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dog eye muscle

Dog domestication needs to be understood as a coevolution between our species and this form of gray wolf.  Today, an amazing finding was released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that most domestic dogs have a muscle on the inner part of their eyebrows that allows them to make intense expressions that humans can easily read or anthropomorphize.

This muscle, called the levator anguli oculi medialis, was present in 5 out 6 dogs that were examined.  The only dog that didn’t have this muscle was a Siberian husky, which is considered a primitive dog in most dog classification schemes.

This ability to make such intense expressions that we regard as cute or “puppy dog” faces would have selective advantages in ancestral dog populations. Looking cute could elicit nurturing behavior from humans, who would make sure the dog got better food, and dogs with this muscle would have had a greater chance of survival and passing on their genes than dogs that were lacking it.

So, dogs have indeed co-evolved with humans. They have evolved several cognitive short-cuts that allow them to communicate and learn from us, and they also have evolved ways of manipulating us to benefit themselves.

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fox cat

Wildcat taxonomy is hotly contested, especially with the 2017 revision of the taxonomy of Felidae, which posits that the wildcat of Africa, the Middle East and South and Central Asia is a different species from that of Europe and the Caucasus.

The island of Corsica, once home to many insular endemic mammals during the Pleistocene, has always had a legendary wildcat, one that farmers claimed was a predator of goats and other livestock.  However, it was debated about whether this cat was a European wildcat or just a feral cat.

However, in recent days, various outlets have reported that a team of scientists is now examining this cat more closely.  Its DNA is different from the mainland European wildcat.

One hypothesis is that these “fox cats” arrived with the second human colonization of Corsica, which would put it closer to the ancestor of domestic cats than to the European one.

The current thinking is that this Corsican fox cat is a new species, but more analysis is going to be performed before anyone can make that conclusion.

If this animal arrived with people and is derived from the Middle Eastern population of Felis lybica, then it is a feral cat. However, it is a different sort of feral cat than one finds in parking lots and old warehouses.

This discovery will take a lot more work to figure out fully what it is. It may be a new species of cat, or it may give us better clues on how cats were domesticated.

It is an amazing find, and I have so many questions. And they will likely be answered in the not to distant future.

 

 

anka

Dogs come into our lives. Sometimes, they just live out their days as wonderful companions. Others wind up changing our lives for good.

Anka was the dog that change my perspective entirely. I never liked German shepherds, and I really didn’t like the working ones.

But after spending a week working with one of these dogs, I knew I would never want to be without one.

Her arrival coincided with the arrival of Quest, and Quest has wound up opening many doors for me. I came to know people with top of the line German shepherds of the three or four major types, but as time went on, new opportunities began to avail themselves.

Last November, I realized that I was about to come into to some opportunities, ones that meant I would have to spend less time working my unregistered sable dog. At the same time, she was developing some serious same sex aggression towards other female dogs, and she was losing her tolerance of Zoom, our male whippet.

We were able to manage her aggression through crate and rotate, but because I would be getting new German shepherds like her in the near future, I would be forced to spend less time with her.

And that’s no life for a truly exceptional dog.  So Anka now lives on a farm with two young boys to take care of. This dog has strong tending instincts, and she has a profound fondness for children. So I sent her to live in the perfect home– where she is the only dog.

I cried more over placing this dog than any other, but I know that my decision was a correct one. If I lived with only one dog and just wanted an active pet, I would have held onto her. She is a truly special animal, and I will always get a bit gooey whenever I see a sable working German shepherd.

As for those new opportunities, well, stay tuned to this space.

These new opportunities would never have happened without Anka. I wish I could thank her somehow, but I guess thanks is living on that nice acreage and having the perfect life.

And so the future comes. And it holds many beautiful adventures to come.

lined seahorse

Seahorse always fascinated me. When I was a kid, we’d go to the souvenir shops at the beach in North Carolina, and of course, there would be many shells and sand dollars to buy. And you could pick up a dried-out seahorse. The racks would be full of dried out seahorses, hundreds and hundreds of them.

