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The collar kind of gives it away.

It’s a wolfdog playing with a golden retriever.

(Source for photo).

 

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These two photos depict two wolf hybrids.

The animal on the left, with its floppy ears and black-and-tan coat, is an F1 wolfdog from Wildlife Park Kadzidlowo in Poland. He was intentionally bred from a “Polish spaniel” dog and a European wolf bitch. I am not sure what breed of spaniel the father was, but this hybrid reminds me very much of the Gråwachtel, a German spaniel (“wachtelhund”)/Norwegian gray elkhound cross. The dog features predominate. It looks like nothing more than a really feral-looking retriever type dog.

The animal on the right is a first generation cross between a West Siberian laika dog and a female wolf. Breeding West Siberian laikas to wolves is really nothing new, and the practice continues in Russia to this day. Knowing the politics of wolf hybrids in the United States, it might not be wise to discuss this feature in the West Siberian laika. There is a certain politically correct movement that views any sort of wolf hybrid as a skittish, dangerous animal, when in reality, the animals vary quite a bit. Having been around a West Siberian laika, I can attest that they are less wild and skittish than many other Nordic breeds.

The truth is you can’t tell a wolf hybrid by just looking at it. If the dog in the cross has floppy ears, it’s not going to look like a wolf at all. It may act more like a wolf.

Or maybe not.

The differences between wolves and dogs are more complex than you might think.

Unfortunately, this problem gets worse when certain people make absolute claims about wolves, dogs, and wolf hybrids.

The one absolute claim one should follow is always be leery of absolutes!

When someone says “never” or “always,” they are setting themselves up for error. All it takes is one example that goes counter to the claim to make it false.

And that’s what happens.

There are pure wolves that are as docile as golden retrievers when they are brought up imprinted upon people.

There are also dogs that are very reactive and nervous and only bond to a few people– just as most captive wolves do. There are pure wolves that have made decent hunting and working dogs.

There are wolf hybrids that have killed people, and there are wolf hybrids that have been the perfect pets.

Because of the complexity of the wolf and dog question, I cannot consider dogs and wolves distinct species.  There is just too much overlap between dog and wolf to make such absolute distinctions.

I will use Canis lupus familiaris to describe the dog.

I think one of the biggest obstacles to getting people to understand why wolves are dogs is that the only wolves people seem to know about are the big wolves from northern ranges. What they don’t realize is that these wolves are not the totality of their species. They are actually a fairly specialized variant that evolved in the northern parts of Eurasia and North America to hunt things like moose, caribou, elk/wapiti, bison, aurochs, and muskoxen.

There are also wolves that are much smaller in the Middle East, South Asia, and yes, Africa, that are much more dog-like, and at least one study points to Middle Eastern wolves as being the primary source for most of the genetic diversity in the dogs we have today.

Wolves are actually a very diverse species, and historically, they were even more so.  Dogs are just a reflection of their ancestral species diversity. Once removed from the rigors of natural selection, humans can play with that ancestral wolf genome to produce what is really the most morphologically diverse population in the world.

One cannot tell a wolf hybrid just by its appearance.

And one cannot always tell a wolf by its appearance either.

This white wolf-like animal was captured in Los Angeles:

The facility that bred it actually said it was actually 1/8 Great Pyrenees!

Wolves and dogs are wild and domestic populations of the same species.

The wolf itself is really a vestige of what was once a very diverse species.

Wolves managed to range over almost all of Eurasia and all of North America from the Valley of Mexico to Greenland. Their range in Africa has only recently been revealed through genetic studies.

And this species became successful because it could adapt its morphology– perhaps rather rapidy– to fit new ecosystems and prey sources.

To live in the same places, humans adapted new technologies. Wolves adapted their bodies through evolution.

A domestic dog is just a wolf that has evolved to live with humans. It’s a different niche, and humans did quite a bit of selective breeding to produce unusual body types.

