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Archive for May, 2009

The Heck Brothers

Heck cattle

Heck cattle

The Lutz and Heinz Heck were two German zoologists who were rather caught up in the lore and romance of German nationalism. Ever since the unification of Germany, German scholars and naturalists were trying to recreate the ancient German animals of the supposed Teutonic Golden Age.

The Hecks were responsible for recreating a cow that looked a lot like the aurochs, the wild Eurasian ox from whence domestic cattle descend. (Indian cattle descend from another subspecies of aurochs, which is why they are bit different). These cattle are called Heck cattle, and they can be found in parks and reserves throughout Europe today. They are not aurochs, however. They are nothing more than a selectively-bred strain of domestic cattle that descends from known domestic strains. The cattle do look a lot like the aurochsen that are depicted at the “Hall of Bulls” at the Lascaux caves.

They also tried to recreate the European wild horse called the Tarpan. The Heck horse resembles Przewalski’s horse in some ways, but like the Heck cattle, the Heck horses are derived from domestic breeds. They have been selected for their “wild” appearance.

Now, the Hecks did try to pass their animals off as recreated versions of the extinct animals. This is a bit like me taking my golden boxer and promoting her as a St. John’s water dog.

Now, the Nazis embraced the Heck brothers’ work. Their work fit into the romantic German nationalism that they embraced as the basis of their politics. Now, the Nazis also included horrible anti-Semitism and eugenics principles, but all of these things worked together. The Hecks were scientific heroes in Nazi Germany, but their cows were not aurochsen and their horses were not tarpans.

One does not have to be a Nazi to want to “breed back” extinct forms. The Cavalier King Charles spaniel is a breed that was bred back, as is the Irish wolfhound. Farley Mowat, who tried to save the St. John’s water dog, is a left-winger, a former member of the New Democratic Party of Canada and a current supporter of the Green Party.

But sometimes these innocent romantic notions wind up being used for odious political gains. And this was the case of the Heck brothers’ animal enterprises.

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bulldog skull

bulldog skull

Some veterinarians are trying to increase public awareness of bulldog health issues. This movement was started by Dr. Meredith Kennedy, who had seen too many bulldogs die of relatively common and easily preventable diseases. She has a list of 25 veterinarians who are providing analysis of the bulldog’s unique physical conditions and its various health problems.

I will definitely link to this website once it is up.

Bulldogs can be good family dogs, but they can’t be kept by the casual dog owner. Their biggest problem is that they cannot adequately cool themselves, and they very easily can overheat. Some individuals also have an elongated soft palate, which jams in their trachea, preventing the dog from breathing.

I’ve never actually wanted a bulldog. For one thing, they can’t swim very well, and secondly, they aren’t the easiest dog to train. Further, they don’t live very long. I’d rather get 13 years out of a golden retriever than 6 out of a bulldog.

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The males have these long claws on their front legs. If kept away from a female, he may be seen swimming around his tank while doing this bizarre ritual:

Source.

For those people who claim this is a dominance ritual– turtles don’t have dominance hierarchies. You have to have a brain larger than a pin’s head to have a dominance hierarchy. They do have territorial behavior, and sometimes  they do use mating behavior as territorial behavior. I think it’s because people watch things like the Dog Whisperer that they think that all animal behavior can be reduced to dominance and submission. Well, that’s not true in dogs, and it’s certainly not true in more primitive animals.

When he gets a female in his tank, he does rakes his claws around her head. Apparently, female pond sliders like their men with cuticles like Edward Scissorhands.

Source
Pond sliders aren’t native to my part of the country, but you can find them here. The red-eared subspecies is so common in the pet trade, and most people don’t know how to care for an aquatic turtle. When these things outgrow their tanks or their food bill becomes too high, their owners release them into the wild. Like this fellow. (NEVER EVER RELEASE PET ANIMALS INTO THE WILD. NEVER.)

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The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

The St. John's water dog in this photo looks an awful lot like a Labrador/collie-type cross. Any dogs that look like St. John's water dogs are Labrador crosses or Labs that are throwbacks to that breed.

Now, I haven’t received any comments or messages yet from people claiming to have a St. John’s water dog, but before I do, I’ll just say it again. The St. John’s water dog died out in the 1980’s. The last two dogs were found. They were both dogs, and they were both ancient. When they died, the strain was no more.

