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Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

Wolves come in many colors. The black ones, as we know, have their origin in domestic dogs, which crossed with wild wolves. The revelation intrigued me when it came out in early 2009, and I am always thinking of what color might mean when it comes to the evolution of wolves and dogs.

I have noticed that there are many photos of wolves from Finland that have an unusual color. Most European wolves (Canis lupus lupus) are dark gray sable, the classic “wolf color,” but in Finland, there seem to be more than a few wolves that appear to be golden in color. The wolves have varying amounts of sabling on their pelts, and some are what we would call “clear sables” if they were domestic dogs, as we can see the photos of “Susi,” the famous Swedish wolf that came from Finland or Russia.

It is possible that this coloration also has its origin in domestic dogs. There are rumors that the Russians turned out wolfdogs on the Finnish border, but there are always rumors about Russians and their deeds.

Of course, the Finns have always owned dogs of this color, and it is now known that some of these hunting and herding spitz breeds are derived from wolf and dog crosses. It is possible that the gene flow has worked both ways between these spitzes and Finnish wolves. Indeed, it is probably quite likely.

However, there is another possibility that is also worth considering.  In late 2013, Olaf Thalmann and Robert Wayne published a paper that compared samples of ancient mitochondrial DNA from the remains wolves, dogs, and possible transitional forms between wolves and dogs from Europe were compared to modern dogs and wolves. In this analysis, samples from dingoes and basenjis were included in order to get samples from dog populations that had long been isolated from the main dog population.  All modern dogs, including dingoes, are very close to these ancient European wolves in terms of their mitochondrial ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA alone can lead people astray when tracing evolution and ancestry, but the fact that dingoes were closest to these European canids really does point to a strong possibility that dogs were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers at some point between 18,800–32,100  years ago.

It is also interesting to me that almost all dingoes and many, many pariah and primitive dogs are red or yellow sables like these wolves. I wonder if these yellow Finnish wolves represent a sort of throwback to the ancestral European wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs. Perhaps the majority of the ancient European wolves were golden in color.

Yellow wolves do occur in the Middle East, China, and South Asia,  and China and the Middle East have been suggested to be places where dog domestication first happened.  However, none of these wolves have been linked to dogs through ancient DNA samples in the same way the ancient wolves of Europe have been.

Of course, the questions about the yellow wolves of Finland could be answered in much the same way the questions about the origins of the black wolves of North America were.

But there is something to these golden wolves that does need some exploration.

Maybe they are the result of dog and wolf gene flow. Maybe they are just a local unique mutation.

Or maybe they are a flash of gold that tells us a bit about the past.

DNA nalysis on ancient remains has already revealed that dappled and black horses were in the wild Pleistocene horse populations, but no similar studies have been performed on the remains of ancient wolves or dogs.

Maybe there really is something to these yellow Finnish wolves that just a pretty coat.

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Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features.

Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features. From “Roosevelt in Africa” (1910).

One the strange ironies about dogs is that we have set up a system in which populations are maintained without regular influxes of new blood. However, at no point in the evolutionary history was this ever the case.

Some dog fanciers maintain breeds as if they were distinct species, and in some breeds, one can find lore that they are derived from sort of wild canid that has nothing to do with wolves or the rest of dogdom. Chihuahuas are supposedly domestic variants of the fennec fox. The Japanese chin was said to be distinct species that belonged to its own genus.

But no matter how you slice it, domestic dogs are all one species, and what is even more important, the more we have found out about the genome and that of their closest relatives, the harder it becomes to think of them as a distinct species from the wolf.

And if that weren’t such a revelation, it really gets more bizarre when we have no learned that wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes are not the cut-and-dry species we assumed them to be. In Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US and Midwestern US, we have discovered that wolves and coyotes have hybridized a whole lot more than we realized. We have also found evidence that golden jackals and wolves have hybridized in Bulgaria. Both coyotes and golden jackals can cross with wolves or domestic dogs and produce fertile offspring.

To make things more complicated, it turns out that wolves and golden jackals have continued to exchange genes since the two species separated. A recent genome-wide study of modern dogs, wolves, and golden jackals revealed that Eurasian wolves and golden jackals continued to mate with each other after their initial separation. The authors found substantial gene flow between golden jackals and Israeli wolves, as well as the ancestral population to all wolves and domestic dogs.

Most North Americans are aware of the taxonomic controversies involving coyote and wolf hybrid populations, including the red wolf and the proposed “Eastern wolf” species, but it turns out that this problem also exists in the Old World.

