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When you’re super-generalist, like a coyote:

99 problems coyote

This works best if you pronounce “niche” the American way.  I know. I don’t like the way it sounds either.

 

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coyote

Whenever this civilization met coyotes, be at Jamestown, the Indiana frontier, or along the Missouri River, our relations with them were not cordial. We came out of Europe. Europe had waged war on wolves, where wolf attacks on people and livestock were certainly a problem, but in the lands that became the United States, predators were cleared off.  The bigger forms of wolf held on in northern Minnesota and in the Texas and Louisiana pine woods.

The lead flew at the wolfy kind. So did the steel trap and poison. The coursing dog did its work, as did the tracking hound and the big grappling hunting bulldog or mastiff.

And the coyote, instead of becoming reduced to a mere relict range, wound up colonizing a whole continent. Coyotes are in Newfoundland and Alaska. They have expanded to the south as well, and now coyotes rest at the edge of the swamps of Darien in Panama. Beyond those swamps lies Colombia and a whole new continent to wander through.

This little wolf, which once picked at the dire wolf and Smilodon’s kills, thrives because of our persecution. We have killed countless numbers of coyotes over the years, and they now live nicely in virtually every city in the country. Everyone lives near coyotes now. They don’t have to worry about larger predators driving them or killing them. They can live nicely on garbage and cats and the fruit from our ornamental trees.

There is something to admire about an animal that thrives in part because we’ve changed the ecosystems so much. The coyote is the biggest and most charismatic (and the most problematic) of these species, but the raccoon, the red fox, the skunk, the barred owl, and the opossum have all had their fortunes rise as we have “settled” this continent.

They are these barbarous dogs, unchained, uncollared, and untrained, that come slipping in.  We hate their liberty in the same way we hate a free-roaming dog, but we hate them more because they are the wolf we just couldn’t kill off.

We tried. Their biology just laughed at our vain attempts. And they are here, there, and everywhere to stay as the Anthropocene trundles on.

They got their start running the jackrabbits, which is one reason they can run with the swiftness and agility of a sighthound, and now, in their current hybrid “Eastern” form, they moved from lifting fawns from the coverts and have grown bigger and more wolfy to run down the adults.

This is a thriving beast, a utilitarian model that can live as a mousing fox, a scavenging jackal, or pack up and hunt like a proper wolf.

And you have to admire that versatility, that cunning, even if you hate them with every fiber of your being.

They got us buffaloed. And we didn’t see it coming.  It got our goat, because it watched where we tied it up.

 

 

 

tristan moorhen

Off the southeastern coast of Africa, the British Empire still holds onto some islands. The most famous of these is St. Helena, where Napoleon lived out his final days in his second exile thousands of miles from France and Europe and any trouble he might want to cause.

On two of these islands, though, a taxonomic controversy has brewed for decades. On Gough Island and Tristan da Cuhna, insular forms of moorhen (also known as gallinules in much of the US) existed.  They were smaller than the common moorhen, and they possessed shorter wings. In this way, they exhibited both insular dwarfism, a common trait of organism evolving on isolated islands, and the loss of flight that sometimes happens when birds evolve without selection pressures from predation to ensure flight in the population.

The moorhens on Gough Island, nearly 400 miles away, were quite similar to those on Tristan da Cunha, and in the 1950s, some Gough island moorhens were introduced to Tristan da Cunha.

These Gough Island birds did quite well on the new island. where an estimated 2,500 breeding pairs now exist. However, because these birds were introduced from Gough Island, they are not regarded as native and are not protected.

Traditionally, experts have regarded the Gough and Tristan moorhens as distinct species. The Gough species is called Gallinula comeri, while the extinct Tristan species is called Gallinula nesiotis.

However, over the years, it has been suggested that the two were of the same species, and the introduction of the Gough species was actually a reintroduction.

Not many DNA studies have been performed on these birds, but the most notable is Groenenberg et al (2008).   This study examined samples that have been collected over the past two centuries, including a specimen from Tristan da Cunha that was collected in 1864.

The authors found that the two forms were roughly genetically distant from each other as different subspecies of the common moorhen. Indeed, if one were wanting to keep the common moorhen a monophyletic species, one would be forced to include these two insular forms as subspecies of the common moorhen.

The authors found that the Gough moorhen had replaced the Tristan form, and they were different taxa. However, because their genetic difference was equivalent to the genetic difference between some common moorhen subspecies, the authors proposed that these two forms be regarded as subspecies, which they propose as Gallinula nesiotis nesiotis and G.n. comeri.