Now, does that mean we won’t see Labs with St. John’s water dog features? Of course not, and that is precisely the problem. Within the Labrador, the blood of this breed runs strongest. The Lab is the last retriever breed to receive an infusion of this native Newfoundland blood. St. John’s water dogs were imported as late as the 1940’s to add genetic diversity to the Buccleuch strain, which is the strain from whence the Labrador retriever came.

Now, some Labrador crosses really do look like the old breed:

Labrador cross

And it’s not just Labrador crosses that could be mistaken for the St. John’s water dog.  Because the genes this breed also run strongly in the other retriever breeds, it is possible to get mixed breeds from other retrievers that bear a strong resemblance to the St. John’s water dog.

I know these dogs exist because I had one. Remember my “golden boxer”?

golden boxer standing

I also need to mention that it is pretty clear that the original imports of the St. John’s water dog to Britain often included long-haired dogs. That’s because the  long-haired dogs were deemed too cumbersome in the water. Ice tended to form in their feathering, and the dogs just couldn’t swim that fast. However, they were often good retrievers and quite biddable, so they were exported to Britain, where they played a role in developing the wavy-coated landrace and the curly-coats. The short-haired dogs were too important to the fishermen of Newfoundland.

I have found two specimens of the St. John’s water dog that had long hair.

One of them is this dog, listed as a”St. John’s Labrador”:

st. john's water dog with long-hair

Another is t “Zelstone,” who appears in the extended pedigree of the golden retriever and was an important sire in the old wavy-coated breed. That means he’s an ancestor of the golden retriever and many flat-coat. He is said to be a “Labrador,” a “half-bred Newfoundland,” a “Newfoundland,” and a “wavy-coated retriever.” His original owners were known to import dogs from Newfoundland, so it is very possible that he was derived from the St. John’s water dog or was partially of that breeding.

Zelstone

Zelstone

Now, all of these dogs look like modern dogs. The modern dogs are almost invariably crosses with the descendants of the St. John’s water dog or throwbacks to that old strain.

The St. John’s water dog as it once existed is gone forever. Within the bloodlines of the retrievers and the modern Newfoundland, the blood still flows. Those breeds are our only connection to that extinct breed.

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This American mink and her kit are close relatives of the extinct sea mink.

This American mink and her kit are close relatives of the extinct sea mink.

The sea mink article can be found here.

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st. john's water dog with long-hair

I knew it!

Farley Mowat did breed Albert.  Albert, it turns out, was a very rare find in Newfoundland of those days.

Mowat bred Albert to a Labrador, which is the closest thing to a St. John’s Labrador. He hoped the pups would have the big white spot on the chest that Albert possessed. Unfortunately, the pups were all solid black in color.

It also turns out that Farley Mowat was in contact with the early Portuguese water dog fanciers in North America. It turns out that Mowat had actually researched the breed’s origin all the way back to the Portuguese water dog through to that Russian (which I think is really Central Asian) herding dog landrace. He also traced the Portuguese Water dog’s origins through Turkey, which is why the dogs were called “Turkish dogs” in Spain and Portugal.

I wish Farley Mowat had pursued this more. He could have saved a Newfoundland icon, and it would have made a hell of a good book!

If Farley Mowat found one St. John’s water dog during that time period, there had to have been at least a couple of dozen of them in Newfoundland. That would be enough to recreate the breed using the more diverse retriever breeds as outcrosses. Even the Portuguese water dog and the poodle could have been used, for they are also part of this retriever/water dog family.

Now, if Mowat traced these dogs to Russia, then maybe a close relative is the strange “Russian retriever” that appears in Hugh Dalziel’s British Dogs. I thought this breed was a Russian water dog similar to the poodle. (There was a Russian poodle, but it was more gracile in its build and smaller in size.)

It’s a very interesting find. I wonder why Mowat didn’t pursue his attempt at breed preservation further. I think if he could have gotten several interested breeders together they would have save this breed from extinction, and then I could say the Labrador retriever and all other retrievers descends from a dog that still walks this earth, sniffing the earth and wagging its otter-like tail, and not some extinct animal from the annals of history.

Interestingly, the two dog pups in the litter Albert sired went to Prime Minister Trudeau and Soviet Premier Kosygin. Now, the latter I find interesting.

Former Russian president Vladimir Putin has a Labrador named Koni. Koni is descended froma  Labrador owned by Leonid Brezhnev. I don’t know if his dog descended from Kosygin’s Labrador, but it’s possible. And if she does, then she’s got a little Albert in her. (I don’t know how we’re suppose to take this, but Koni is rumored to be named after Condoleeza Rice.)

