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Posts Tagged ‘Wolf’

It’s very popular for people to deny dogs their proper classification according to molecular cladistics.

It’s popular because to accept that dogs are a type of wolf and actually belong to Canis lupus means that one has to deal with all sorts of political baggage that goes along with it.

Does it mean that Cesar Millan is right? Not at all.

Does it mean that I can go out and keep pet wolves? I wouldn’t recommend it.

But just because those two concepts are bogus doesn’t mean that the classification of dogs as part of Canis lupus is invalid.

This idea of dogs not being wolves was popular in the era of pre-cladistic classification. Cladistic classification is a way of organizing taxonomy to reflect evolutionary relationships. Paleontologists and anatomists spend hours classifying creatures using morphological characters, and there is a lot of debate, especially in paleontology, about how extinct organisms should be classified.

Currently, most taxonomists who use cladistic classification pay much more attention to molecular data. DNA tells us much more about common ancestry than we could ever get from bone or fossils. And yes, there are surprises.

We know now that dogs are nothing more than specialized offshoot of the Holarctic wolf. Canis lupus today exists in four lineages: the Holarctic wolf, the South Indian wolf, the Himalayan wolf, and the African wolf (which had previously been recognized as a form of golden jackal). We also know that dogs were domesticated in Palearctic somewhere, so they actually do derive from some form of Eurasian wolf.

This form is probably extinct, because the best nuclear DNA studies have shown that dogs are not derived from any extant wolf population.

If we are to adhere to cladistic classifiation, Canis familiaris is an invalid taxon.

So is Canis dingo. In fact, because dingoes fit within East Asian domestic dogs, the common scientific name Canis lupus dingo is also invalid. They are also Canis lupus familiaris, though definitely distinct ecomorph.

Some people get really worked up with this classification stuff, because the world of dogs inherently political. If you say a dog is a wolf, people jump to conclusions about some endorsement about feeding or training.

Politics be damned. Classifying organisms according to how they evolved is a much more important exercise than these tempests in a teapot that constantly swirl around the world of dogs.

I’m not saying that a golden retriever is the same thing as a large Alaskan wolf, but those two animals share more characters and more DNA than either shares with a coyote or a black walnut. If a golden retriever came in heat in the Alaskan bush and she ran into an unattached male wolf, they would breed and produce fertile offspring.

Indeed, many dog breeds have documented wolf ancestry. These include many arctic and boreal breeds like West Siberian laikas and Alaskan malamutes, but wolves have also been crossed into such unlupine breeds as Plott hounds, otterhounds, and griffon Nivernais.

Similarly, the black coloration in North American and Italian wolves originated from crossing with domestic dogs. It’s also not unusual for people to come across Italian wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs, which also is a diagnostic trait for crossbreeding.

When someone denies the phylogeny of domestic dogs, they usually do so rocking back on their heels as if they were somehow the most super-rational person in the world.  Only a fool would deny that a dog isn’t a wolf!

But it is these people who are in denial. Most of the ones I’ve seen either own little dogs that really don’t look or act much like wolves or they cannot think skeptically about Raymond Coppinger’s work.

Most people, I’ve discovered, have a very hard time thinking of organisms according to their clades. Part of that problem  is that it’s very hard to think of humanity as the last survivor what was once a diverse lineage that came out of same stock that gave us chimps and bonobos. If we were to adhere to cladistic classification, chimps and bonobos would have to be placed within our genus. We would either have to become part of Pan, or they would become part of Homo. The only reason this isn’t done is that this sort of classification would mess up the scientific names of all the transitional forms between our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos and ourselves, and there actually are pretty big differences between the Australopithecines and Homo erectus.  Dogs and Holarctic wolves differ no more than 0.01 percent in their nuclear DNA sequences. Humans and chimps differ about 5 percent.