I never really thought about seahorses as being potentially threatened by anything. My child brain could not fathom how much trouble they could be facing.  But even those species that live off the coast of the United States and Canada are under threat from pollution and over-development. They are also in demand for Chinese traditional medicine, and with the Chinese economy growing as rapidly as it has for the past few decades, this demand has only increased the pressure for both species.

Two species found in the Western Atlantic are the lined seahorse (Hippocampus erectus) and the longsnout or slender sea horse (H. reidi).  The lined sea horse has a more northerly distribution than the longsnout, but their ranges do overlap from North Carolina to Venezuela. The two species do not readily hybridize in the wild, though they certainly have done so in captivity.

With the lined sea horse being listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN and the longsnout as “near threatened,” there are real conservation concerns for both species, and they are indeed being bred in captivity now with hopes of giving a boost to the dwindling wild populations.

However, these two species are often housed together in aquarium and zoos, and they have interbred.  A recent paper in the Journal for Zoo and Aquarium Research has identified a simple molecular technique for identifying hybrids in captive populations, but the paper also notes the possible issues with hybrids.

The obvious problem is that conservation plans for restoring species are designed to restore a particular species, not hybrids between the two. Yes, this is the big boondoggle behind conserving species that hybrid with another, but it is one thing to have hybrids readily occurring in the wild. And it is quite another if hybrids largely exist because of aquarium practices.

So the authors urge zoos and aquariums to stop putting these two species together and to work much harder at maintaining “purebred” populations of each species.

However, the authors point out that the hybrids could be useful for conservation in another way. With improved seahorse husbandry techniques, various farms could potentially breed populations of hybrid seahorses and fill the needs of the growing Chinese market.

These two species may have split from their common ancestor over 14 million years ago, but hybrids between fish species can happen between species that have been divergent for many millions of years.

Humanity’s effects upon the ocean have been greatly underestimated.  Much of what has happened to the ocean has been out of our sight for so long that we assumed that all was fine.

But future for many species of seahorse is not secure at all, and if we are to be proactive and work on restoring diminishing stocks of various species, we must work on controlling potential problems that can come from hybridization in captivity.

So for conservation purposes, we must try to keep strains distinct for those that could be released into the wild, but for the Chinese medicine market, breed the mutts.
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yakutian megafaunal wolf

The Siberian Times reports that the head of a massive wolf was discovered in the permafrost in Yakutia (Sakha Republic of Russia).  The head includes much of the soft tissue, as well as its golden-colored fur. The head is 40 cm (15. 7 inches long), which is pretty large when compared to modern wolf specimens.

Researchers in Russia and Japan will be examining the DNA from the soft tissue to see where it fits in modern wolf and dog phylogeny of which there are still many questions.

This wolf is a good example of what have been termed “megafaunal wolves,” very large gray wolves that lived during the Pleistocene. Robert Wayne of UCLA, a leading canid molecular geneticists, thinks that some form of Pleistocene megafaunal wolf is the progenitor of the domestic dog.  These wolves would have been expert hunters of large bison, reindeer, and horses, and they may have been semi-nomadic, following large herds of ungulates across the steppes and taiga. These semi-nomadic wolves would have been quite easily attached to humans, who were hunting and traveling in much the same way.

Also of note, this wolf has golden colored fur.  In 2015, I postulated a speculative hypothesis that the original Pleistocene wolves were more often golden in color, rather than gray.  When humans started hunting wolves extensively during the Neolithic and into modern times, wolves that were gray were selected for because they could more easily hide from human hunters. Gray color in the dead of winter in many European and Western Asian forests would have been great camouflage against the winter tree trunks and undergrowth of the forest.

Some wolves, especially tundra wolves from northern Russia and Finland, are still often golden in color, as are those in Central Asia.

Golden sable color is quite widespread in domestic dogs, but it is far less common in wolves. So it is quite possible that this coloration is so dominant in domestic dogs because the wolves that gave rise to them were this color.

This massive wolf with golden fur certainly adds some credence to my speculations, but only time will tell what this ancient, massive wolf’s head has in store for us.

But is an amazing find. No doubt about it!

Update: Researchers in Sweden, not Japan or Russia, will be examining its DNA. 