But the body template and the vast majority of the genome are still those of a wolf.

Dogs are wolves in terms of their phylogeny and genes.

They may look very different now.

And dogs may be much better adapted to living with people.

But dogs and wolves haven’t diverged that much.

And when a floppy-eared dog mates with a wolf, the results can be somewhat disconcerting.

We expect the wolf dogs that result from the mating to look like wolves and not Labrador crosses.

It takes us aback.

And it makes us wonder.

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The top image comes from this recent study that confirmed hybridization between male wolves and female dogs in the Baltic states.

Previous “naturally occuring” wolf dogs in Europe have all been between male dogs and female wolves, which is one reason why the studies that one cannot use mtDNA studies on European wolves to confirm or deny the introgression of dog genes into the wolf population.

There will be more  on this study in a future post.

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All black wolves that have been examined in modern times have been found to be dominant blacks. The dominant black mutation first originated in domestic dogs and was transmitted through crossbreeding between wolves and dogs. However, there is at least one record of a wolf that was carrying recessive black.

Recessive black is most commonly found in German and Belgian shepherds. It can also be found in pulik, Samoyeds, schipperkes. Shetland sheepdogs, and the so-called “American Eskimo dog,” which is actually an American variant of the German spitz.

It’s one of two ways that a dog can be solid black, but it’s far less common than dominant black.

The mutation that causes dominant black originated either in dogs or the wolf population that became dogs, because the mutation is older in domestic dog populations than in wolves. This black coloration wasthen transmitted to Italian and New World wolves through cross-breeding with domestic dogs.  All wolves that have been examined in North America thus far have turned out to be dominant blacks, as have those in Italy.

However, there was at least one case of a wolf carrying recessive black in the literature.

The Soviet zoologist and dog expert N.A. Iljin carried out several experiments crossing various dogs with wolves. In 1941, he reported on the progeny of a male wolf that was bred to a female mongrel sheepdog.  In the first litter, there were black and “zonar gray” (wild wolf gray puppies). If the dog in question were a dominant black, then the entire litter would have been black, but getting gray puppies suggested a very different conclusion.

After breeding from the offspring for several generations, Iljin discovered that the black was being inherited as a recessive allele, which means the dog in question was a recessive black– and the wolf was a carrier!

Now, results of Iljin’s study have been used to show that wolves carried recessive black from the beginning.

However, since the time of Iljin’s work, no one has found a recessive black wolf.  The team of geneticists at UCLA have found only dominant black in wolves.

So it’s possible that this wolf was not actually “pure,” and at some point, one of its ancestors was a recessive black dog. I would not be surprised if someone had crossed a recessive black German shepherd into captive Russian wolves at some point. Iljin himself was very much into breeding German shepherds to wolves, and his studies on wolf and German shepherd morphology are pretty much classic literature for those interested in wolves and dogs.

So maybe recessive black did exist in certain Old World wolves from the beginning, but it’s just not been confirmed in the genetic literature in the same way that dominant black has.

I don’t know of another species besides Canis lupus that has two separate genetic variants for melanism. Coyotes have inherited dominant black from breeding with either dogs or wolves, and golden jackals and Ethiopian wolves could also inherit both types of melanism through similar hybridization.

So it’s very interesting that we have this one case of a wolf carrying recessive black, but we need more information to see where this color came from.

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The Kentucky frontier wasn’t the only place that wolves were used as hunting dogs. Wolves were also commonly used as hunting dogs on the Pennsylvania frontier. They were also crossbred with “improved” Western dogs to make superior working animals, but the practice was largely discontinued when it was decided that every farm ought to have a “purebred” collie or shepherd.

Henry Wharton Shoemaker was a polymath of sorts.  He was a Columbia graduate, who worked on Wall Street and for the US foreign service before moving to Pennylvania to work as a newspaper publisher. He became well-versed in the folklore and local history of the mountainous regions of Central and Western Pennsylvania, and it is from his writings on this subjects that we can find out what the original settlers thought of different animals. He was an ardent conservationist, and he worked as writer for Gifford Pinchot’s campaigns for the US Senate and for governor of Pennsylvania.