These birds are most closely related to African and European moorhens than they are to South American ones,

However, the debate gets fairly interesting here because the South American common moorhens are typically considered subspecies of a quite wide-ranging species. When the authors performed their research, the common moorhen was believed to have existed in Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas, but in 2011, the New World population was given full species status, which is usually called the common gallinule. Taxonomists fixed the paraphyly of the common moorhen by creating this new American species (Gallinula galeata).

But this study does not fix the controversy about the moorhens on Tristan da Cunha. Even if the Gough and Tristan populations constitute different subspecies, a real debate can be made as to whether the birds on Tristan da Cunha represent an introduction or a reintroduction.

And this is where the subjectivity part of taxonomy sets in. If the Gough subspecies behaves in the ecosystem in an equivalent way to the extinct Tristan subspecies on Tristan da Cunha, then one could just make the argument that the arrival of these birds in the 1950s was a reintroduction. If they behave in a fundamentally different way from the extinct Tristan birds, then they were simply introduced and certainly don’t require any special protections as a native species under the law.

But the subjective part is where to draw the line between being fundamentally similar or fundamentally different. Yes, the Gough subspecies is genetically different, and it may have some attributes that cause it behave just slightly differently from the extinct Tristan subspecies.

However one answers this question, one should keep in mind that it cannot answered so easily.

This debate is quite strong, not just in gallinules and moorhens, but a big debate exists within some quarters as to whether the feral horses of the American West represent a rewilding from the Pleistocene. Horse evolved in North America and then became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene, but a huge debate exists on how to classify the various late Pleistocene horses. They may have been a single species that was very close to the modern horse. In which case, the feral horses of the American West might be argued to be rewilding population. A more recent study on cheek teeth and ancient mitochondrial DNA of these horses revealed there were three species of horse in North America at the end of the Pleistocene, one of which was very close to the modern horse.

But the Pleistocene ended around 10,000 years ago, and the ecosystems that maintained horses on the range no longer exist in the same way. In this case, one could not honestly say that this was a rewilding. It would be an introduction. (That’s where I stand on the horses as native wildlife controversy.)

However, I’ve often thought about what would happen if we somehow got greater prairie chickens to thrive on the East Coast once again. A subspecies of the greater prairie chicken called the heath hen once ranged all the way down the coast from New England to Northern Virginia. It was a colonial staple, and it was hunted out of existence.

The last population of these birds lived on Martha’s Vineyard, and the last one died in 1932. Attempts have been made to introduce greater prairie chickens to the island in an attempt to restore something like the heath hen to the island, but these attempts have fails.  If such an attempt were successful, it would be very much like the replacement of the Tristan moorhen with the Gough subspecies.  A debate could be had as to whether it was was reintroduction or not, but at least it would be something.

So the story of the moorhens on these South Atlantic islands tells the story of a controversy. It is one that rages in the conservation community all the time. Can you restore an extinct subspecies by introducing another related subspecies?

That answer is never going to be fully black and white. Ecological as well as taxonomic considerations have to be examined. Otherwise, someone could easily make the argument that wolf reintroduction and conservation are silly ideas, because, well, domestic dogs are everywhere. Dogs are a subspecies of wolf, so they just replaced them.

So this controversy will rage hard as we try to deal with this nasty extinction mess. We don’t always have all the answers. We don’t always have the best solutions. But we need to think it through carefully. It’s all gray or grayish.

mallards

Common mallard = gray wolf

Domestic mallard (Pekin, Cayuga, Rouen, Khaki Campbell) = domestic dog

Black duck = Eastern wolf

Mottled duck  = red wolf

Mexican duck = coyote

Laysan duck = Ethiopian wolf

Hawaiian duck = African golden wolf

Gadwall= Golden jackal

4,000 year old dog

The skull of a 4,000 year-old dog has been used to reconstruct what its head may have looked like.

The dog was quite wolf-like and described by the BBC as being about “the size of a large collie.” In the UK, “collie” almost always refers to border collies, so this dog probably would have been on the large side of a medium-sized dog.

The dog’s skull was found at Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn on on Mainland, Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. 3D images of the skull were use to make the reconstruction, which was created in clay. The artist then made the fur look like that of a European wolf, which is not entirely unreasonable given the morphology of the skull itself.

The dog may have been used to tend sheep or guard settlements. It was clearly a respected creature in the society that interred in the tomb. Maybe it was a valued working animal or simply a totem of its people.

Whatever it was, it was clearly more wolf-like that one might have expected from a dog from this late a date. The Ancient Egyptians, who were contemporaries of these Orkney cairn tomb builders, were already breeding dogs that were quite distinct from wolves.

But the truth of the matter is that this dog was significantly smaller than most modern and contemporary European wolves, and the mainland of Scotland was full of wolves that were probably still interbreeding with domestic dogs on occasion at this time.

