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Archive for October, 2015

pig-footed bandicoot

I think it’s really hard for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere to understand what special place Australia is in terms of biodiversity.

It is largest area in the world that has been isolated from the rest of the continents long enough for evolution to take an entirely different course, but when Europeans came, so much of the biodiversity wound up disappearing. Unfortunately, this is still going on.

One animal I wish we’d been able to study more closely before it became extinct is the pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus). This animal was a bandicoot that had evolved something similar to cloven hooves on the front feet. Cloven hooves, are the trademark of the Artiodactyls, the very successful group of placental mammals that includes cows, sheep, goats, deer, and pigs. But here was a bandicoot that had them on its front feet. Its hind feet had a single “hoof,” with two vestigial toes higher up the leg, which were almost like the double dewclaws of a Great Pyrenees or Beauceron.

No other animal, placental or otherwise, has produced such an unusual toe arrangement.

We know very little about this animal. It was rare when Europeans arrived. It’s gone now. We don’t know what killed it off. Cats usually get the blame. The end of aboriginal burning also gets pointed out. Burning created areas where new shoots could pop up, and this omnivorous animal was able to us those areas as its main habitat.

The truth is there just so much we don’t know. There is even debate about how well this animal actually moved and why it would evolve such unusual toes.

We have eye witness accounts, and the animals were reported to be alive as late as the 1950s. But not enough zoologists were interested in them at the time, and they were exceedingly rare. So we’ve got horrible gaps in knowledge about them.

This actually isn’t that unusual. Look up the literature on marsupial moles, which are similarly quite rare and horribly under-studied.

Because the pig-footed bandicoot went extinct only in the 1950s, there is actually a bit better chance that there might be a few living out in some remote region than there is for extant thylacines. For some reason, this animal has never captured the imaginations of any naturalists in the same way the thylacine has.

But here we have a sort of marsupial “chevrotain,” which is every bit as interesting as a marsupial “wolf.”

Parallel evolution is always pretty cool.

It’s a shame that species go extinct before we can learn about them.

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Warning: Pretty graphic footage.

Source.

Klara, the Swedish elkhound/Jämthund, managed to survive the attack, but she was pretty severely injured.

The way moose (“elk” in every other part of the world but North America) are hunting parts of Scandinavia is that a barking elkhound encounters the quarry and then it spends as much time yapping at the moose to keep it from running off. This give hunters an opportunity to locate the moose and then kill it.

There are often brags about these dogs barking at moose for days on end, but with the growing population of wolves in Sweden, all this barking does arouse their territorial instincts. The fact that these barking elkhounds are often some distance from human hunters furthers the risk.

This is precisely the problem that bear hunters are encountering in the Great Lakes States, where there is long tradition of letting hounds run black blears. Baying hounds arouse territorial wolves and even the stoutest bear hounds have been massacred in these encounters.

So with wolves expanding their range, it’s very likely that conflicts with owners of hunting dogs are going to increase.

Which makes conservation issues that much more complicated.

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Frosty morning

There was a hard frost last night.

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The jaguar

jaguar

If you were ever to ask me what my favorite big is, I would not hesitate to tell you it’s the jaguar.

It actually still enthralls me that jaguars were once fairly numerous in the United States. How numerous is up to a bit of debate, but they were found throughout Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were also found in much of Louisiana, but there are accounts of them coming as far east as North Carolina and maybe as far north as Kentucky or Ohio.  These accounts have always been regarded as urban legends, but one must keep in mind that the jaguar actually evolved in the Old World before entering the New. There was actually a jaguar species or paleosubspecies found all over Europe up until 1.5 million years ago. In order for jaguars to get here, they had to go through the very cold land of the Bering Land Bridge, so our common notion that jaguars were always a tropical or semi-tropical species is a bit in error.

The jaguar is the only surviving Pantherine cat in the Americas. There was also a lion species or paleosubspecies that lived in both North and South America, but it is now long gone.

