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Archive for September, 2018

Lupomorph

anka wild place

“I need a dog which accompanies me faithfully but which has retained a wild exterior and thus does not spoil the landscape by its civilized appearance.”

–Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog. Specifically the chapter called “Dog Days” in which he goes running around the Danube with his German shepherd-Chow cross named Susi.

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Mosiro

I got to new pet. Jenna bought me a pastel ball python from Nussman Reptiles. I am calling him Mosiro, after a clan of Akie hunter-gathers in Kenya.

His glamor shot:

mosiro

Arrival:

mosiro arrival

mosiro closeup

He’s eating frozen, and I think he’s gorgeous.

I’ve always wanted my own python, though I’m glad it’s of this smaller, more docile species.

 

 

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Bluegill vs Nightcrawler

We have a native tank with a few bluegills and one very stroppy green sunfish. Today was nightcrawler day, and this fellow got his worm.

bluegill nightcrawler

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black and tan pair

Gus Morrison was a bow hunter. Every Sunday morning in October and early November, he worshiped at the Holy Altar of the Great Fred Bear. Every year, he bagged a monster buck from his tree strand, and every year, he filled his antlerless tags, which put even more nice meat for the freezer.

Sure, he’d go out when the rifle when that season rolled around during Thanksgiving week. He’d hang out with gunners at their cabins, sip back a few cold ones, and tell a few stories about the big ones he’d seen.

But the rifle hunt wasn’t for him. He would usually use the opportunity to fill an antlerless tag than to go out after a big buck. The big ones knew where to when the guns started cracking anyway, and they had already had the peak of their rutting madness sated. So this was his time to meat hunt, be cold, and realize that he had mastered a more primal way of hunting than most of the people around him.

So that great October weekend rolled around, and Gus rose before the sun crested in the eastern sky. He showered down in de-scenting soap, and then moseyed out with only a towel around his waist to the shed where his carbon camouflage suit was stored in an airtight bag full of oak leaves. He slipped on the clothes that would mask his scent, and then he painted on the camouflage face paint that would hide his visage from any deer that bothered to look up into the treetops.

He sprayed down his boots with de-scenting spray and did the same with his old compound bow, as well as the quiver and all the arrows. He would not rid his entire being of his stinky monkey human scent, but he would come as close to it as he could.

He dug out the de-scented blanket from the bottom of the airtight bag. He sprayed down  the driver’s seat of his truck and placed the blanket over it. Then, he turned the ignition and set out into the early morning darkness for his lease.

He cut off the little two-lane country road that meandered through the hills onto the gravel road meandered over more rolling hills and deep woods. Then he turned left onto the mud track logging road that cut up a steep hill which rose and rose until he came to the top, which was a flattened out Allegheny Plateau “bench,” which was an ancient pasture for sheep. It was now kept open with tractors and mowing machines that came by twice a year.

He parked the truck at the gate, rose from his seat, and carefully closed the truck door . He sprayed himself down with more de-scenting spray, then tested the wind with a bottle of talcum powder.  He direction of the wind would tell him in which way he’d approach his tree stand.

He put it up a few days before. It was nothing more than a ladder welded onto a steel platform that was propped up against a big red oak and the festooned tightly against the tree with several strands of thick cable wire. He attached a safety harness to the back of the platform, which had a bench on which he could sit and watch the deer move along the game trails.

With flashlight in hand, he softly maneuvered his way to the tree stand in the oak woods beyond the meadow. He made sure the wind was in his face. He then sprayed de-scenting spray all around the ladder and on his boots once again. Then he climbed up the ladder, put on his safety harness, and then sprayed all around the platform with that spray.  He pulled out his bow. Sun began to filter its way in from the east.

The orange and crimson leaves were soon exposed in the coming light. They were not quite at peak, but they were beautiful nonetheless.

And now the shooting time had arrived. Gus sat there as still as an oyster.  Gray squirrels fitted among the hickories and white oaks.  Chipmunks made little popping sounds through the undergrowth. Blue jays screeched through the trees, and a pair of pileated woodpeckers squawked about and drummed on a fallen log.

A trio of deer suddenly materialized from the woods to Gus’s left. It was a doe with her two fawns, both of which had just recently lost their spots. One was a little button buck, and the other a little doe. The former weighed 45 pounds. The latter about 40.

