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Grandpa’s Bird

aududbon wild turkeyIf you were to travel the back roads along the wild border between Calhoun and Gilmer Counties and mention my name to some well-worn local, you would probably get “You mean that guy who kills all the turkeys?”

I am Scottie V. Westfall III.  Junior is my father. The elder has passed on.

I have never killed a turkey, though I’ve certainly seen the birds slinking along on gray November days, the sort of days when you hope against all hope that a white-horned stag might come slinking out of the thickets and into rifle range.   When the bipedal fantails come trudging out of the gray gloom, I’ve been sorely tempted, but I’ve held my fire.

Not in season. Let them be.

My grandpa killed 8 turkeys in one season. The limit is 2.

He saw them as the Holy Grail of wild game.  He made his own calls and spent hours scouting and “chumming” them.  “Chumming,” of course, meant the copious dropping the “yellow call” in the March woods,  and “yellow call” was cracked corn. Baiting turkeys was illegal as taking more than the yearly bag limit.

He and often argued over conservation issues, but he liked playing the scofflaw, a sort twentieth century version of the old European poacher who loved to flaunt the king’s edicts about the king’s game.

Turkey hunts in spring begin before the sun rises.  The birds start moving and then start courting once there is just enough light to see, and the big tom birds drop from their treetop roosts and go about the business of fighting and fanning before the often reluctant hens.

The trick is to hit the woods before the birds come down and begin the process of “talking turkey.”  The talk a man gives the tom bird is supposed to be that of a dopey but receptive hen that is looking for a male company but just can’t make her way toward him.

If a tom is “henned up” with plenty of female company, he’s not likely to leave them to look for the yelping idiot on a distant ridge. He’s going to be content to stay with his harem and fan and puff  up for them.

The best hunters have strategies for the birds, but the very best– the ones who shoot 8 birds in a season– use the yellow call. They risk the game warden’s fines, but if he really wants the bird, it’s a risk that some will take.

Before there was ever a turkey season, my grandpa set out a bunch of game-farmed Eastern wild turkeys in the back country. The dumb things were too tame to be sporting birds, so he took to harassing and harrying with sticks.

And they soon learned to fear man, and they thrived in the backwoods.  When their numbers were high enough, my grandpa opened his own season and shot a tom.  He was totally flaunting the North American model of wildlife conservation. He’d set out private birds on private land, and now he was opening his own private season.

I can’t say that I approve of such things. I’m more or less in love with public wildlife model that has served our game species so well. I don’t hate conservation laws, which are mostly based upon the most rigorous science available.

But a few days ago, I saw a few big toms out fanning in a pasture. The greenness of the new April grass painted a pastel promenade ground, and the bird’s iridescent feathers were shining in the April sun.

I saw in them the beauty that had so beguiled my grandfather. They drove him into the scofflaw world of sniping turkeys with a .243.  They were what led him the regular haunts in the March woods with buckets of yellow call.

“You gobble. You die,” said the vanity plate on my his Ford pickup.

And for the turkeys he took, it certainly meant death.

But in their gobbling, he truly lived. He was a wild beast of the woods as his ancestors were, hunting hard the wild game without any regard for such artificial abstractions as law and conservation science.  It is the way that our kind lived for much of our 200,000 year existence. It is a way that has brought down many species, including the passenger pigeons which used to fill the skies on warm spring days.

The pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, more than 19 years before my grandfather was born. They died off as the wild turkey nearly did. We just couldn’t stop killing them.

The turkey was saved, though, and is doing well.  And the bag limits and seasons get more liberal every year.

I think of my grandpa when I see these birds on clear April days. I know that he would be out there questing for them, yearning for them, coaxing them, ready to harvest as a wild hunting man should.

And I can only come up short. I’m an ersatz hunter-gatherer, wet around the ears, domesticated by the post-industrial world.

Yet still seeking that essential wildness that lies in gray woods of my people.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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chinese mountain cat night

We lump. We split. We recombine. We split again.

Taxonomic disputes. Cladistics. Phylogenetic trees. We quibble. We quarrel.

I particularly love these disputes. They are what happens in this era of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis and the rise of cladistic classification models.

Ever since it was known to modern science, the tufted-eared wildcat of mountains of Qinghai and Sichuan were thought be a unique species, an endemic mountain cat of China.

It was called Felis bieti after the missionary naturalist Felix Biet who was stationed in Tibet. Pronounced the proper French way, Felis bieti sounds a lot like Felix Biet, though he was not the person who named it. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, the scholarly French mammalogist, named the beast.

