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Archive for February, 2015

048

I am nothing more than a fluttering, sputtering avatar of carbon.*

I am nothing less than a fluttering, sputtering avatar of carbon.

I am the product of luck and chance and accident, and in this way I am wonderfully made.

I have been given the gift of consciousness. I am aware of myself. I am aware of mortality. Someday all the fluttering and sputtering will come to an end, and the elements which comprise me will pass on into the universe from whence they came.

But while I can still sputter and flutter, I shall.

I know that when my time comes, I will regret that I have not laughed enough or loved enough, that I was perhaps too stingy with the dollar and not as patient with fools as I should have been.

When the avatar flutters and sputters its last, I shall be no more, but I will live on in the memories of those I have known.

I will probably have a bit of immortality from the madman scribblings I’ve done. and I’ll probably be known for a few other things as well.

I am a Naturalist. I don’t just mean it in the sense that I know about natural history.  I am true philosophical Naturalist.  All that exists is Nature. I have no deity but Nature, which is to say that I have no belief in a deity at all.

Science reveals Nature’s secrets to us, but our limited, often vainglorious little minds can never comprehend it all. What we have not understood we have historically shoved some mythological explanation into that place where our true knowledge stops.

In other words, if we didn’t understand it, we made it up.

And that just isn’t good enough for me.

Every day, a bit more of Nature’s truth is revealed to us through the painstaking efforts of the scientists.

With each amazing discovery, the mythology seems trite, even a bit egotistical, not at all reverential of the true mystery of what it means to be alive in the universe.

To be truly reverential means taking more than a step back. It means truly realizing the tenuous nature of existence. It means coming to terms with the reality that it wasn’t all built for you, and the universe owes you nothing.

It certainly doesn’t own you an explanation.

To confront the reality of existence is to lie out naked and vulnerable and ignorant and naive before an impersonal universe that cannot love or comfort you in any way.

It is a scary prospect for many, and it may be for most of us. This may be the reason why religion will go on and on, regardless of what scientific findings reveal to us. We just can’t be that vulnerable.

I choose to be vulnerable. I want to know what I can know.

And that’s the best I can do before I’ve fluttered and sputtered my last.

For reality is magical and mysterious, but it has a wonder to it that our imaginations, even at the brightest and most vivid, cannot possibly conjure.

So here I stand, this fluttering, sputtering avatar of carbon, vulnerable before the cosmos, fighting against my primate lusts and rages and egocentric delusions, wanting to know, wanting to make things better, yearning for truth and justice.

If I could not do this every day, there would be no reason to live. Just give up on the species and the planet and watch it burn.

But I cannot reconcile myself to that possibility.

We are truly doomed otherwise, and whatever gift it is to be conscious and alive in the universe is nothing more than a gift stupidly squandered.

So let us be. Let us truly be. Let us think about what it means to be, and be truly reverential of this most amazing fact.

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*I am aware that other elements besides carbon comprise my body. Allow me this term as a metaphor, please.

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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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White coyote steals a Red Bull

It’s not an albino, but the video delivers otherwise:

Source.

Since Red Bull gives you wings, maybe he’s hoping that flying will give him a heads up over the roadrunner.

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Ice bark

Some the trees have ice on their bark from the little bit of rain and sleet we had:

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I came across some coyote tracks in the snow.

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Their size next to a nickel (US five cent piece):

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One foot stepping where the other was.  This is very common in coyotes. They walk almost without wasted movement.

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And for comparison, here are some of Miley’s:

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There is no hard and fast rule from telling dog tracks from coyote tracks, but in this case, there are no other domestic dogs running loose on this road. Golden retrievers have round “cat feet,” which gives them a pretty compact track in the mud or snow. Coyotes have pronounced center toes on their front feet. There aren’t many dogs that have that particular foot morphology, especially around here where sighthounds really don’t exist (except on the race track).

Miley is also at least 1/3 larger than any coyote that lives here, and because her legs are proportionally shorter, she tends to dig in more when she runs.

That’s how I tell them apart.

 

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chauvet cave

Last night, I watched Werner Herzog’s film on Chauvet Cave. It is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and it is an exploration of the art of a Paleolithic people, who drew amazingly lifelike depictions of the great beasts that once roamed Europe at the edge of the vast ice sheets. In true Herzogian style, it is a mixture of the scientific findings about the images of the cave and deep romantic speculation about the artists and hunters who made them.

Chauvet Cave, though located in southern France was once home to hordes of megafauna, including bison, aurochs, woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, reindeer, red deer, and primitive horses. The artists also included images of European cave lions, revealing that male cave lions did not have manes, and they also included the only known image of an ancient European leopard.  There was at least one image of a cave hyena, a cold-adapted relative of the modern spotted hyena, which crushed bones with its massive jaws and likely lived as a hunter-scavenger as the modern species does today.