 

isle royale wolf

This year, several wolves were relocated from Minnesota and Ontario’s Michipicoten Island to Isle Royale.  These wolves were brought to the island to restore a moribund wolf population that had dwindled down to two individuals in the autumn 2018. These wolves had been suffering from a severe inbreeding depression, and because ice bridges almost never form in Lake Superior to connect the island to mainland Minnesota, it has become virtually impossible for wolves to walk to the island and add new genes to the population.

Climate change is, of course, to blame for this problem, but it also means that the island’s wolf and moose population dynamics that have been studied for decades are now going to be managed through occasional introductions of wolves that are not related to those living on the island.

Over the next few years, as many as 30 wolves will be released upon the island. This will create diverse founding population from which several packs can form.

But it now means that the biology of Isle Royale’s wolves will be managed by people.  People will be bringing new wolves to the island, not the ice bridges.

And we will be doing it for the rest of time.

This situation leads to certain questions about Isle Royale as a truly natural system. It is not. It is sort of a wildlife reservation in which two relatively rare species in the Upper Midwest are given a sort of illusory freedom to live in a way in which humans will mostly leave them alone.

But it’s not at all a Pre-Columbian ecosystem. Indeed, the main species that inhabited Isle Royale were Canada lynx and woodland caribou, both of which aren’t found there at all.  A population of coyotes also lived there, but the wolves made short work of them when they came over in the middle part of the twentieth century.

I do support the restoration of wolves to Isle Royale, but it is like everything else to do with wolves in this era. Some wolves in Alaska, far northern Canada, and Russia might still have lives that are true wilderness areas. Many of those wolves may never see a person in their entire lives.

But the wolves that live Western and Eastern Europe and Southern Canada and the Lower 48 live is worlds that are still dominated in by humans. Even if humans do leave behind some wild areas, the human footprint upon their lives is not inconsequential.

Humans have changed the climate, which has made ice bridges far less common in the Great Lakes.

Humans have also destroyed woodland caribou populations. Only a single herd of woodland caribou can be found in the Lower 48, and it dwindled down to a single individual, which was captured this winter.

Humans have pushed the Canada lynx into a range that essentially is just Canada and the Northern Rocky Mountain states.

Humans have made it so that wolves do very well in three Great Lakes states, but they don’t really exist anywhere else in the Midwest. They are absent from New England and Appalachians.

But they have Isle Royale and lots of moose to hunt.

We will give them that. It is the least we can do. And we will continue to learn from them in the deepest hopes that we can save some of them and the habitat they need to thrive. And if we can save a bit for them, maybe we can save ourselves, as the planet warms and politicians either do little to nothing or deny the looming threat as a hoax from some malevolent body.

So we will manage the wolf population now. This management will come from addition, while in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, the management will come from subtraction. In a few years, the rest of the wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will be managed with the minus sign.

And it will have to do. Because that’s what our civilization will tolerate.

 

no god

I don’t believe in the supernatural.  The natural is fantastical enough without needing some anthropomorphic figure that controls all forces of nature and also justice.  The more I see of humanity and nature, the less I believe that such a figure is likely, and such a figure could not be contained in the ancient edicts of scripture and clergy. It is not that I am rebellious or angry. It’s that I can no longer be illusioned.

To not believe and live in Norway is a lot different than to be in the same theological position and happen to live in West Virginia.  I no longer do, of course, but when I did live there, I felt that I always had to keep my mouth shut.

I no longer feel so constrained. I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or the Devil.  I came to this conclusion in my 20s, though by the time I was 16, my own version of Christianity had a deist divinity and the Christ figure was but a metaphor.

I never was “born again,” but when I was younger I pretended that I was. Maybe, it was all like make-believe in the literal sense of the two words. Maybe if I just made myself believe it would all work out.

I knew things were going to be strange when I was the only student in my tenth grade biology class who believed that humans resulted from evolution. Most of my classmates either believed in creationism, but the more enlightened ones had some belief that all other organisms evolved. Humans did not. Humans were still a special creation of God.

Christianity and I were never good fits. I remember getting in trouble for praising God for my new pet duck when the pastor asked for praises at the beginning of worship service. I was told that this was not something one praised, but when you’re in the first grade and crazy about animals, there couldn’t be anything to be happier about, right?