I would love it if Koni was a descendant of Albert.

One can only hope, although I don’t think it’s very likely.

So Farley Mowat may have tried to save the “black water dogs,” and there was definitely a story to tell.

See earlier post.

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Shamanu

The Shamanu is an extinct subspecies of wolf native to Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. It was a tiny wolf, standing only about a foot at the shoulder and weighing only about 15 pounds. The reed wolf of Hungary could be an undiscovered smaller subspecies of wolf.

In the south of Hungary, there are extensive swamps of reeds, and in them exists an enigmatic canid. It described as a small wolf, not unlike a North American coyote. However, the native wolf of Hungary is the Eurasian or common wolf (Canis lupus lupus). It is much larger than a coyote, approaching the size of a German shepherd (at least a normal sized one). If the Reed wolf is not a common wolf,  then what is it?

There are four possible hypotheses: 1. It’s an unknown subspecies of wolf. 2. It’s an unknown species of canid. 3. It’s a European golden jackal, which are know to inhabit the Balkans. 4.  It’s a hybrid between a wolf and a golden jackal, which rarely occur in the wild. Let’s then explore these hypotheses.

As for the first hypothesis, we actually don’t know how many species or subspecies of wolf exist in the world. The exact taxonomy is greatly debated in wolf expert circles, with some arguing that all wolves are members of a single species, Canis lupus, and others claiming that the Eastern North American wolf (C. l. lycaon or C. lycaon), the Red wolf (C.l. rufus or C. rufus), the Indian wolf (C. l. pallipes or C. indica) and the Tibetan wolf (C. l. laniger or C. himalayensis) are separate species. I am of the camp that there is only one rather genetically diverse species of wolf, and this species includes the animals we call the domestic dog,  the dingo, and the New Guinea singing dog. However, this question becomes complicated with the animal formerly known as the Simien jackal is now considered to be much more closely related to wolves than jackals. In fact, we now consider it to be the Ethiopian wolf. Where it fits in this taxonomic muddle is even more contentious. If the reed wolf is a subspecies of wolf, then we will have an even more contentious piece to properly assign the correct taxonomy.

Now,  the next question is whether a wolf could be as small as  coyote or jackal. The answer is yes. The Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs) often weighs as little as 25 pounds, which is about the size of a Southwestern coyote bitch. Further, an extinct subspecies of wolf once existed called the Shamanu or Honshu wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax), which was found on Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu in Japan. It stood only 12-14 inches at the shoulder and weighed as little as 15 pounds. It was an example of island dwarfing, and it is now considered to be the smallest subspecies of wolf that ever existed. Thus, we have several small subpecies of wolf that have existed.

I don’t know why a smaller race of wolf would evolve for the Reed swamps of Hungary, but it may be that there isn’t enough large prey in those swamps to sustain a large wolf.  However, it could be that this smaller wolf represents an earlier population of wolves that specialized in hunting smaller prey than the larger and more successful common wolf. As the common wolf moved into its territory, the Reed wolf was forced to the margins, which might explain why it’s not as commonly seen. After all, we know that in the American West, coyotes are forced to the margins of wolf territory. Coyotes are regularly killed by wolves, who see the smaller canid as a competitor.

Now, the next hypothesis is that it represents an unknown species of canid. As I said earlier, we don’t know how many species or subspecies of wolf exist. We also don’t know how many species of canid currently exist. There is some debate on whether the Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki is a separate species from the mainland raccoon dog, and the extinct warrah or Falklands wolf’s exact relationship to the other species of wild dog is unresolved. Further, we do get reports of unusual wild dogs throughout the world. Now, some of these might be unusual domestic dogs, which are the most diverse of all animals, hybrids between domestic dogs and other members of the genus Canis, or known canids with unusual conformation.

We also have these cryptid canines. I don’t think any of these things are hyenas or anything very unusual. Do keep in mind that hybridization among the genus Canis produces weird animals.  The Beast of Gevaudan, which killed lots of peasants in eighteenth century France, was most likely a hybrid between the common wolf and the Dogue de Bordeaux or similar molosser breed.  However, I wouldn’t be surprised if unknown species of wild dog exist. (BTW, the shunka wara’kin is not a hyena. It’s a poorly taxidermied wolf or wolf hybrid. The creature of legend is probably one of the large extinct hyenas that used to live around Beringia during the Pleistocene. The story of such large predatory animals most likely survived in Native American folklore. And I must repeat, hyenas are not dogs. They are in no way related to them. They are more closely related to cats than they are to dogs.)