There is now a debate as to whether certain sub-Saharan  and North African golden jackals are golden jackals or wolves. A few years ago, there were several studies that suggested that the mitochondrial DNA of certain African golden jackals were actually those of a primitive wolf lineage. There is still some debate as to whether these animals are wolves or jackals, and some of the proposed wolves have been found to hybridize with golden jackals in Senegal.

In utter ignorance of the natural history of wild Canis, domestic dog fanciers have spent the past century to century and half splitting up gene pools under the delusion that this somehow preserves them.  Never mind that for most of their suggested 2 or 3 million years on the planet, wild wolves have continued to exchange genes with their closest relatives. When species hybridize, it was always thought that this would be a negative, but in truth, hybridization can be source of genetic rescue. In the case of Eastern coyotes, crossing with wolves can introduce new genes for more powerful jaws and larger size, which make them better predators of deer. It can also introduce new MHC haplotypes, which can provide the animal with enhanced immunity to disease.

One way of looking at golden jackals and coyotes is they are actually themselves primitive wolves. This might sound a bit heretical, but if you were to go back into time and find the ancestor of all wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes, it would look more less like a golden jackal or coyote.  I would argue that these animals represent a sort of generalized template from which larger, more specialized forms can evolve. One of the problems in sorting out wolf, coyote, and jackal lineages from the fossil record is that at various times through their history on the planet, different lineages have evolved larger wolf-like sizes or have produced coyote or jackal-like forms to fit the niche in question.

A recent comparison of golden jackals, African golden jackals that might be wolves (Canis lupus lupaster or Canis lupaster), black-backed jackals, modern wolves, and the extinct Canis etruscus and Canis arnensis revealed that those the proposed African wolves had skull morphologies that were closer to known golden jackals and black-backed jackals. If these lupaster canids are actually wolves and not jackals, then we would have never been able to guess their identity upon morphology alone.

So while the dog fancy has been splitting hairs and arbitrarily dividing up gene pools, science has revealed that the wild dogs haven’t been doing the same.

Canis is not a closed registry.

Even the boundaries between wolves and golden jackals and between wolves and coyotes are blurry, and of course, this leaves out the rather significant gene flow that has occurred between domestic dogs and wild wolves. Black wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs are the result of dogs and wolves mating “in the wild.”

Science has found all of these wonderful things out, but the dog fancy remains stuck in another era.

Maybe someday it will move beyond the closed registry system and instead of offering up the bromide of “breed preservation,” it will adopt a system of “breed management,” which strives to maintain genetic diversity within a breed and allows regular influxes of outside blood.

That is what nature has allowed with the wild Canis.

That is the actual story of the animals of this genus. It is not one of one lineage remaining pure for millions or even thousands of years.

It is about significant hybridization.

And Canis is not the only genus with this hybridization issue. Ducks in the genus Anas hybridize quite a bit, and it is well-known that many species of whales and dolphins hybridize with their close kin as well. All of these animals are fairly mobile organisms, and their mobility is likely why they retain so much interfertility.  They simply cannot be reproductively isolated from their closest relatives long enough for them to lose chemical interfertility.

It is not something that should be thought of as an evil. Instead, it’s actually a major strength. It is one our own species utilized when we exchanged genes with the Neanderthals and Denisovan people, and if there were another human species alive today, we would likely be able to cross with it.

But because we are so alone in this world, it is difficult for us to understand the concept of a species complex. We are the only humans left.

But dogs and wolves are not the last of their kind.

The gene flow between wild and domestic and among the these three species of Canis is something we have difficulty imagining.

But it is the story of dogkind.

 

 

 

 

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KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

As long-time readers know, I am a bit of a skeptic when it comes to the taxonomic validity of the red wolf.  This is particularly true when the only genome-wide analysis of wolves and coyotes in North America revealed that the creatures being conserved as red wolves were actually coyote/wolf hybrids that actually have only slightly more wolf ancestry than a typical Eastern coyote.

That said, there are a lot of individuals who have devoted a lot of time and energy and entire careers on red wolf conservation, but I knew that when that study came out, it would be just a matter of time before the politics of red wolf conservation would come to a head. After all,  North Carolina has just recently begun to have issues with Eastern coyotes, and although most of the coyotes in North Carolina are on the smaller side, it would be wrong to assume that there were no coyotes in North Carolina with wolf ancestry.  And it’s possible, considering that coyotes with wolf ancestry have been found as far south as Virginia.