Of course, a dog is much more a wolf than a human is a chimpanzee. A dog is also much more a wolf than a human is the last common ape ancestor between humans and chimps. Dogs and wolves still exchange genes over the vast spaces of Eurasia and North America. They once did so far more often, when far more wolves lived near far more people and domestic dogs.

We live in a time when dogs are bred in closed registries, and too many dog people think of their favorite breeds as almost being distinct species unto themselves. Most dogs never see wolves. Most wolves never get to see free-roaming domestic dogs.

They could become separate species, but it would take a while. Even now, full reproductive isolation doesn’t exist in certain species in the genus Canis. Wolves mate with coyotes, which has caused some taxonomic wars with North American admixed canids like the so-called red wolf, and African wolves in Senegal have been known to breed with golden jackals.

Our species once existed with other human species. We could cross with neanderthals. We could cross with the Denisovan people. We are now alone, but dogs and wolves are still around with other species with which they can hybridize.

We are the species that does the classification, but we are the last survivors of our lineage. We used to think of Africans and indigenous Australians as distinct species from Caucasians. We did the same with people from Asia and indigenous Americans. We now know that, even though some of us are admixed with other extinct human species, we are all actually the same species and that the vast majority of our ancestry– no matter who we are– came from a single origin in East Africa.

We really aren’t that diverse. We’re really common, but when compared to chimps, we’re not that diverse at all.

But Canis lupus is a pretty diverse species, especially when you include African, South Indian, and Himalayan wolves to the species. Wolves are quite diverse in phenotype, ranging from 25-40-pound Arabian wolves that live on carrion and small game to 130-pound Alaskan wolves that live on moose. When you add domestic dogs to that classification, phenotypical diversity becomes even more explosive.

When you start thinking about wolves this way, they become something quite amazing. It’s really hard for us to think of pugs and arctic wolves as being the same species, but when you realize they are, it’s stunning what can happen through the forces of evolution through natural and artificial selection.

And when you put it into the context of the rest of life on this planet, it becomes humbling.

It all comes from these same processes.

That’s what amazed Charles Darwin.

And that’s what should amaze us.

So stop the cheap phylogeny denial.

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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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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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Kentucky wolf

(Not the guy who killed it)

A wolf was killed in Hart County, Kentucky, this past March. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources released this statement:

Federal officials recently confirmed that an animal taken by a hunter near Munfordville in Hart County on March 16 is a gray wolf.

A DNA analysis performed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center in Colorado determined the 73-pound animal was a federally endangered gray wolf with a genetic makeup resembling wolves native to the Great Lakes Region. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory in Oregon confirmed the finding.

How the wolf found its way to a Munfordville hay ridge at daybreak in March remains a mystery. Wolves have been gone from the state since the mid-1800s.

Great Lakes Region wolf biologists said the animal’s dental characteristics – a large amount of plaque on its teeth – suggest it may have spent some time in captivity. A largely carnivorous diet requiring the crushing of bone as they eat produces much less plaque on the teeth of wild wolves.

Hart County resident James Troyer took the animal with a shot from 100 yards away while predator hunting on his family’s farm. Troyer, 31, said he had taken a coyote off the property just two weeks earlier.

But when he approached the downed animal he noticed it was much larger. “I was like – wow – that thing was big!” he recalled. “It looked like a wolf, but who is going to believe I shot a wolf?”

Because a free-ranging wolf has not been seen in the state for more than a century, biologists were skeptical at first. However, wildlife officials were aware that a few radio-collared northern wolves have wandered as far south as Missouri in the past decade.

Wolves resemble coyotes, except they are much larger. From a distance, the size difference is difficult to determine.

Troyer convinced Kevin Raymond, a wildlife biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, to look at the animal. Once Raymond saw the animal was twice the size of a coyote, he contacted furbearer biologist Laura Patton, who submitted samples to federal officials for DNA testing.