Humans have been hard on big cats. We’ve extirpated the lion from Europe and all of Asia but the Gir Forest. We made several populations of lion and leopard threatened with extinction, and we’ve waged such a successful war on the tiger that there is a very good chance that it won’t be known in the wild within just a few decades.

There is no breeding population of jaguars in the United States anymore. They were killed off for their pelts and because jaguars do kill horses and livestock.

But every few years, a jaguar is captured on trail camera or winds up being bayed up by cougar hounds. It’s said to be a wanderer and very little is done about it.

We used to be a big cat nation, but now we don’t even consider those that do wander up from Mexico to be native. The idea of a jaguar in this country is at once romantic but also repugnant. We might lose our minds as we debate wolf reintroduction, but no one talks about the “Texas leopard” anymore.

It’s much a phantom as the American lion, the European jaguar, and the Smilodon are.

I can remember the first time I laid eyes upon a jaguar. It was at the Cincinnati Zoo when I was about 5 years old. There were two jaguars in a large enclosure that was surrounded by thick glass. The spotted one was reclining in the background, but the black one was lying up against the glass. My dad had me sit next to the glass and pretend to pet the great beast, which paid me no mind at all as my dad recorded it on a VHS cassette.

Every time I see a photo or film of a black jaguar, I think of that one.

It never lived wild. it never killed a deer or a horse.

Yet it still had all the essence of a big cat.  Smooth and gliding, yet chiseled and sharp. Like cutlasses on springs.

We turned the wolf into a symbol of wilderness, and we managed to restore to it. And now we fight about the best way to manage them, but the idea of jaguars in the Southwest or Louisiana or Texas just sounds like a fools’ mission.

The wolf of the Northern Rockies and the Midwest’s North Country survived by romanticism, but el tigre never got the same treatment.

He will not wander the White Mountains of Arizona or the piney river bottoms of Louisiana. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has decided that this animal lived here only at the margins of its habitat. Never mind the extensive records of these animals in the United States.

The species just can’t be preserved here.

I suppose we have a bit of Trumpism in our ideas of what an American native species is. A wolf sounds like it belongs here.

A jaguar doesn’t.

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melanistic maned wolf

I don’t know how I missed this story, but a black maned wolf was photographed in a nature reserve in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.

Unlike the melanism seen in wolves and coyotes, we know that this coloration didn’t originate from crossing with domestic dogs.

But it’s such a cool animal!

Here are some other photos.

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Pretty cool!

Source.

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tale of two foxes

This photo showing a red fox killing an arctic fox was taken at Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba. The photographer, Don Gutoski, is a physician at an emergency room, but his amateur status didn’t stop him from being named 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year f by BBC Wildlife and the National History Museum.

The photo is an epic demonstration of climate change’s effects on an ecosystem. Red foxes are expanding their range north into arctic fox range, and red foxes in those northern regions are known for eating other foxes when they come across carcasses. It’s doesn’t take much for them to start hunting the little arctic foxes, the polar jackals that follow the great white bears across the sea ice.

With climate change, red foxes can come north into areas where they weren’t before, and this is bad news for the arctic fox.

This predation has fascinated me quite a bit. Check out my previous posts:

These two species actually have produced sterile offspring in captivity, but it should be noted that they aren’t that closely related. Red foxes originated in the Middle East. Their closest relative is Rüppell’s fox. Arctic foxes are have been said to have an Old World origin, but their closest relatives are the swift and kit foxes of North America.

So climate change has thrown these two lineages together, and it’s not looking good for the specialist polar jackal.

And this photo is so amazing. I’m glad Don Gutoski was able to capture it, and I’m quite pleased that he is being recognized for it.

