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Archive for December, 2016

wv-elk-logan-county

The Shawnee called them “wapiti,” which means “white rump.”  The early colonial naturalists called them “red deer,” which is still better than the name they eventually wound up with.

Thomas Jefferson referred to them as “round-horned elk.” In his long debate with Buffon over the theory of “American degeneracy,” Jefferson routinely pointed out the size of the American moose and the “round-horned elk” as being evidence that North American species were every bit as massive as those of Eurasia. Buffon believed that everything that came into the Americas would “degenerate” over time. The climate caused a form of natural selection in which animals in North and South America had to become smaller than those of Eurasia and Africa.  Jefferson, of course, thought this was nonsense.

The elk of Europe was called the “flat-horned” or “palmated elk,” which we now know is the Old World version of the moose, but for whatever reason, the giant Cervus deer of North America got called an “elk.”

Settlers coming through the Alleghenies shot the great deer by the score. Their meat was very much in favor and their hides produced a strong buckskin. By the 1870s, they were extinct from West Virginia. It was one of the last states in the East to hold onto a population, but “progress” eventually caught up to them.

Kentucky and Pennsylvania have been at the game of elk restoration for a long time. Elk were reintroduced to Pennsylvania in 1913, using surplus elk from Yellowstone. Kentucky reintroduced elk from western Kansas in 1997.

And the Kentucky elk range borders on West Virginia. Every once in a while, some elk wander into West Virginia from Kentucky, but they never became established.

In 2015, the legislature passed a resolution calling for elk to be restored (along with the legalization of crossbows for hunting deer and bears).

And the state started looking for ways to do it. Kentucky was the obvious place to contact. Kentucky not only has a freely breeding population, but it has a “seed population” in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. These elk are all free of chronic wasting disease, a contagious brain disease that closely resembles the scrapie in sheep and the infamous “mad cow disease.”

24 elk from that seed population arrived in West Virginia yesterday.  They were turned out in a three-acre holding pen on an old strip mine in Logan County that is now called the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

Soon, they’ll be wandering the coal country. The state envisions an elk population in the Southwest that is roughly contiguous with the elk population of Eastern Kentucky and the newly established population in Southwest Virginia.

Maybe one day, there will be a move to establish elk in parts of Pennsylania near the West Virginia line and then elk will be turned out in Northern West Virginia as well. And maybe they’ll be restored in New York State, too.

And then we’ll have a continuous population of Appalachian elk.

Baby steps.

The truth is there really isn’t that much future for West Virginia.

But there might be if we looked hard at that slogan that lies at the bottom of our license plates and can be seen on every welcome sign at the state lines.

“West Virginia, wild and wonderful.”

And now wild and wonderful enough to have elk.

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Gray fox with a white tail tip

White tail tips are a diagnostic feature of a red fox, but very, very rarely a gray fox will have one.

The diagnostic feature of a gray fox, which no other canid in the United States or Canada will have, is the black stripe that runs down the tail. That’s actually a hackle that can be raised when the fox is aroused.

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Not the best video of a red fox

I was not expecting to get one of these on the trail camera, when I know that there are plenty of gray foxes and coyotes in the area. Gray foxes, which are actually about the same size as the red foxes in this part of the country, dominate the reds, and coyotes generally don’t tolerate competitors in their territories. I actually had this area baited with gray fox urine and Caven’s gusto in hopes of getting some more gray fox footage.

I heard a red fox barking on the opposite side of this pasture about a month ago. I didn’t think it was staying in the area though. I certainly wasn’t expecting a red fox this close to a field edge that abuts dense forest, where coyotes and gray foxes like to live.

I hope I can get a better video of this red fox soon, but it’s good to know it’s in the area.

Red foxes actually mate in about a month’s time, so I might have better luck as winter progresses.

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dire-wolf-baculum

Dire wolves are one of those creatures from the past that has captured the public imagination. They are conventionally dreamed of as being massive wolves, and Hollywood has created fictional ones the size of horses.

The truth of the matter is they were only slightly larger than the largest of modern North American wolves.

We know that they were closely related to modern wolves, but their exact position in the wolf family tree is still a bit contested.  The two species are close enough in appearance that it often takes a specialist to figure out whether one is looking at the skeletal remains dire or modern wolf the measurement of the skull features and limb proportions.

One feature, though, that is diagnostic of the dire wolf is its  robust and “perky” baculum.

If you don’t know what a baculum is, that’s because you’re human. In virtually ever other species, the males have a “penis bone” or os penis.  Where I grew up in West Virginia, it was not unusual for men to wear a raccoon’s baculum as talisman of both one’s virility and redneck bona fides.