His interests as an historian, conservationist, and folklorist brought him to write two volumes on the history of the extinct animals in Pennsylvania. One volume would cover wolves and “panthers” (the creatures also known as cougars/pumas/mountain lions/catamounts), and another would cover the other extirpated species.  These two volumes are often compiled into a single volume called Extinct Pennsylvania Animals, which is traditionally the name for the second volume. The second section of the first volume is called Wolf Days in Pennsylvania, and it was originally published in 1914.

Through his research and interviews with those who had first hand accounts with these animals, he found that the settlers believed that there were three kinds of wolf in Pennsylvania.  There was a large gray wolf and a large black wolf, but these appeared to breed true, even though it wasn’t unusual for a black wolf to whelp a gray pup. And there was a small brown wolf, which sounds suspiciously like an account of the existence of an eastern population of coyotes. I think the corpus of the evidence– particularly the genetic evidence–suggests that coyotes did exist in the East, but they were extirpated with the wolves.  As the larger wolves were removed from other parts of their range, the smaller coyotes were able to file back into the East again. (The so-called red wolf is largely a fictional animal.)

The settlers in Central and Western Pennsylvania considered the black wolf to be a separate species from the gray.  The gray and “small brown wolves” were easily killed, but the black ones were much more cunning and wary.  In what might sound like a contradiction, it was very common for these black wolves to be socialized to people and then used as hunting or working dogs.

Shoemaker writes:

As far as intelligence went, the black wolf was far the superior of the others. It was susceptible of domestication, and would have made the ideal hunting dog of Pennsylvania….Dr. W. J. McKnight, in his “Pioneer Outline history of Northwestern Pennsylvania,” states “the pioneer hunter would sometimes raise a wolf pup. This pup would be a dog in every sense of the word until about two years old, and then would be a wolf in all his acts.” Audubon in his “Quadrupeds of North America” says: “Once when we were traveling on foot not far from the Southern boundary of Kentucky, we fell in with a black wolf, following a man with his rifle on his shoulder. On speaking with him about this animal, he assured us that it was as tame and gentle as a dog, anr) that he had never met a dog that could trail a deer better. We were so much struck with this account and the noble appearance of the wolf, that we offered him one hundred dollars for it, but the owner said he would not part with it for any price.” What was the case in the West, was equally true in the Seven Mountains and in Clearfield and Jefferson Counties. One or two of the earliest hunters trained black wolves to act as hunting dogs and companions. These and wild black wolves bred with dogs owned by pioneers, producing a really worthy progeny. St. George Mivart has said “hybrids between the dog and the wolf have proved to be fertile, though for no long period.” The writer remembers that in his early boyhood about twenty years ago he saw several of these wolf-dogs. They were intelligent and kindly, and highly prized by their owners, farmers in some of the valleys adjacent, to the Seven Mountains. The craze for handsome sheep dogs or collies which struck the valleys about this time resulted in ending the breeding of the wolfish clogs, which to those not in sympathy with them, were technically mongrels, and they eventually disappeared. There are probably few of them now in existence. Their owners declared that they never showed the slightest tendency to revert to a wild state. In September, 1898, the writer visited a farmer, who tilled some back lots at the foot of the mountains on the South side of Brush Valley not far from Minnick’s Gap. This old fellow, Abe Royer by name, kept some turkeys, half wild, which were the result of his tame turkey hens crossing with wild gobblers which lived on the mountain back of his cabin. He had preserved several wild pigeons until 1895, to be used as “stool pigeons” in the event of the great flocks “returning.”