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bobcat painting

The British zoologist Richard Lydekker writes in The Great And Small Game Of Europe, Western & Northern Asia And America: Their Distribution, Habits, And Structure (1901):

For accurate information regarding this lynx (which was first named by the German naturalist Guldenstadt in the year 1777) and its numerous local races we are entirely dependent upon the writings of modern American naturalists, there being no series of specimens in England sufficiently large to admit of an independent opinion being formed with regard to certain disputed points. By some English writers, notably the late Professor St. George Mivart, the red lynx was regarded as nothing more than a local phase of the common lynx; but this view has been shown by Mr. Outram Bangs to be quite untenable, the skulls of the common and the red lynx being easily distinguishable by certain characters of the hinder part of the palate. To point out the details of this difference in a work of the present nature would obviously be out of place, and the reader must accordingly be content with the fact that such differences do exist. So important, indeed, are these differences considered by the gentle man mentioned, that he refers the common lynx to one subgenus, under the name of Lynx, while he separates the red lynx as a distinct subgeneric group with the title of Cervaria. Mr. Bangs l also considers that the red lynxes of eastern North America are specifically distinct from those of the western side of the continent, regarding the former as the true Lynx rufa (or L. rufus, as, perpetuating an original typographical error, he prefers to spell it), while the latter are assigned to Lynx fasciatus of Rafinesque. He also separates the Florida and the Texas red lynxes as a third species of Cervaria, and the Nova Scotian representative of this type as a fourth. The differences relied upon seem to be chiefly connected with the skull and bodily form. But the possibility of intergradation between these three groups is suggested; and even if this prove not to be the case, they are evidently so closely allied that, in the opinion of the present writer, they seem best regarded as local races, or phases, of a single widely spread and variable specific type. This is indeed the view of Mr. F. W. True, who writes as follows : — “The spotted form of the bay lynx, found in Texas, and the banded form, found in Oregon and Washington, have been described as separate species, under the names Lynx maculatus and Lynx fasciatus. They are now generally regarded as geographical races of the bay lynx.”

According to Mr. Bangs, the red lynx, in addition to the peculiarities of the palatal aspect of the skull already referred to, differs from the common lynx by the smaller relative size of the feet (which is most marked in the Florida race), the larger area of the bare pads on the soles of the feet, the somewhat longer tail, and the shorter pencils of hair surmounting the tips of the ears. The fur, too, is shorter and closer. In the skull the upper jaw-bone, or maxilla, forms a junction of considerable length with the nasal on each side, instead of being nearly or completely cut off from the latter; the auditory bulla on the lower surface of the skull is deeper and longer; and the whole skull is narrower, especially in the region of the muzzle. As regards the teeth, the tusks are said to be stouter and the lower molar smaller than in the common lynx.

As is indicated by its scientific and popular names, this lynx, in the summer coat, is redder than the common species; this red tinge, which in winter is restricted to the flanks, making its appearance in the typical race about February. The backs of the ears are black, with a larger or smaller greyish triangular patch; the upper lip has a more or less conspicuous black mark, and the tip of the tail may be white, with several half-rings of black above, but in other cases is black. The amount of dark spotting and striping on the back varies in the different races.

In the proportionately longer tail, the shorter ear-pencils, and the relations of the maxillae to the nasal bones, the red lynx departs less widely from more typical representatives of the genus Felis, such as the jungle-cat, than does the common lynx. The present species is a more southerly type than the latter, ranging as far south as Mexico.

In habits this lynx is doubtless nearly if not precisely similar to the common species. By American sportsmen it is usually termed the wild cat. In severe weather, according to Mr. Herrick, it is often compelled to prey upon porcupines in order to secure a living, and not unfrequently [sic] pays for its rashness with its life, examples having been killed in which the head and throat were transfixed with porcupine-quills (pg. 408-409).

The terms “red lynx” or “bay lynx” are not commonly used now. Lydekker preferred to use the name “Lynx rufa,” but we’ve since moved to “Lynx rufus.”

I have a field guide that was published in the 90s that calls them Felis rufus, but we now classify the bobcat and the other three species of lynx in their own Lynx genus.

But it was confusing for nineteenth and early twentieth century naturalists. What made it confusing was the American colloquial name for the bobcat.  If you call it a bobcat or a “wildcat,” you’re sort of implying a relationship with the wildcats of the Old World. This is probably because in parts of the South, often aren’t much larger than domestic cat, and if you realize that there are bob-tailed domestics, then you’re already going to think of them as wildcats.