The dire wolf is one of those ancient animals for which we have a lot of skeletal remains to examine.  In the famous La Brea Tar Pits, where the remains of over a million Pleistocene creatures have been found, dire wolves are the most common species to have been recovered.

The tar pits were a death trap for all sort of large herbivorous mammals, and when they became stuck in the natural asphalt tar, they were easy pickings for scavengers.  Dire wolves came to the tar pits to eat, but many, many of them died. Over 200,000 of them have been taken out of the site.

With such a big sample of dire wolf skeletal remains, paleontologists have been able to figure out quite a bit about their growth patterns, but of particular interest are the bacula of the male dire wolves.  They are shaped not the bacula of any extant canid. They are curved and robust, and when compared to modern wolves of the roughly the same size, they are 44 percent longer.

That is a unusual find, and it suggests something about dire wolf behavior that isn’t true of modern wolves.

Modern wolves generally reproduce through a mated pair. In most wolf packs living in most situations in the wild, only a single pair in a pack gets to mate and produce pups. Other wolves in the pack might mate, but their pups will either be killed or abandoned.

This doesn’t happen every time. If there is abundant prey, these young females are sometimes allowed to raise their pups alongside their mother’s litter.

But in most cases, they don’t get to raise pups.

Modern wolves spend a lot of energy making sure that the mated pair, who are usually parents of the other wolves in the pack, get to mate and get to mate with each other.  The other females in the pack might become pregnant, but they will be attacked if they try to mate with the main breeding male.  The only way they ever get pregnant is by wandering interlopers who haven’t yet formed a pair bond with a female.

During the mating season is when young wolves typically leave their parents’ pack.  They typically don’t have any mating opportunities, and the constant bickering wears on them.

The big and strangely shaped bacula of dire wolves suggests they might not have been quite like modern wolves.  These bacula are suggestive that dire wolves were “better endowed” than modern wolves, and larger genitalia is usually associated with a less physically competitive reproductive strategy.

This phenomenon is well-known in primates. Generally, if a monkey or ape has bigger testes or penis, there is going to be less physical confrontation when it comes to mating.

The competition for well-endowed monkeys is how much semen a male can produce and how far up in the female he can penetrate it. If you can produce more semen and get it deeper into the female’s reproductive tract, then you’re more likely to pass on your genes.

In less-endowed species, there is much more physical confrontation to get one’s genes passed on.

My guess is that this applied to dire wolves. They may not have even had a proper pair-bonding system, and a dire wolf bitch may have mated with many partners in much the same way female domestic dogs do.  The male dire wolves may have had very little competition for mating. They just mated and got along with each other.

It would have been an asset in a dire wolf pack for males to have gotten along with each other. More peace in a dire wolf pack means that more wolves remain in the pack for a longer period of time, and that means they would have had larger packs that would have been much more capable at hunting large prey. They also would have been better able to run off short-faced bears from their kills and to compete with Smilodons and American lions.

It’s likely that the intense competition between huge carnivorans during the dire wolf’s reign forced them into a more cooperative breeding and pack structure.

Again, no scientist has ever seen a dire wolf or observed their pack behavior, but they had this weird adaptation that sort of points to a more peaceful pack existence than exists in the modern species.

My guess is that dire wolves traveled in massive swarms, much like those seen in dholes of today. They were ruthless scavengers and dogged hunters.

When mating tame came, they bred like village dogs. Males would bunch up around a bitch in heat and each would mate with her. There would be no pair bond between the male and female.

The competition was in the semen and the implantation thereof.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This is now playing on Netflix:

These wolves really do remind me of coyotes, right down to their consumption of fruit when it’s available.

 

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Gray fox swarm

This is a quite a band of gray foxes.

 

 

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“Deer Among Cattle” by James Dickey

winter-deer

This is one of the great illustrations of the difference between wild and tame, between cultivated and domesticated and organic and free.

Here and there in the searing beam
Of my hand going through the night meadow
They are all grazing

With pins of human light in their eyes.
A wild one is also eating
The human grass,

Slender, graceful, domesticated
By darkness among the bred-
For slaughter,

Having bounded their paralyzed fence
And inclined his branched forehead onto
Their green frosted table,

The only live thing in this flashlight
Who can leave whenever he wishes,
Turn grass into forest,

Foreclose inhuman brightness from his eyes
But stands here still, unperturbed,
In their wide-open country,

The sparks from my hand in his pupils
Unmatched anywhere among cattle,

Grazing with them the night of the hammer
As one of their own who shall rise.

 

 

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