He also kept several wolf-dogs. These animals had dun and grey coloring not unlike collies, but had the shorter hair and longer legs of wolves. There was no trace of black in their coloring, although their owner stated that their grand-sire had been a black wolf which coupled with a shepherd bitch some ten years before when he was lumbering for Ario Pardee in High Valley. He said that neither turkeys nor dogs had the least inclination to revert to the savage proclivities of their ancestors. If the grey wolves and the brown wolves had any of the admirable characteristics of their black relatives, the old hunters sayeth not. “Crafty and mean” is the general verdict expressed about the grey wolves, “nasty like little cur dogs,” is the general run of remarks relative to the brown wolves. Doubtless these uncomplimentary characterizations are unjust to the animals, but they were certainly not up to the standard of the black wolves. If all are of one variety these attempts at specialization are hardly worth the time to read. At the same time it may show that color in animals has much to do with habitation, character and disposition. It may help to reveal the secret of why some men are blonde and others dark (pg. 24-25).

The black coloration in North American wolves is thought to have originated through crossbreeding with Native American dogs, but the dog ancestry in these wolves probably wouldn’t have been a high enough percentage to have affected their temperament. Modern black wolves are, for all intents and purposes, very much wolves.

The black coloration is a simple dominant trait, so it is possible that certain populations of wolf in the Eastern United States were consisted of almost of nothing but melanistic individuals. This dominant black trait in dogs, wolves, and coyotes comes from a mutation that controls the protein beta-defensin 3. This protein does regulate the amount of melanin that appears on the dog, wolf, or coyote’s coat, but it also is associated with immune response.  Having this particular mutation might provide the wolves with some advantages  in fighting off viral and bacterial infections, which may have been more common in the temperate and subtropical forests of North America.

I don’t think these black wolves were a different species at all, but for whatever reason, this particular type of wolf was easily domesticated. It may have been that this was a sort of intermediary animal that included the genetics of both wolves and domestic dogs, and there was some continual hybridization between the two forms. And that might be why these wolves were so easily domesticated.

It is possible that the black coloration could have been associated with a tendency toward domestication. A very similar finding was found with black deer mice, which were found to be more docile than the more common agouti deer mice.

But black deer mice have a different genetic basis than black wolves or dominant black dogs, so one should be careful about making generalizations from that study and trying to apply them to the tame wolves of the Pennsylvania.

These domesticated wolves appear to have been very much a part of life in America in the early days of settlement.  These settlers of the Pennsylvania mountains didn’t have access to the best lines of Western hunting dogs, so they improvised. They found that the black wolves were a good outcross to their curs and shepherds.

So here we have another account of modern people keeping wolves as working and hunting dogs.

See earlier posts

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This dog’s image comes from a site that says it is 40 percent “Timberwolf” and 60 percent “Norwegian elkhound.”

I don’t know if those percentages are accurate or if this dog has any recent wolf ancestry at all.

But it is said to howl. Norwegian elkhounds really don’t howl. They are know for their barks. I remember my grandpa’s elkhound would rake his back on the lower rung of a split-rail fence in the front yard, and he would bark each time he raked his back against the rail.

I don’t know why anyone would puff an elkhound as being part wolf.

All Norwegian and Swedish elkhounds can have relatively recent wolf ancestry. 

I am skeptical that this particular dog is of recent wolf ancestry.  It might be. It looks more like a wolf than the F1 poodle/wolf crosses that Erik Zimen bred.

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The dog on the right is a cross between a low content wolf dog and a Labrador. The dog on the left is his son, produced through mating with a black Labrador mix.

Here is the low content wolfdog with his grandson and “daughter-in-law.”

My guess is the majority of the litter were black, but this one wasn’t. There also had to be a gene for the black mask in the Labrador mix mother.

NB:  I use the term “wolfdog,” rather than wolf hybrid.  Dogs and wolves are part of the same species, Canis lupus, and can’t technically be hybrids.  However, crosses between dogs and coyotes and crosses between wolves and coyote would be hybrids.

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