So the Orkney Islanders from 4,000 years ago clearly had dogs, but I imagine this dog as being something like a Norwegian elkhound, a laika, or one of the old German herding dogs, like the Thuringian sheepdog.

I would love to see more reconstructions from ancient dogs skulls.  I would love to see the Goyet Cave canid and the Razboinichya Cave “dog” undergo a similar reconstruction.

Yes, this is art, but it is art that is informed through science.

 

coyote killing cat

An analysis of coyote feces from various parts of Southern California has revealed something rather shocking.  Yes, coyotes are coming into people’s lawns and cultivated gardens and eating lots of fruit, but the analysis revealed that cats comprise 20 percent of their diet in urban areas.

This is in direct contradiction of Dan Flores’s contention that coyotes usually just kill cats because they are competitors and leave their carcasses to rot in the sun.  He makes this claim in both Coyote America and made it again on Joe Rogan’s podcast.   If cats comprise 20 percent of their diet, coyotes clearly are targeting them as a prey species.

If one thinks about it carefully, cats are about the best meat a coyote can get in most urban environments.  Where there is civilization, there are many cats. and when you’re  a 25-30 pound coyote, an 8-10 pound cat would sustain you for some time. Most indoor-outdoor cats somewhat fat and usually lack any skills for living in anything like “the wild,” so of course, coyotes are going to target cats.

One of the authors of the new study is Justin Brown, who also appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast after Dan Flores. I much preferred the discussion with Justin Brown, who was polite and knowledgeable about urban carnivorans, but it was obvious that he disagreed with some Flores’s airy-fairy ideas about coyotes.

Indeed, I think the reason why Flores’s book about coyotes gets so much attention is that it does present the coyote in a way that sanitizes it from what it really is. Coyotes are predators. They do kill sheep. They do kill dogs. They do take cats. They have killed people, including fully adult Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia.

These facts should not make us want to exterminate coyotes. Indeed, when someone says they want to do such a thing, I wonder if they might have come up with a more realistic goal in life like blowing up the sun or draining the ocean.

We err when we turn coyotes into terrible predators that deserve only death, but we also err when we turn them into the prick-eared Labradors of nature.

We should admire the coyote as the one of those Anthropocene wolves, a sort of North American super wolf that has thrived in spite of our attempts to eradicate it from the landscape. We have to adjust our behavior to live with them. Not letting cats go outside is probably a good idea, not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of lots of native species that cats target in their hunting forays.

We also need to understand that livestock producers must deal with coyote depredations.  Yes, we can encourage them to use nonlethal methods.  However, we shouldn’t be as judgmental of someone killing the odd one to protect livestock.

So yes, we now have evidence that coyotes are targeting cats in urban environments. If we love our cats, we’ll keep them inside. Cats don’t need to be outside to be happy, and they will never become a coyote’s breakfast if they stay where the Old Song Dog won’t be able to catch them.

This shouldn’t have been much of a shock. A similar study in 2009 in Tucson, revealed that 42 percent of an urban coyote’s diet consisted of cat meat.

The discrepancy in these two studies probably comes from the fact that coyote predation upon cats has become much better known by the public in the past decade, and Californians probably have at least heard of the studies that show how many birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians cats kill every year.

So yes, if you let your cat outside, you are taking risks. Some people think it’s worth it.  That’s okay, but don’t blame the coyotes for doing what comes naturally. They are trying to survive in an human dominated world, and you’re providing them with an easy, nutritious prey source.

Egyptians saluki

A big part of what a dog breed is can be defined culturally.  A breed is often defined by what its fanciers believe its defining characteristics, and they set what the essential traits and bloodlines of that breed can be. We currently have breeds with rather open registries, like Carolina dogs, a breed of which I’m sure includes a few dogs that are just Down South chow mixes. And we have all those closed registry breeds in the various established kennel clubs and societies throughout the world.

I currently live with two dog breeds that have quite divergent cultural definitions of their breed.

The saluki-tazi or “salukimorph” type of dog has been in existence since at least the Bronze Age.  These dogs appear on lots of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy from the 18th Dynasty.  Lots of debate exists on what is a true saluki here in the West, and because we do not have a true breed foundation date or complete pedigrees going back thousands of years, this debate can be quite subjective.

The German shepherd dog, by contrast, developed in its current form after the foundation of the SV on April 22, 1899. The breed is based off a breeding program that inbred quite tightly off a single Thuringian sheepdog that was bred to dogs with a similar “wolfy” phenotype from southern Germany. This organization was the second one founded in Germany to standardize a sheepdog breed from the various landrace herders that could be found throughout the nation. In 1891, an organization called the Phylax Society was created with that purpose in mind, but this organization was prone to infighting about whether working characteristics or conformation were most important in breeding a standardized German pastoral dog.  This organization was gone by 1894, and Max von Stephanitz and Artur Meyer revived the idea based upon breeding a standardized form of wolf-like shepherd dog.