Coyotes are pretty much blamed for everything that goes wrong in conservation biology in the East.  If deer hunters don’t bag a huge rack of antlers, then it’s obvious that the coyotes are killing them all. The more nuanced explanation is that coyotes do take quite a few fawns every year, but unless there is a heavy snow (which doesn’t happen in Eastern North Carolina), then it’s very unlikely that the coyotes are killing all the adult deer. Fawn recruitment is an issue, so a lot of game managers, especially in the South, do coyote controls. Coyote controls involve trapping, hunting them with foxhounds, and night hunting.

And it’s this night hunting of coyotes that caused the problem with the red wolf in North Carolina.  Night hunting involves going out at night with an electronic call and an amber light (just to show everyone you’re not spot-lighting deer), and then using those calls, which produce howls and prey in distress sounds, to lure a coyote or two  to its demise. Some people are adept howlers, and you can even buy coyote calls that produce different howls and prey in distress calls for that purpose.

Coyotes can be called in the day time, but if they live where there is significant hunting pressure, they tend to stay holed up in the brush until night falls.

Of course, most of the coyote hunters who do this sort of thing got into it to protect deer and other game numbers, and what usually happens is they find the coyote a much more challenging game species than any of the more typical game. Predator hunting becomes an obsession, a deep burning passion.  Some of these predator hunters actually want to protect coyotes from excessive hunting, just so they will have more coyotes to hunt.

And this is where red wolf recovery went south.

In the five counties where red wolves roam, there has been a long legal battle over whether coyotes can be hunted in red wolf range. In May 2014, a court-ordered injunction banned coyote hunting in those five counties, but by November, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission created a framework that would allow some limited coyote hunting in the area.  Also, if one is legally hunting coyotes, one can kill a red wolf if it is taken by accident. I should note that red wolves look a lot like Eastern coyotes. They are the same color, but they are usually somewhat larger than the coyotes typically found in North Carolina. However, I can tell you that if red wolves were released here in West Virginia, you would never be able to keep them straight. We actually do have coyotes that approach red wolf size, which kind of makes sense. After all, the coyotes of the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic are essentially the same thing as red wolves– coyotes with some wolf ancestry.

You would think that this rule alone would be enough to get red wolf conservationists screaming, but what came next is something akin to a neutron bomb going off in the red wolf community.

Last week, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources commission issued two resolutions to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The first resolution declared that because the extant red wolves in North Carolina were so heavily derived from coyote stock that there were no more pure red wolves left and that the species was extinct in the wild as of 1980– which, means that the red wolf recovery program would end under the Endangered Species Act. Once a species is declared extinct, it gets removed from the Endangered Species List, and all recovery efforts are ended.

The second resolution calls for a removal of red wolves from private property.

In the 90’s and the first decade of this century,  the red wolf recovery program in North Carolina was celebrated as a successful wolf reintroduction in the East. These wolves lived in area where most confined livestock and poultry operations and crops comprised the main agricultural concerns. Very few opportunities existed for red wolves to cause problems with people.

But now that coyote hunting is gaining in popularity in the state, the red wolves finally hit snag. Of course, the Fish and Wildlife Service could only maintain the supposed purity of the red wolves running loose in North Carolina though an intense trapping program.  The population of canids called red wolves today derive from only 14 individuals, and as we know that most wild canids have a strong inbreeding avoidance instinct, red wolves will readily cross with coyotes. After all, red wolves are mostly coyote in ancestry, and those 14 were all derived from a population of coyotes and wolves that were running together in Louisiana and East Texas. In Peter Steinhart’s The Company of Wolves, the author recounts a government trapper in Louisiana who kept encountering litters of coyotes, where one pup would mature at 75 pounds, while another would top out at 25. This strongly suggests that the red wolf that exists now was a hybrid.  There were some rather primitive genetic tests done on these wolves, but these were quite unlike the vonHoldt paper.

What likely happened was that as wolves in Texas and Louisiana became rarer, they began to mate with coyotes. Because this wolf held on longer than in other parts of the South,  there were more hybrids with wolf-like features that were then declared a species. There was some dodgy paleontology work that connected these wolves with primitive wolf-like canids from North America. They found some unique biochemical and molecular evidence in the 14 wolves, and based on the dodgy paleontology, the primitive biochemical and molecular evidence, and the phenotype, they declared these animals to be a species.

I haven’t seen anything that any researcher has produced that falsifies the vonHoldt paper, which is the most extensive analysis of wolf and coyote genomes performed to date.

Now, I am a big supporter of the Endangered Species Act. I am also a supporter of wolf recovery programs, but I’ve come to think that this particular program is quite problematic.