And all was fine taxonomy-wise.

Then, as the Chinese population grew, they began to put lots and lots of pressure on the mountains. They poisoned the pikas and rodents, and the cat’s numbers have started to drop.

It might be easy to get people interested in preserving the cat.

Even more so, because its classical taxonomy has been called into question.  A 2007 genetic study that sought to find the origins of the domestic cat found that the Felis bieti was actually so close to the wildcat that it ought to be regarded as a subspecies. This was a limited mtDNA study, which has its potential problems.

It could be that there is indeed a unique Felis bieti but that it has hybridized so much with wildcats or their domestic kin that they have a wildcat-like mtDNA sequence. So we’re going to need some nuclear DNA studies to confirm whether this is a subspecies or not.

If it turns out to be wildcat subspecies, then it might actually be easier to rally support for conserving it. People love cats so much that it often gets very hard to have discussions about them as invasive species, so when we have a potential close cousin of Fluffy or Morris that might go extinct, it might be easier to get people interested in preserving them.

These cats are found not far from the where the last wild giant pandas roam. The Chinese mountain cat, as it is known in English, isn’t quite as rare as the panda.

Taxonomic quibbles and quarrels do have political consequences.  Some of them are good. Some are them are negative.

We use the information the best information we have, but we always manipulate symbols in order to rally support for our causes.

The tufted wildcat of China might be one of those species we might easily manipulate.  The Scottish wildcat has been called “the Highland tiger, ” and even though it’s unlikely that any pure Scottish wildcats still exist, it has captured the imagination of the British conservation-minded community.

Perhaps something could be done here as well.  People love that which is nearest to their own understanding, and domestic cats losing their closest wild kin is something that would bother many.

This is what has helped wolves in their public relations and led to their ultimate success as a conservation story.

A little wildcat could have a lot of appeal, and maybe it can be saved, bieti or silvestris or whatever it is.

I have to admit that I am bit of a Joe Rogan Experience fan. I generally watch the podcasts that are about politics, hunting, and animals. I’m not really into pugilism stuff.

I actually came to Steven Rinella’s work through Joe Rogan’s program, and a few years ago, he mentioned something about Dan Flores and his work on the “American Serengeti,” which is actually a book by Flores that I have not read.  It is about the megafauna of the North American Great Plains, and it is a topic I’m somewhat interested in.

But as you know from reading this blog, I am a big coyote fan. I have had an experience with a male coyote in the woods, which I blogged about right after it happened I blogged about right after it happened, and I’ve written some more literary accounts of this encounter (but not for public consumption yet).

I then heard that Flores had a book about coyotes that came out, and I decided to read it.

And I didn’t like it.

I found that he adhered way too much to the paleontology of canids and pretty much ignored all the latest molecular data. At one point in the book, he makes the comparison that the genetic difference between a coyote and wolf is like the genetic difference between a human and an orangutan.  I think that assertion comes from an mtDNA study from 1993, which was the first to say that dogs were wolves and that “red wolves” had no unique mtDNA haplotypes.  It posited a 4% difference in the mtDNA sequence from wolves and coyotes, which is pretty accurate.  (Ironically, this study comes from Robert Wayne of UCLA, whom Flores largely discounts in his interview with Rogan at about 22 minutes.)

But mtDNA studies are notorious for leading people astray when we’re dealing with closely related species that can and do hybridize. For example, initial studies on mtDNA in European wolves found no evidence of dog hybridization, but because virtually all matings between dogs and wolves in the wild involve a male dog mating with a female wolf, the influence of dog genes in European wolves never could be accurately measured. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, and thus, it misses a lot of genetic information.

More recent full-genome analyses have revealed a greater than 99 percent genetic relationship among wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs. That’s not at all equivalent to the genetic distance between humans and orangutans. In fact, we know that domestic dogs, coyotes, and wolves readily hybridize and produce fertile offspring, and no hybrids between a human and orangutan has ever been documented.

Flores pretty much rejects off-hand the more recent genome-wide studies that have found red and Eastern wolves to be hybrids with wolves and coyotes because Robert Wayne and his colleagues do not use morphological studies or pay much attention to the fossil record of canids in North America.  And the Fish and Wildlife Service adheres to the red and Eastern wolf paradigm.