The approached with the wind in their faces. Their bedding area was just a little bit deeper in the woods, and they had no real reason to worry about the wind as the stopped to munch a bit of acorns before lying down for sunnier parts of the day.

Gus sat so still, but his blue eyes focused hard on the doe and her two fawns. Let them be at peace, and maybe a buck or two will follow them. He’d always followed that formula. It’s how he’d nailed that big twelve-pointer on the opening day two years ago, and he believed the odds were in his favor once again.

As doe and her fawns wandered around the oaks smacking their lips on acorns, Gus heard another noise fill the autumn woods. At first he didn’t recognize it, but as the minutes progressed it grew louder and louder.

It was the sound of hounds on the track. Every few seconds, one of the hounds would let loose a baying cry,  and as soon as Gus knew the sound, he began to worry. The hounds were not far off, and they sounded like they were coming down the same trail that the doe and fawns had used to enter the oak lot.

He hoped the hounds were not on the deer trail, for if they were, they were sure to ruin the whole hunt.

The deer stopped their munching of acorns. The big doe stood erect and sharp on her legs. Her big ears were up, and she looked down the game trail with wild eyes. Then she stomped her black left hoof, blew out a warning wheeze, and the whole band bounded down the game trail, white tails flashing wildly toward the sky as they disappeared from view.

Not a minute later, the baying hounds appeared upon the scene. Two black-and-tan coonhounds.  They were fat hounds with shiny black coats and deep rust red markings.

And they were not broken off deer at all. They were hot on the trail of the doe and her two fawns, and their wild baying surely scared off all the deer that day.

Gus let loose a few expletives, and the hounds looked up at man in the tree stand. They wagged their stupid hound dog tails and grinned up at the man in the tree stand with faces all goofy.

Gus thought he should collect those hounds and take them home, but he decided against it.  Just them run the deer, and let their master sort it all out.

But for now, the hunt was over. He climbed down the ladder of his tree stand and walked back.  He went home and went to sleep and repeated the whole ritual on Sunday morning.

This time, no deer came wandering down the trail, but both hounds came with their trail singing cries. And Gus cursed them and crawled down from tree stand.

He decided to try again that evening, but this time nothing came. Only the squirrels and chipmunks beat out any cadence of life. The hounds had run all the deer off.

He hoped that this had been just a one-weekend deal. Some half-baked coonhunter had turned his dogs loose in the woods in hopes of breaking them on deer, and he figured that if he went out on the next Thursday evening, things would have a chance to quiet down.

Twenty minutes after he was seated in his tree stand, the hound baying began to sound, and he watched with horror as a big buck– at least a ten pointer– came racing down the game trail with both hounds in hot pursuit.

And so Gus was now angry.  He decided to take a personal day at work and slide by Eustace Sims barber shop. Eustace knew all the comings and goings in the county, and Gus needed a haircut– and a few answers.

When Gus arrived at Eustace’s place, all the regulars were hoping for the tale of a the big buck Gus just bagged, but when he told of his hound predicament, Eustace knew the full story.

“Well, sorry about your luck, Gus, my man, but I meant to tell you a few weeks ago when I saw you at the diner that Travis Baker, Old Maxwell’s son, has moved back to the family homestead. They say he’s got many head of hogs loose on that rocky land, and I heard he bought him some coonhounds from a hot shot breeder in Kentucky.  I don’t think they were well-trained yet, and I figured they’d give you some trouble.”

“Well, I think I’m gonna have to make a visit to Travis Baker this evening,” said Gus as he slid down into the barber chair for one of Eustace’s  infamous hatchet jobs.

By that evening, Gus had a bad haircut and a bad attitude. He drove his pickup out along the road that took him to his hunting lease, but this time he turned down a little creek road that emptied down into a hollow.  As the truck sped along into the hollow, he came into a land of boulders and closely cropped grass, and then he came to a gait with thick woven wire fence all around. He opened the gate, drove through, and shut it. And as he drove, the came into the presence of so many swine of all shapes, sizes, colors.

These were the hogs that Eustace had told him about. And then he came to the farm house, a chipped paint old ranch house that Maxwell Baker had made for himself in the big woods.  Maxwell had since moved away, but Travis had returned to make a go of it as a big farmer.