The taxonomic value of the creatures we are currently calling red wolves is dubious at best. I’m open to some good evidence that contradicts the genome-wide study I linked to earlier, but I haven’t seen it. All I’ve seen is a critique of that study, which basically says you can’t use SNP’s to determine evolutionary relationships, but SNP’s look at much more of the genome than microsatellite clustering and mitochondrial DNA do– which all that the red wolf researchers have.

Also the big critique on the red wolves are hybrids study I’ve seen is they didn’t sample enough red wolves. The problem with that argument is when a population derives from only 14 individuals, you really don’t need a huge sample to get an idea of what they are.

This is one of those cases where I think the best science is on the side of delisting the red wolf.

And let’s worry about Mexican wolves.

Or maybe the diamond darter, a tiny fish that is now only found in the Elk River drainage of West Virginia.

But that’s just a little fish, living in a state where economic interests that generally oppose clean water have long held sway over the political process.

It’s not some ancient American wolf, which at one time was declared the root-stock of all wolves and coyotes.

Wolves are great symbols of conservation.  If left alone, they do recolonize their former range and often thrive. They are also closely related to domestic dogs. Indeed, dogs are derived from some Old World form of Canis lupus, and to the popular imagination, killing a wolf is like killing beloved pet dog. The wolf became sort of a “Fido as a Noble Savage,” which in itself is a pretty bad place for animal to be.

So because this symbolism that having hard discussions about wolves is difficult.

Protecting endangered species is more than raising hell whenever charismatic species might be threatened. It about preserving ecosystems and habitat, as well as all the unsexy little creatures, ones that will only gets nerds like me excited.

I would hate for this red wolf fiasco to set a precedent that state wildlife agencies can just complain to the US Fish and Wildlife Service whenever a particular endangered species is causing them problems. The Western states have even more endangered species that are conflicting with state interests. For example, it was recently determined that the sage grouse of southeastern Utah and southwestern Colorado are a unique species, and what’s more, it’s actually an endangered species. In November of 2014, it was decided that this species of grouse, called the Gunnison grouse requires Endangered Species Act protections. The state of Colorado just sued Fish and Wildlife Service over the listing. Now, it’s unlikely that these grouse are going to be delisted because Colorado complained about them, but depending upon how the courts interpret the law, it could get interesting.

Red wolves are just a bad case all around.

The lesson to conservationists ought to be that if you want to save a species, you better make sure that there are no huge, gaping questions about its taxonomic status.

I think the sad story here is that we’ve lost the Southern wolf, replacing it with wolves with a high amount of coyote ancestry, does not change this fact.

The Southern wolf is mentioned in the literature throughout region, and it was almost universally described as melanistic.

Here is photo taken by an early camera trap in Louisiana by Tappan Gregory in 1935.  It shows a black wolf with a larger head, broader muzzle, and smaller ears than what one finds in the modern “red wolf.”  (The current “red wolf” subspecies is call Canis rufus gregoryi, after Tappan Gregory.)

southern black wolf

Hat-tip to Sheila Collins for finding this photo.

That wolf is gone. Perhaps it lives on the wolf genes of the modern hybrid red wolf, just as the Northeastern timber wolf (Canis lupus lycaon) lives on the “coywolves” the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.

The thing about wolves, though, is they are coming back. Bit by bit.  Some wolves have incorporated coyote blood, as is the case with the Algonquin Park wolves, and this hybridization even occurred before Western man arrived in this continent. The vonHoldt paper on wolf and coyote genomes showed that Great Lakes wolves hybridized with coyotes at some point 600-900 years ago.

That means that wolves and coyotes, like modern humans and Neanderthals and Denisovans, exchanged genes with each other. Our popular understanding of evolution is that a species origination is one monophyletic population becoming genetically distinct and then losing chemical interfertility with the ancestral population and the sister taxa. However, evolution also has sister taxa exchanging genes a lot more often than we generally assumed. Wolf and coyote hybridization in North America has actually been underestimated as a driving force for the evolution for both species. We know that wolf genes have given Eastern coyotes an advantage when it comes to hunting deer and has likely enhanced their spread into the white-tail woods.

When wolves came into this continent from Eurasia, they came into land full of coyotes.  It is possible that they exchanged genes then, but there is no record for it.  Or maybe those early hybrid populations became extinct.

What we do know that is that hybridization occurred without the influence of Western Civilization and its attendant philosophy of wolf persecution, and in the case of some wolf populations, coyote genes could be a source of genetic rescue.