I’m going to defend Wayne and his colleagues here.  You really need to be careful about morphological studies in canids.  That’s because canids can evolve quite rapidly, and there is a great tendency toward parallel evolution in the family.  I can remember when it was seriously discussed that the bush dogs of South America were a potential close relative of the dhole, based solely upon their “trenchant heel dentition.”  We now know that the bush dog is very much in the South American canid clade, probably a close relative to the maned wolf.  Until very recently, it was believed that the diminutive coyote-like golden jackals of Africa were the same species as the golden jackal of Eurasia, but a recent mtDNA study suggests a much great variance– enough to consider them separate species.  The similarities between the two forms of golden jackal likely resulted from parallel evolution.  The African “golden jackals” are actually much more closely related to wolves and coyotes, and the name “golden wolf” has been suggested for them.

This tendency to evolve rapidly is something we see in the domestic dog. Every single kennel club critic blog posts photos of dog breeds from different periods to show how much breeds change through selective breeding.  Nature selectively breeds, too, and dogs in the wild can rapidly change to fit new niches.

These issues are going to confound virtually every study on canid evolution.  This is one reason why we have nothing resembling a consensus on dog domestication. It is very hard to figure out when a sub-fossil wolf is a dog or is too much like a wolf to be a dog.

This is why I trust molecular studies far more than paleontology, and it is why I think the Fish and Wildlife Service is largely misguided in trying to hold onto the red wolf paradigm. It is possible that a recent wolf and coyote hybrid is going to look a lot like an ancient wolf-like canid, and the amount of convergence between the two can be enough to fit character-based analysis that paleontologists and anatomists use.

Also, the Fish and Wildlife Service is government, and in the US, government moves quite slowly.  I think it is going to take some time before the molecular data finally corrects these errors, but it doesn’t stop them from being errors.

The comparison of full genomes of wolves and coyotes that came out last summer pretty much ended this debate. Unless you’re going to argue over fossils, which is a dubious undertaking, I don’t think we can say that red wolves, Eastern wolves, or coyotes are what we thought they were.

Granted, Flores probably had the book at the publisher’s by the time this study came out, but the fact that he adheres to the old paradigm because Wayne and Wayne’s colleagues didn’t look at the fossils is pretty troubling.

If I were to rewrite Flores’s taxonomy, I would argue that coyotes have nothing to do with Canis edwardii.  That species was an early North American wolf that went extinct, and it could have been related to virtually any species in the genus Canis, including really divergent things like black-backed jackals.

The comparative genome study found that the most recent common ancestor of the wolf and coyote didn’t live 3.2 million years ago, as Flores asserts. Instead, it lived around 50,000 years ago, and it probably was living in Eurasia at the time. This animal was probably an archaic form of Canis lupus or maybe Canis mosbachensis.

When this animal crossed in North America, ancient North American wolves already dominated the landscape. There were also coyote-like forms of wolf, which likely weren’t coyotes at all.  The packing hunting wolf niche was already occupied by dire wolves and ancient North American dholes, so this radiation of the Eurasian wolf had to become more of a generalist to survive. The larger wolves, like the dire wolf, and the various forms of large predatory cat killed this ancestral coyote, and over time, it evolved into a smaller jackal-like canid.  This is how the coyote likely evolved the fission-fusion strategy of existence that Flores writes about. When the numbers are high, coyotes form stable packs and have relatively few young. They hunt mid-sized prey. When numbers are lower, they hunt rodents and lagomorphs, and female coyotes actually have a hormone change when the numbers are low and produce more ova during their estrus cycles. The females mate at 10 months instead of 22 months, and with more ova produced and more bitches breeding, the population can easily recover from a dire wolf or Smilodon attack. This is also why killing coyotes can actually force their numbers up, and it is one reason our intense persecution of coyotes has resulted in them spreading North, South, and to the East,

This is something that would have evolved in a mid-sized canid in the presence of many other large predators.  The fission-fusion strategy has just recently been confirmed in the Cape subspecies of black-backed jackal, which is another smaller canid that has evolved around large predators.

The Cape black-backed jackal is sort of the coyote of Southern Africa.  It is  generalist predator and scavenger, and it actually does cooperatively hunt small antelope species. It also kills sheep and goats.

It is not, however, closely related to wolves or coyotes. It is a very divergent form of Canis, which may actually be given its own genus (Lupelella) in the near future.  It has evolved coyote-like strategies for survival entirely in parallel with the coyote of North America.