And when most people living in this part of the world came from Britain, which had been free of Eurasian lynx since at least around the year 400, and they had no concept of thinking of a bobcat as a smaller species of lynx. It was easier to think of it as a species of wildcat, when you have no concept of a lynx.

To make matters more confusing, bobcats vary greatly across their range. The largest individuals can weigh over 40 pounds, but the smallest are roughly the size of relatively large domestic cat. Some populations are known for their heavy spots, while others are almost entirely one color (except on the belly and legs).  Some naturalists were of the opinion that these cats represented different species, which we now discount entirely.

Right now, we recognize two species of lynx in North America: the bobcat and the Canada lynx. However, there were always attempts to make the Canada lynx part of the Eurasian species, and I’ve seen them referred to as a type of Lynx lynx rather than as Lynx canadensis. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. Canada lynx are snowshoe hare specialists, and they actually weigh less than the largest bobcats. Eurasian lynx, however, are quite large cats, much more closely resembling the large species of lynx which is the ancestor of them all. Eurasian lynx are generalist predators, much like giant bobcats.

But these three species are all chemically interfertile. The fourth species, the Iberian lynx, probably is as well, but it is so rare that no one would waste their genetic material with hybridization experiments. But I have seen attempts to put all of these cats into a single species, which almost universally leaves out the bobcat.

Strangely, the only two species of lynx that have been confirmed to interbreed in the wild are Canada lynx and bobcats. Eurasian lynx don’t live in North America, where they could interbreed with bobcats or Canada lynx, and there are no Eurasian lynx near the Iberian lynx’s range.

So to leave the bobcat out of the Lynx genus is pretty silly.

But it was so hard to classify them before we had a broader perspective on the cat family. There is no way you will ever get me to call a bobcat a “wildcat.”  I also think it may have been wiser to hold onto the red lynx name. “Bobcat’ might suggest we have deer-killing Manx in the forest!

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Carrion birds

Up close with some turkey vultures, courtesy of the Moultrie 1100i. They came at twilight, which is why the video is so pink. They were eating chicken livers that were set out for more elusive things that were more elusive than I would have liked.

Source.

It’s still amazing what they look like up close.

And tell me again how birds aren’t dinosaurs?

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russian retrievers

I’ve gotten to the point right now where I can let something go.

One of the reasons I’ve had such a rough time writing about dogs lately is that I’ve had a hard time letting something go.

The thing I’ve held onto is an ideal, a dream dog, the kind I once knew but is now pretty darn rare.

I’ve had to let go of whatever dream I had of ever having a decent working retriever. I’m not in the position where I can have such a dog, and I’m such an incompetent dog trainer that giving me such a dog would be a total waste.

I know about dogs. I appreciate dogs. But I don’t know enough and I don’t have the skills to do what I thought I would do.

Further, such a dog would be totally useless here in the hinterlands west of the Atlantic flyway and east of the Mississippi flyway. I once talked to a bird watcher from New Hampshire who was looking for West Virginia waterfowl, and he said all we seemed to have were mallards and Canada grassmuckers. Virtually all duck stamps sold in West Virginia go to stamp collectors.

I see a dog world that is in a lot of ways flawed, but I’m no position to offer any kind of challenge or critique.

For my own sanity, I’m letting all of this go. I spent a lot of time chasing lost dogs through what I’ve written on this blog, but these dogs are gone.

Golden retrievers have become a cancer-ridden, structurally unsound, and often temperamentally unsound mess. I don’t know how this mess gets fixed, but I don’t think it ever will. This is the curse of popularity, and it’s not helped by the simple fact that these dogs are perceived to be inferior to the Labrador, and over time, this will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a half century, will we think of golden retrievers the way border collie people think of Old English sheepdogs now?

It’s depressing to see something that once gave you a lot of joy fall apart before your eyes. It’s even more so when you know that there is nothing you can do about it.

I have to stop torturing myself.

I have to let this go.

I’ve found I like hunting deer to wasting my time with dogs.

And there are plenty of deer around here.

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