Now, the third hypothesis is the one I think most likely, although it may have some aspects of the fourth hypothesis working with it. Golden jackals are found in Southeastern Europe from Bulgaria through the Southern Balkans to the Adriatic Coast. This range is a bit south of the Hungarian Reed Swamps where reports of the reed wolf have been reported.

However, it is not beyond reason that a golden jackal would move north into this region. Golden jackals have a wide range through North Africa, East Africa, and Asia. This range includes rather cold places, like the Caucasus and Central Asia. Further, we know that coyotes have spread their range very far to the north and east since European man extirpated the wolf from much of North America. ( However, it is now believed that coyotes were present in the East and were extirpated with the wolves. The coyotes then were able to recolonize the East far faster than the wolves were able to after the widespread killing stopped.)

Now common wolves in Eastern Europe do have some problems. There are less than 50 in the whole country, and they are not found in the reed swamps.  They are found in the eastern part of Hungary, not the south.

However, it is possible that the animal seen in the reed swamps is a hybrid. Wolves (including all animals though of as Canis lupus and the Ethiopian wolf), golden jackals, and coyotes can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. It is thought that the wolves of Eastern North America and the South had their numbers reduced so significantly that the remainin wolves hybridize with coyotes. As a result, the two wolves from this region, the Eastern North American wolf and the red wolves, have been called either separate species or hybrids. (I think they are the result of ancient hybridization with some more modern hybridization that resulted from the widespread persecution of both wolves and coyotes in the East. However, just because they have some hybridization does not mean they don’t represent an important subspecies that provided a vital role to the ecosystems in which they once lived.)

Now it’s possible that as the common wolf became less common in that part of Hungary, some remnant wolves met up with golden jackal bitches that were occasionally frequenting Hungary as they continued to spread their range. Normally, they would have killed the golden jackal bitches, but because golden jackal bitches were the only thing to mate with, they mated with them.  Now, coyote and jackal hybrids loose their fertility as they are bred through three or four generations. However, if a hybrid occurs once and then is bred back to one of the parents’ species, the fertility can remain intact. Because mitochondrial DNA studies are de rigueur in these taxonomic debates, it is possible to find wolves with coyote mitochondrial DNA. I guarantee you that it is also possible to find wolves with golden jackal MtDNA.

And I have a possibility in which this has occurred.

All the old wolf taxonomy books mention a race of wolf called the Egyptian wolf (Canis lupus lupaster). This animal was found in Egypt and Lybia. It is not the same race that is found in the Sinai, which is the Arabian wolf. Today, it is considered Canis aureus lupaster, a race of golden jackal. Studies of its mtDNA found that it mtDNA sequence was that of golden jackals. It’s a very strange golden jackal, however. It significantly larger than golden jackals, and it sometimes forms packs to hunt. However, golden jackals are known to be occasional pack hunters.

I think there actually was an Egyptian wolf that was independent of the golden jackal. I think that there were isolated populations of wolves or wolf ancestors in several parts of North Africa. However, all of these have been killed. The Ethiopian wolf represents the last of these wolves in North Africa, and it is critically endangered. As the wolves have been killed off, their smaller populations were forced to breed with golden jackals. Then the golden jackals hybrids bred back to the golden jackal species. However, they had some wolf characteristics. When the studies for the mtDNA were performed, the findings showed golden jackal mtDNA. However, they are a mixture of wolf and jackal.

Now, some authorities point to molecular clocks which use the measurements of mutations in those mtDNA sequences to determine when populations split away from each other. There are some peoblems with using these on dog species. The original studies on dog mtDNA found that dogs separated from wolves over 100,000 years ago. Now, we know the split was some time between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. I am very skeptical of any studies that use these clocks. The truth is we know that wolves were originally much more diverse than they were before man began killing them off. None of these studies ever seem to use the information on the great genetic diversity in ancient wolf populations. In which case, the unique mtDNA found in Indian wolves and Tibetan wolves might merely be reflections of a past greater genetic diversity in the species.

My guess is the reed wolf is the golden jackals. My second guess is that it’s a hybrid. I’d be thrilled if it were a new subspecies of wolf or a totally new species of canid. But I guess we won’t know until one is captured and its DNA is fully sequenced.

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