So the wolf that will come back won’t be exactly like the one that was extirpated. It will have genes from coyotes and probably domestic dogs.

And we should just accept it. After all, no one says that we should kill all the black wolves, even though that black coloration came from crossing with domestic dogs.

The wolf that comes back will be in a world where there aren’t as many elk or moose to hunt, but there will be plenty of white-tailed deer and raccoons. This wolf will have to be adapted to hunting this quarry, and it will have to be as wary as a the most paranoid of coyotes in order to survive in this new New World.

This is the approach that should have been used to restore wolves to the Lower 48. It avoids all the crazy debates about taxonomy, and it recognizes that ecosystems have been changed profoundly since 1492.

So if North Carolina succeeds in ending the red wolf program, maybe it will be a chance to go forward towards a twenty-first century wolf conservation ethic.

That’s certainly what would be best for the wolves, for wolves have to fit into our world now. They can do it, but we can’t get them there if we hold onto old ways of thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This documentary is about coyotes that have red wolf features and possible ancestry in East Texas. He could have gone with that angle and made me giddy.

Instead, well, you’ll see:

Source.

So red wolves speak of the creator?

But wait a minute…

There is a huge debate about what a red wolf is. The best genetic study I’ve seen on them suggests they are recent hybrids between a relict population of Southeastern wolves Canis lupus wolves) and coyotes. What made the red wolf was not God Almighty but the extinction of the subtropical American wolf, which was almost always black in color.

Everything about Canis speaks of evolution. Not only do we have the hybrid red wolf, but we have hybrids between golden jackals and African wolves (Canis lupus lupaster) in sub-Saharan Africa. Eastern coyotes also have a lot of wolf and dog ancestry.

Hybrid zones and muddled areas between species are exactly what we expect if there were common descent among similar species.

They are distinct species but they simply haven’t diverged enough from each other to lose chemical interfertility.

The whole red wolf debate is actually about evolution from this perspective.

I lean toward it not being a distinct species at all but a really recent hybrid. I don’t think proponents of its unique species status have produced enough evidence to suggest that is not a hybrid. Hybridization is extremely common in Canis species, and this seems much more parsimonious than the claim that it’s an ancient North American wolf– a living fossil or whatever else.

Plus, the DNA says it’s not. And by that I mean large samples of DNA, not microsatellites or just mtDNA evidence, which is actually all they have.

But the hybridization of Canis in the East is producing a new form of coyote. This is a canid that comes in many more colors, thanks to the sprinkling dog in its ancestry and much more able to hunt large quarry thanks to the bit of wolf blood coursing through its veins.

These are the questions that make wolves and their kin interesting.

But unfortunately, we didn’t get that here.

Plus, everyone knows that the Bible hates wolves. It was written by ancient herdsmen, whose livestock suffered under wolf depredations. It’s not an ecology book in the least.

European settlers killed wolves on this continent under the auspices of ridding it of a Satanic force. Wolves did prey upon man in feudal Europe, and our ancestors came here with a strong fear of the lupine.

Chester Moore and I grew up in very similar environments, but I’m glad my parents and grandparents were interested in Darwin. My dad got me watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries.

I am glad that I am comfortable with nature as it is.

Every time I look at a dog’s eyes, I see evolution.

Every time I look at a flying bird, I see a dinosaur.

I see every reason to accept the modern Neo-Darwininian synthesis. It’s all around me.

I don’t see any reason why I should accept the Bible– or any holy book– as true.

But that’s just me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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short spine wolf

Reader Wendy Browne posted this photo of this wolf in my Facebook Group.

I did a reverse image search through Google, and it is a real image.

This wolf was killed in Russia, and it’s actually a good thing that the wolf hunters did kill it.

It was suffering from a severe spinal deformity–  an unusually short spine. This same condition does occasionally pop up in dogs.

This wolf was most likely able to survive because it could eat what its pack-mates killed, but at some point, there could easily be prey shortage.

And this poor wolf would be the first to go.

And my guess it would be as humane a death as a bullet.

 

 

 

 

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This is dubbed in English, so you can understand the method. They don’t believe in closed registries out on taiga. The dogs they use in the crosses don’t even have to be domestic!

Source.

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I don’t normally watch these sorts of “man living with wolves” documentaries, but this is excellent!

Source.

The very interesting part is where the German shepherd tries to tend to the cattle while the wolf tries to test them as possible prey.

A German shepherd is a very different animal from a wolf.

It’s a pastoral dog.

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