German shepherds, unlike salukis, have a defined date for their formation, and although Stephanitz speculated about the ancient origins of these dogs, the dogs that we call German shepherd dogs today are clearly defined by phenotype and bloodline. Yes, a debate exists about their conformation, particularly the amount of angulation in the rear, but there is also a debate about whether white ones should be a distinct breed (and there are actually now two white German shepherd breeds in existence now). There are Shiloh shepherds, king shepherds, American Alsatians, Saarloos wolfhonden, Czechoslovakian vlcak, and the volkosoby. The first three are based upon breeding an oversized, less rear-angulated GSD, and the American Alsatian is supposed to resemble a dire wolf (somehow).  The final three are GSD crosses with wolf. An assumption exists that there is bit of wolf in GSD, and adding a bit more wolf will somehow improve them. The vlcak and volkosoby are mostly GSD in ancestry and have successfully been used as working dogs, while the Saarloos wolfhond remains a bit of novelty.

And then we have the Blue Bay shepherds, which have a little wolf in them, but they are based upon dilute GSDs, which are considered faulty by the breed standard.

But these breed exist only because there is a clearly defined breed with a culture and fancy that have clearly defined its traits and characteristics. The spin-off breeds exist because people want dogs with those traits, which will never be recognized as acceptable by the mainstream of the breed.

German shepherds do not have a lot of genetic diversity as a breed.  Even dogs that don’t really look like each other or share common ancestors all derived from Horand von Grafrath and three of his grandsons out of Hektor von Schwben.  The GSDs we have tested on Embark have had relatively high genetic COIs. The breed average is around 30 percent, while golden retriever breed averages are close to 20 percent.

This is not to say that German shepherds are a genetic mess. The breed founders must have purged a lot of weakness and genetic anomalies out of the foundation stock, which can be a way of establishing a relatively inbred strain that strong and viable.

Our saluki’s parents have come out as purebred salukis, but their genetic inbreeding coefficients have been less than 3 percent. I have seen crosses between Western breeds that have higher genetic COIs than purebred salukis.

The saluki breed must have developed over the millennia with selection for coursing traits out of a diverse set of dogs. My guess is that gene flow existed between what became salukis and the local pariah dog populations. Then they just selected which puppies could run, and then they bred back into the general saluki bloodline.

So we have one breed founded by late nineteenth and early twentieth century “scientific breeding” methods, and another breed that just developed over a vast territory over the long annals of history.

I’ve had people tell me that Streamer is not a saluki because he is brindle and because his father is a Central Asian tazi.  That’s because Western saluki fanciers have decided that salukis can be only from Middle Eastern countries, and brindle salukis in the UK, usually from caravan people, were often crossed with brindle greyhounds but still registered as salukis.

Most people are unaware that Iran borders on Turkmenistan, a place where tazis exist. The border between Turkmenistan and Iran was clearly defined during the Great Game period of competition between the Russian and British Empires in the nineteenth century.

But those dogs have been traded through Persia and Central Asia for thousands of years. The political demarcation by two European great powers in the past 150ish years is but a blip on a map. However, that political demarcation is seen as a breed barrier in much of the saluki fancy, and thus, my dog cannot be a saluki. He’s a cross between a desert-bred saluki and Central Asian tazi.

What I have found interesting, though, is that I have developed a certain cognitive dissonance about these two different types of dog. I am totally fine with the German shepherd dog as defined by the established breed clubs, but I do think the saluki people are being just a bit short-sighted.

It may be that I see the German shepherd as something recently created. The characteristics and bloodline are clearly defined in the breed. I don’t see salukis the same way. I see salukis as a more natural, more organic sort of breed, one that exists almost as a distinct subspecies of dog, one that even has its own ecomorphs that have been adapted for colder and hotter climates.

This dissonance and my acceptance of cultural norms are issues that I will continue to wrestle with in my head. We all have some level of cognitive dissonance as we learn to live in a complex world, but it is still worth exploring and ferreting out our contradictions to understand what we truly believe.

And belief is a big part of what a dog breed essentially is.  It is not an act of faith necessarily, but it is the acceptance of the society and strictures that allow that essentialism to accept what a particular dog is.

When we start thinking about dog breeds, we need to explore the cultures that define them as such, as well as how that culture developed over the years. This can lead to some uncomfortable conversations and some uncomfortable self-realization, but it can help our understanding of why we think the way we do.

And that self-awareness is useful if we wish to continue breeding and working with dogs.

 

 

 

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