Because state and federal laws prohibit the possession, importation into Kentucky or hunting of gray wolves, federal officials took possession of the pelt. Since this is the first free-ranging gray wolf documented in Kentucky’s modern history, federal or state charges are not expected because there were no prior biological expectations for any hunter to encounter a wolf.

This animal may have been introduced by someone who had a pet wolf and got tired of it.

Or it could have walked from Great Lakes population into Kentucky.  There was a wolf from this population that was killed in Missouri last year that clearly wandered down on its own volition. And another one was killed in the same state in 2010.

It is interesting that all three of these wolves would be Great Lakes wolves. That population is actually the healthiest population in the Lower 48, and they clearly are moving south.

My question is why are none of these animals reported in places like Illinois, Iowa, or Indiana, which lie between the core wolf habitat states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Kentucky and Missouri?

If they are dispersing this far south someone has to be seeing them in those states, too, but I never hear of anyone shooting a big coyote that turns out to be a wolf in any of those states.

So it’s an interesting question if this wolf came to Kentucky on its own.

But someday, there will be wolves in Kentucky. There will be no argument about where they came from.

The wolf is one species that is very likely to thrive in the twenty-first century, provided we don’t lose our minds and start trying to exterminate them again.

And that’s the big if.

But if we just leave them alone, they will return.

They are doing so in Germany and much of Western Europe right now.

It will just take some time.

And restraint.

 

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wolf

One of the most interesting things about the American right these days is how openly they embrace all sorts of intrigues and conspiracies. Perhaps the most absurd is the one about the government intentionally causing tornadoes to bring about both socialism and the New World Order!

But this stuff is actually old hat.

Anyone who has ever followed predator reintroduction politics in Western countries knows that conspiracy theories are rampant among those who oppose predator reintroduction.

These sentiments are well-known in the American West, where wolves are accused of killing everything, including grizzly bears.

But it’s not just confined to the United States, zoologist Lars Thomas writes about the situation in Denmark, which currently under an invasion of wolves wandering up from Germany. By “invasion,” I mean the odd dispersing young wolf has crossed through Schleswig-Holstein into the Jutland Peninsula.  Thomas writes:

Wolves have been a big issue in Denmark for several months now – for the first time in 200 years we now have wolves living in our little country – two of them to be exact. But unfortunately all the loonies have started to come out of the woodwork as well. Some people seem to have their knowledge of wolves from the tales of the Brothers Grimm, and we have been subjected to all kinds of paranoid and hysterical ramblings from people who are now too frightened to take a walk in their local wood, from politicians who are certain the wolves have been released by biologists as part of some kind of underhanded scheme to suppress people living in rural areas.

That’s exactly what we have over here.

And it’s not just confined to the West.

In my home state, we have little weekly newspapers that include local columns. Most of these are just ramblings about one’s neighbors have been up to, and if you’re not in the community, you really don’t get all the intricacies  and vagaries that are contained in the lines. Most talk about how many people were at the community church.

Very few get political.

In my home county, there is one of these weekly columns that does get political.  It’s basically all the local stories mixed the distillations from the bizarre World Net Daily website. It also includes examples of great zoological erudition.

For example:

The snow went away and the turkey buzzards returned and the spring peepers are now peeping. Speaking of buzzards, one fellow noted that one of the invasive, non-native black buzzards had a wingspan of 56″. The black buzzards pick out the eyes of newborn calves, lambs, etc. and also target people.

Calling New World vultures “buzzards” is one of those Americanisms that drives me batty. It’s on the level of Canadians calling a Richardson’s ground squirrel a “pocket gopher,” when it’s clearly not a gopher at all. It’s a squirrel, not really all that different from a prairie dog, which is also a ground squirrel.

But there are so many, many errors here. Black vultures are native to the Virginias. However, they are very uncommon west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is where 99.9 percent of West Virginia is located. (John Denver never looked at a map.)