This tendency toward parallel and convergent evolution in wild dog species is something that really messes up paleontology and morphological studies, and that is why the genome-wide studies are such compelling evidence. I’m dead-certain that many dinosaur specialists would love to have genomes from descendants of T. rex or the triceratops.

But those animals, like the ancient wolf- and coyote-like canids of North America, have left no descendants.

And what we likely have is a very diverse Holarctic wolf species that includes mid-size convergent jackals, massive megafauna-hunting wolves in taiga of Canada, the desert wolves of South Asia, and the all the weird domestic dogs that we have now.

That’s every bit as amazing as the older paradigm. Of course, I’m a bit of a rogue for suggesting that we include coyotes in the wolf species, but it seems to be right if we hare to adhere to cladistic classification.

This poor understanding of genetic studies actually ruined what could have been a great book on coyotes.

If you’ve ever looked into a coyote’s eyes, it is like looking into the eyes of a very bright dog.  They have so many dog-like mannerism that is hard not to see the similarity.

But you’re actually looking into the eyes of a super wolf.  This is the wolf that took all we could throw it at, and it thrived beyond our wildest expectations.

In Anthropocene, the meek do inherit the earth.

Dogs vs. hogs

Warthogs vs. side-striped jackals over a cheetah-killed impala :

(Yes. That’s a black-backed jackal on the Youtube featured image. It is not in this video).

Bring ’em back

maned wolf bring em back

Of late, there has been a trend among some with ecological and romantic flights of fancy. They call it “rewilding.”   Put wolves and beavers and moose in the Scottish Highlands and let them roam. Turn out recreated aurochs onto the great plains and marshland of the Netherlands. Or maybe clone the woolly mammoth and let it thunder across the taiga again.

Some wags have even suggested stocking the American west with the modern maned lion of Africa. As ersatz as the puny leo might be compared the great atrox lion, I don’t think many cattlemen would approve.

Life in the Anthropocene is oddly disconcerting.  Our species has risen to its highest level of technological advancement. We’ve become terrestrial deities in a world we barely understand and from which we become more and more alienated from its life processes. We think it is moral to attack indigenous seal hunters in Canada but don’t think the mass producing of extreme brachycephaly in the dogs we claim to love is even worth discussing.

Simply put, we are a mess.

But I’ve often wondered in all these conversation about rewilding, why we don’t we try something a bit easier than cloned mammoths and savage lions?

The maned wolf is big wild dog native to South America, and although it now roams the grasslands of Brazil and a few adjacent countries, it first appeared in the fossil record in the American Southwest. Its fossilized remains come from the Blancan in what is now New Mexico and Arizona.

Much has been made about the Mexican wolves that have been introduced to that country, but maned wolves were there long before the true wolves and coyotes roamed the canyons and mountains. There were there among the last of the borophagine dogs and the running dog-like hyena.  The ancestor of the modern wolf and coyote was a puny little jackal thing that roamed among the big dogs and the hyenas and the big-fanged cats as they tore into their kills.

The big bad bone-crushers and big-toothed cats are all gone.  All we can do is search around for things that were roughly contemporary with that bestiary.  The best I can come up with is the maned wolf.

And the maned wolf has a lot going for it. It’s called “wolf,” because European imaginations were so limited when it came to describing this long-legged beast of the grasslands.  It actually feeds much more like a red fox, attacking small prey in the open expanses of grass and nibbling away at fruit. It doesn’t pack up at all. It just goes around on stilt legs, hunting like the diminutive Reynard at the edges of humanity’s conquest.

In a land of chicken houses, it wouldn’t be too welcome, but in a land of open range, it wouldn’t be too much trouble. It would be a curiosity to see the red coyote on black stilts slinking along some arid grassland, pouncing upon kangaroo rats and pack rats that scurry along in range of its ears.

I don’t how it would fare in a sea of coyotes. Indeed, it is the dogs of that lineage that came to rule this continent. Different waves of Eurasian wolf species dominated the maned wolf and its kin in North America, and if many of these odd North American canids hadn’t wandered in South America, they would have been lost entirely.

South America has held onto these lineages, like a canid version of Jurassic Park, and if we are to play around with this rewilding concept a bit, I bet we could find a place to restore a few pairs of maned wolves.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, because I know fully well this will never happen. It’s not going to capture the imagination of the most romantic rewilders. It’s not a particularly fell beast like a lion or a recreated aurochs.

But if we really believe in all this rewilding stuff, why the heck not?

