevent every bitch wolf from producing a litter every season.
Red foxes don’t rely upon meat alone. They are quite omnivorous, consuming everything from fruit to earthworms, but they can do very well without ever killing anything larger than a rabbit.
The fortunes of these two species have sort of been a yin and yang. As our species has become more technologically advanced, we’ve been able to push wolves out of the best possible habitat, and we’ve created a paradise for red foxes, where there are plenty of rodents and lots of garbage to sustain them. And we’ve killed off all the things that like to kill them, like wolves.
The red fox is what we would call the quintessential mesopredator. A mesopredator is an animal that hunts for much of its food, but in “normal” circumstances, it has to worry about larger predators killing it. Because of ti has had to worry about predation from other predators, this species will tend to have reproductive capabilities that are far greater than any of its larger enemies.
So when you remove the larger predator, the smaller predator’s population expands unchecked, causing knock-off effects in the ecosystem, where the small quarry that the mesopredator hunts winds up with much more pressure than it normally would have.
So in the case of red foxes, ground-nesting birds would be the ones to experience distress.
This is called “mesopredator release.” and it’s an idea that ecologists are studying with more and more interest.
In the Old World, the red fox and the wolf are in a dualistic, mutually exclusive situation.
In North America, the fall the wolf has not been followed by dualism.
It’s been followed by synthesis.
When Europeans came into this continent, there were plenty of wolves and plenty of coyotes. We killed both without every really paying attention to what we were looking at, and because we weren’t paying attention, it’s actually pretty hard to estimate where coyotes were originally found.
Generally, it’s believed they lived in the Western half of the continent, from the Prairie Provinces of Canada to about Nicaragua.
We killed the coyotes the same way we killed wolves. We used all sorts poisons, traps, and hunting dogs, Wolf numbers fell in the Lower 48.
Coyote numbers expanded.
The reason why is that coyotes are a mesopredator. Coyotes evolved on this continent with all sorts of really impressive carnivorans, including things like American lions, Smilodon cats, jaguars, and dire wolves. Like the red fox of the Old World, it had to be able to rebuild its numbers fairly quickly
So when coyotes were taken with the wolves, the wolves’ social behavior and reproductive physiology prevented them from recovering. And the coyotes were able replace those missing numbers rapidly, and because they no longer had to worry about wolves, they were able to expand into new territories. Their range today includes every province in Canada, including Prince Edward Island and the island of Newfoundland. They are found in all the states of the United States but Hawaii– they just can’t swim that well. And they are from from Alaska to Panama– almost the entire North American continent.
The story of coyotes appears to follow that of the red fox, but there is a twist.
Coyotes come from a lineage of dogs in which nearly every species has been seen engaging in cooperative hunting behavior. Because they are larger than red foxes, they can take fairly large prey if they work together.
But they don’t actually have to do this in order to survive. They can live nicely on rabbits and rodents. They’ll happily eat garbage with the raccoons and eat fallen apples in abandoned orchards.
And they are just the right size that they don’t have to kill large ungulates to survive, but they are also of the right size where they could hunt ungulates if they wanted to.
They are also just the right size to where most other predators won’t kill them. It’s true that cougars do kill coyotes, but in most of the US and Canada, they are the top dog. They only predators they would have are people.
Evolution also gave coyotes an advantage that red foxes never could have experienced. Coyotes have not lost chemical interfertility with wolves or domestic dogs (domesticated wolves). This means that some coyote populations have been able access some new characteristics that aid them in this new lifestyle. Coyotes hybridized with wolves in Eastern Canada, which gave them larger jaws and teeth to assist in the pursuit of deer, and domestic dogs have introduced all sorts of weird phenotypes– and maybe some new immune system genes too..
A true generalist sort of canid has taken over North America.
This development should not be a surprise. More derived and specialized forms tend to be more vulnerable then primitive generalists.
And the best way to think of coyotes is they represent a primitive lineage of wolf. The ancestor of all wolves was something like a coyote that wound up developing specializations for hunting large game in cooperative family units.
But the coyote in North America retained the basic “template” that allowed Canis dogs to spread throughout the Old World.
And as we’re now seeing, this template– with a few tweaks introduced through hybridization– has produced a species that can thrive in just about every environment that can found on this continent.
Including major urban centers, like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
The North American superwolf is not a giant fell beast of the Pleistocene.
It’s the mid-sized dog that lurks in the shadows, living by its wits and keen senses and its most catholic diet.
It is wolf enough to hunt large quarry and fox enough to eat mice.
Melanistic and silver-phase melanistic foxes are not that unusual in North America.
But in Europe, anything other than the typical red-pelted dog with black stockings is virtually unheard of.
However, a wildlife photographer named Robert Fuller has managed to capture a few photos of a young silver fox in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
Another naturalist captured footage of the fox playing with a red vixen, and Fuller set up for this one.
The leaves started to change en masse last weekend. I forgot to upload the photos from the camera, but I remembered to do it today. Enjoy.
Look at the antlers on that stag!
It was a 60 pound button buck, and he and his sister came in. She ran off three times and came back. I didn’t want to take a little deer. He just stood there, and well, I thought: “What would a wolf or cougar do?”
The Rage broadhead took him quickly.
So one deer off my license for bow season.
I have found that this little blind works well with these pressured little Allegheny mountain deer:
I also weighs only 14 pounds and comes in a backpack, and it also takes 5 minutes to set up.
And you can shoot a crossbow or a compound bow inside it!
I’m not here to revel in gore. Deer populations have to be managed, and last year, the bumper white oak acorn mast meant that many more does than normal would have twins. This year’s acorn mast isn’t as impressive, which means lots of little dear like this button buck will starve to death, wind up hit by a car, or eaten by coyotes. In the dead cold of February, when the acorns are all gone, he won’t be among those starving. And his share of food will go to a more wary deer.
That’s how it’s gone on for millions of years, and humans have been hunting deer here for maybe 13,000 years.
And it will continue on.