And yes, they also included images of cave bears, now extinct relatives of the brown bears that are slowly making a comeback to several countries in Europe. There is some evidence that bears were of spiritual significance to these people, for there a place in the cave where a bear skull sits atop what appears to be an altar.

Many of these creatures were food and clothing for these people. Others, like lions, hyenas, and leopards, would have been enemies and competitors for the game species.

Their minds must have on animals almost constantly. They were true naturalists, for their lives depended upon a detailed knowledge of zoology, ecology, and, yes, ethology.

There is some debate in the literature about the exact age of images on the cave. Radiocarbon dating of the rock art,  animal remains, and charcoal in the cave suggests that the most ancient images of the cave are between 30,000 and 32,000 years old.

The cave was not known to modern science until 1994, and in the intervening millennia, the great beasts have gone. There are no more cave lions or cave bears or cave hyenas.  Leopards and the European lion that replaced the cave lion lived in parts of southern Europe into historical times. They are also both gone.

Wild horses and aurochs exist only in their domesticated forms. The Hereford and the thoroughbred descend from the fell beasts whose images grace Chauvet’s walls. Domestication has worked its ways on their kind to the point that neither creature seems like it could have come from the wild at all.

The geography is vastly different. The vast sheets of ice that covered the Alps and most of what is now Germany no longer hold up the sea level. Great Britain is now an island.

Temperate forest replaced the taiga and then modern humans turned that forest into cultivated fields. Villages were built, the roads, then cities, then ancient empires of Europe.  Over the centuries, the wildness receded more and more. To a North American like me, most of Europe resembles a cultivated garden that is totally devoid of most raw nature. We have d deer-hunting Eastern coyotes and massive black bears. They have red foxes and badgers.

The images of those long-lost people must have burned something into my psyche. When I went to bed, I dreamed of animals. I saw a white-tailed doe standing along forest path as she nursed two dappled fawns that nuzzling hard against her teats. I saw mallard hens with scores of fluffy ducklings waddling their way to the nearest pond.

And I dreamed that I got a bear on my trail cam. It was not the common black bear of the East either. It was a brown bear with a shaggy brown hump and a silver mane.

Never mind that no brown bear ever lived in this part of the country. Dreams are without reason or knowledge.

They are mere the expression of what the mind has absorbed and wishes to express.

When I awoke, it occurred to me that I am not so different from those Paleolithic hunter-artists of 30,000 years ago.

My knowledge of nature does not feed me the same way it did for them, but it feeds me another way. Without nature and animals, I don’t think I could survive.  My spirit just couldn’t take that deprivation.

So that which feeds my spirit I pay homage to on my cave wall.

But my cave is not made of limestone. Mine is of the digital age.

On my blog I post the animals that I see or capture on my trail cameras. I get coyotes, two species of fox, Virginia opossums, raccoons, black bears, two species of squirrel, bobcats, and white-tailed deer. I’ve captured wild turkeys, red-tailed hawks, American crows, ravens, and turkey vultures.

White-tailed deer are among the oldest extant species of ungulate. Virginia opossums don’t differ greatly from the earliest of mammals that once scurried in terror from the predatory dinosaurs. The coyotes that roam the forests here are not too dissimilar from those of the later Pleistocene or from the ancestors of the wolf-coyote-golden jackal lineage that first evolved in North America during the Blancan Stage.

American bison once thundered across these hills, and where the coyotes now let loose their high-pitched howls, one could hear the deeper and more eerie refrains of the wolf known by the Linnean name of Canis lupus lycaon. The white-tailed deer played second billing the vast herds of wapiti, which English-speaking North Americans called “elk.”  The bobcats slinked below the gaze of the great cougars that stalked the deer,

New casts of characters play the story of life. Extinction and extirpation vs.  colonization and introduction. Predator and prey. Plant vs. herbivore. Mutation. Natural selection. Genetic drift.

This is the story that was played out before we came, and it is the story that will be played out so long as living things exist on this planet.

I wonder if my digital cave art will last as long as those as Chauvet Cave. A piece of me hopes so, but I know that this electronic age is a much more tenuous existence that that of the Ice Age hunters. Nuclear weapons hold the possibility of wiping us out in one fell swoop, and climate change could set off a mass extinction event that might even wind up dooming us all.

A limestone cave, hidden from the wages of modernity for thousands of years, has a much better chance of surviving that a bit of digital artifact that exists only on the ether of the internet.

I don’t think this will be The Blog of Forgotten Dreams. Not the least of which is that I lack the skill of the artists of Chauvet. I can barely write my own name legibly.

So my art is what I type and what images I can capture on digital devices.

And while I dream,  I shall remember.

When I go, the story of life will go on.

And there I rest my hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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