It is true that climate has changed since the last time maned wolves roamed the Southwest, but I am sure we can find areas that could hold them well. We might have to go to Texas, and Texas is already home to all sorts of animals that belong in tropical and semitropical savannas, like blackbuck and nilgai. I’m sure could find a good place there to set out some true North American “wolves.”

Most rewilding theories and postulates are nothing but flights of fancy, and I’m happy to indulge myself here. This isn’t going to happen, and if you push me a bit, I’m going to say this is silly.

But maybe the roar-bark of lobo-guará will someday rise among the coyote yodels on some Southwestern twilight.  The big red coyote on stilts will become a legend as the great cattle and sheep-killing wolves once did. A beast from North America’s deep past now roams the backcountry, no longer dead but on the prowl.

 

 

dire wolf mesomelas

Yep. This was an April Fools’ prank.

That’s okay. I had one pulled on me last night at the cabin where we were fishing. About 10 o’clock last night, my dad shouts “Oh my God! There is a bear in the trash!”

By the time everyone had rushed to the windows to see– and I had just been roused from slumber– it was soon revealed there was no bear.

Yes, and just as there was no bear, all that was in the post about the dire wolf’s genome being closely allied to black-backed jackals is utter nonsense.

But I have always imagined that this was a possibility, because I think our assumption that dire wolves were very closely related to modern wolves really hasn’t been tested out empirically.  We have some phylogenetic trees drawn from paleontological analysis, but one must be very careful of these studies. Parallel evolution is a very common occurrence in canids, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everything one reads about paleontology and canids needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

So yes, it’s an April Fool, but it is a definite possibility.

Oh, and please don’t hate on my dodgy “photoshop.”

dire wolf mesomelas

It was always assumed that the dire wolf and its kin, the endemic extinct North American wolves, were very closely related to modern wolves.

However, the genome of the dire wolf was just sequenced by a team of independent researchers at the Russian Institute of Cytology in Saint Petersburg.  The team of geneticists and paleontologists was led by Boris Yudin. The team wanted to have access to the remains of dire wolves at Rancho La Brea, but they were instead able to obtain access to several skeletons that were being held at the Indiana Museum of Natural History.

“It was very hard to get access to the specimens,” says Yudin,  who has always been fascinated by Pleistocene North American megafauna, “But once we did get access, the DNA sequences were quite easily obtained from the shoulder bones.”

“We were able to get one full genome sequenced, and then we began to compare this genome with other species in the genus Canis,”  says Yudin, “and using a Bayesian analysis, we were quite shocked to learn that the dire wolf wasn’t really a wolf at all.”

Most paleontologists had believed that the dire wolf was a sister species to the modern gray wolf, and if this assumption were true,  the dire wolf genome would be most similar to this species.

However, the dire wolf didn’t share an affinity with the gray wolf. Instead, it shared a much stronger relationship with the black-backed jackal, a species of canid found in East and Southern Africa, which is quite genetically distant from other wolves and jackals.

“There is even a debate as to whether the black-backed jackal even properly belongs in Canis,” says Yudin, “It is so genetically divergent.  But our research found that the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal are sister tax.”

Using the genetic differences between the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal to calculate when they last shared a common ancestor,  Yudin’s team estimated that the two species split only about a million years ago. Black-backed jackals and their current living closest relative, the side-striped jackal, are believed to have diverged from the rest of Canis some 5 million years ago, and the same is true of the dire wolf.

“The two divergent African jackals and the dire wolf form a clade, and if we are to classify the  two jackals outside of Canis, then the same will have to be done with the dire wolf,” Yudin points out.

“Within the dog family, the tendency towards parallel and convergent evolution cannot be underestimated.  We now know there are jackals and wolves that exist now and have existed that come out of divergent lineages. This is the most important discovery,” says Yudin.

So now we have the golden wolf of Africa, which is a convergent form of jackal out of the wolf lineage, and we have the extinct dire wolf, which was a divergent jackal that evolved into a wolf.

Yudin’s team plans on extracting the genome of the Armbruster’s wolf, which is conventionally believed to have been the direct ancestor of the dire wolf.  If this is true, then the Armbruster’s wolf will also share an affinity with the black-backed jackal.  The team also is beginning an analysis of Pleistocene coyote genomes from across the United States.

“It is an amazing time, ” says Yudin. “Many discoveries to be made.”

Disclaimer:  Please do not post this story as authoritative until reading this post that acts as a follow-up. 

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