My parents were uncomfortable with me leaving my dinosaur figurines behind the rear glass of their car.  They were okay with evolution. We even went to a church that was okay with evolution in terms of doctrine, but lots of people who went to that church were not okay with it.  Some of them may have doubted whether dinosaurs existed at all  and would think that my parents were doing me a great disservice.

I tried really hard to be a Christian and remain curious and skeptical about the world. I found that I could not reconcile the things I found out about nature with the cosmos as described in the Bible.

Further, I came to resent Christians’ hateful obsession with homosexuality. Though I am hetero and cis, I realize that both these things are not of my own choosing. I don’t remember when I chose to be into girls or why I am okay with being stinky old man. I had an epiphany in the eight grade that whatever God I worshiped could not damn people for their sexuality. That would be like damning someone for the color of their skin.

I spent my adolescence trying to reconcile my values and knowledge with Christianity. I wound up discarding lots of Christian doctrine. And then I realized that I should discard the whole thing.

Finding values based in secular morality has not been tough for me. However, realizing that others could not see that their own morality was ultimately secular– they wouldn’t kill  or rape someone because God told them to– was one of the hardest things to deal with.

At one point in my life I was active in the Democratic Party. As an undergraduate I campaigned hard for John Kerry. I had been told that West Virginia was in play, and that I should be doing all I could to get people to vote Democrat.

It turned out that West Virginia had undergone a political sea change in the years in which I was maturing into a young activist. For most of my childhood, no one would admit to being a Republican for fear that you’d be cast in league with Herbert Hoover, the great villain of the 1930s.  But in those years in which I was becoming an adult, the state shifted hard to the right. Fundamentalist Christianity and a dying coal industry were working hard among the rural populace.

I attended college with many kids who were first generation college students. I was aghast at the Iraq War, and many of them were too.

However, when I asked them to vote Democrat, they would say something like “Bush is a Christian.”  I got that answer so often that I wondered if there would ever be any hope for humanity if people could use that religious identification as a justification for political choices.

I was growing more and more skeptical about the world.  And I realized at one point that I needed to let it go.

And I was a quiet atheist for several years, but one day, while perusing the new Youtube on my laptop, I came across Kent Hovind’s lecture “Dinosaurs and the Bible.” The man was an obvious huckster, a true flimflam man from the days patent medicine, who also sold his own patent medicine in the form of laetrile, a supposed cancer cure that is actually the cyanide in the seeds of fruit-bearing plants.

When I finished watching that monstrosity, I was certain that I could never be brought into believing again. I would have to hide my atheism, but at some point, I did become more public with it.

I am not ashamed that I don’t believe in God and that I never will again. As time marches on, my nation is becoming more and more secular, just like the other formerly majority protestant countries in Europe.  It has just taken the US a lot longer.

The fact that so much of Christianity is now tied up in the worship of Trump pretty much means the eventual downfall of the institution in the United States. His are the politics of the old and angry, stilling holding onto a world that will never exist again.

I will never learn to live in God. I will instead learn to live with the reality that my time is finite. In that finite existence, I must be who I want to be and nothing else. If this is offensive, then you stand to be offended. But I will not hide what I am and what I seek to be.

Someday, I will cease to exist. The same goes for the oak tree that grows tall on a distant ridge. Its acorns feed the deer, the squirrels, the turkeys, and bears. It will live through many generations of its beneficiaries then on some windy day in March, the great wooden edifice will come crashing down. It will decompose into the leaf litter, restoring its elements to the soil from whence it came.

I am no more significant in the grand scheme than an oak or the squirrels that bury its acorns. We are all biotic beings, produced through the great story of evolution.

Who could need anything else? Why invoke some supernatural thing, when the natural explanation is so wondrous and so complete?

And that’s where I fall on that great question. I wager this, because I cannot live in the unlikely wager that the Bible is correct, when it is wrong about so many fundamental things. Not just wrong about biology or cosmology but wrong about moral questions too. Slavery is not condemned in the Bible nor is genocide. Indeed, both are commanded at  various books.

So this is where I stand. A heathen but an intellectually honest one.

 

 

 

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