In recent years, there have been a few vagrant flocks of black vultures that have popped up here and there. The only ones I’ve ever seen here were in a tree at the edge of a pasture just outside the little town of Glenville, West Virginia in the spring of 2005.  There were about a dozen of them, and of these, two were walking around in the open where I could get a good glimpse of them as I drove by.

Many people assume that because black vultures do engage in predatory behavior and do sometimes target livestock, such as newborn lambs and calves, that they are larger than the much more common turkey vulture. However, in reality, turkey vultures tend to be slightly larger than black vultures.  A turkey vulture can have a wingspan of up to 72 inches, so a vulture with a wingspan of 56 inches would be a smaller vulture than normal.

And it probably would be a black vulture.

And yes, they do prey on lambs and calves, and depredations by black vultures on lambs in Texas Hill country have been well-documented as a major problem for sheep producers.

However, they don’t target people.

You’d have to be quite paranoid to think that at any moment a giant bird is going to drop out of the sky and carry you away.

As African-derived primates, this is a fear for which we had some justification in our evolutionary past.  The famous Taung child was believed to have been killed by a prehistoric African crowned eagle, whose relatives still hunt monkeys in Africa today.

But for modern Americans to fear a vulture that only attacks newborn calves and lambs is probably one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard. Do you realize how much bigger a person is than a black vulture?

Of course, he doesn’t leave his paranoia with the “black buzzards,” the avian black helicopters.

No, he thinks Eastern coyotes, which wandered in here from New England and Eastern Canada after cross-breeding with relict populations of wolves, were actually introduced by the insurance companies in an attempt to reduce deer-related collisions with automobiles.

The other day a cattleman went out to check on his herd and noticed that one of his favorite cows, who happened to be expecting, was missing. He went on a hunt and found her with a fine new calf in the woods but she and the calf were worn out as three coyotes were circling looking for a tasty meal. A Mr. Remington equalized one of the exotic varmints and the other two fled the scene as they knew they would have an allergic reaction to hot lead. Someone else noted that they trapped one that had an ear tag that said “Property of State Farm Insurance”.

Coyotes are not “exotic varmints” at all. During the Pleistocene, large coyotes were common in West Virginia, and there is at least some historical evidence to suggest that some form of coyote may have existed in the Eastern US before being extirpated with the wolves.

And if anything, the coyotes haven’t done a very good job at reducing deer populations.

And this fact, of course, wasn’t missed by The Creston News.

One local resident saw one of the wolves that had been turned lose locally. He tried to shoot it but the shot was too long and the varmint escaped. One fellow noted that someone in the DNR was given millions by insurance companies to turn the wolves loose to kill the deer that were causing car wrecks. Earlier they had tried the coyotes but they didn’t do the job well enough.

So now we have wolves!

(We actually don’t).

This sort of folk zoology is what I call the Dale Gribble school. It’s not based upon science. Instead, it’s based upon a certain amount of paranoia that experts, who are suspected of being Marxists or liberals or Illuminati types, are using predator reintroduction to end the rural way of life.

Rural life in America and Western Europe has essentially been destroyed.

So few people in this countries live in rural areas that it is difficult to understand why people are so against predators.

Part of the reasons are rational:   Coyotes, wolves, and black vultures do kill stock, and in some areas, wolves and coyotes have been implicated in reducing the populations of some prey species.

But these reasons take on a theater of the absurd when they get mixed in with rural cultural politics.

Many people in traditional rural areas see their entire world falling apart before their very eyes.

It’s outsider liberals in the cities who want to take their guns, let the gays marry, and reject Christianity and “family values.”

The predators become scapegoats for that anger.

And the animals as biological entities simply are not seen for what they are.

They are seen for what they represent.

Hippies.

Yuppies.

And Ecothugs who just want to end all that is decent in the world.

It is nothing more than the culture wars’ ecological front.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Canis lupus familiaris:

dog with wolf shadow

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Source.

 

PET ME!!!!!!!!!

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