The house was on the other side of a fence, and when Gus got out of his car to open the gate, he had to kick away a few smart pigs who thought that a gate opening was the perfect chance for a jail break.

As he walked up to the farmhouse door. He spotted the two hounds tied in the backyard to steel drums filled with straw.

They weren’t loose all the time, Gus thought to himself, and that explains why they were so fat.

He marched up the front porch and knocked on the front door. Travis Baker opened the door, and the two men exchanged their pleasantries. Gus thought he’d be angry and shouting by now, but something told him to hold back.

“Well, my name is Gus Morrison. I am bowhunter who has access to the old Russell McDonald place, and well, every time I go up there…. I…I…see your dogs.”

“My dogs?”

“Yeah, the two black-and-tans. They run a lot of deer, and well, I pay a lot of money to lease that place….and the hunting, well, sucks.”

“I guess I wouldn’t like hounds running off my deer either, but the thing is I don’t know how to train them not to. Dad used to beat his beagles if they ran deer, but I don’t want to beat these dogs. They’re too good to be beaten like that.”

“Well, I don’t think a coonhound would be much use if you never ran ’em, but if you could try to run yours at night and point ’em away from the McDonalds’ place, I bet you could stay out of my hair.’

“I reckon I could.”

“It might work. Also, I know a guy who runs Walkers by the name of Steve Wells.”

“I heard of him. I thought of calling him up to help me train my dogs.”

“I know him really well. He’s got some good dogs, and his don’t run deer. Maybe I should tell him to give you call.”

“That would be awesome!”

“I’ll give him call tonight. What’s your number?”

And so Gus drove back out of the hollow. He called Steve Wells up and gave him Travis’s number.

He waited until the next Sunday evening to go bowhunting again, and as he drove down that logging road he met another truck coming out.

It was Steve Wells, and Gus recognized him instantly, The two men pulled their trucks to the side to make for easier passage, but because they knew each other, both men rolled down their windows and began a good conversation.

“Well, look what the dogs drug in!” Wells shouted out the window.

“Not as much manure as you’re haulin’.  Lemme guess, you’ve been up to Bakers breaking them hellhounds.”

“Yessir, and they are pretty well broke off of deer now. Thanks to my little secret.”

“What’s that?”

“Shock collars.”

“Isn’t that what they all do now?”

“Pretty much.”

“How is that a secret?”

“Well, ten years ago it was!”

“You sure do beat all.”

“Well, I don’t beat ’em all, but I do try.”

“So you’ve had his dogs out?”

“Yes, I’ve been running them with Belle and Ol’ Sam, and they know their trade pretty well now. I don’t think they’ll be running any deer, because they both got nice neck e-mails every time they launched on a deer track last night.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that Travis is a good man. He’s raisin’ hogs and working at the lumber mill down the road. He’s gonna be a great houndsman.  This winter, I’m gonna have a new huntin’ buddy. I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, that’s good news. I’m gonna get set up and see if I can get me a buck before the sun sets. It’s was nice talking to you.”

That night Gus set up in the tree stand. He thought he had done wonders by being nice and respectful and not being a raging fool with the young man and his hounds.

He had been surprised at how nicely it worked, and as he thought about what had happened, a ten-point buck wandered out into the oak woods. Gus drew and drilled his arrow into the deer’s heart. He waited twenty minutes, and then he began his blood track.

He came upon the deer in a thicket of autumn olive. He dressed out the nice buck and began the process of dragging it toward the logging road.

As he began that long process, he could hear hounds baying the distance. Travis was turning out the dogs for a good coonhunt.

This time, though, the baying of hounds went down the hollow and away from the oak woods. The dogs were working the creek, where the raccoons lurked about.

As the darkness fell upon that October night, Gus felt lighter and more alive than he had in a long time.  Simple human decency had prevailed, and the old rites of Appalachian sportsmen were recognized once again. Each hunter recognized the other’s methods and quarry and did not do the foolish thing and alienate another.

One day, he hoped that Travis would find the ways of the bowhunter every bit as appealing as the baying of hounds. After all, it was his long childhood days of running beagles in the briers that had made Gus love hunting so much now.

But he’d outgrown hounds, or so he thought.

And now the weird thought crossed his mind that maybe he should get a brace of coonhounds to go running on cold winter nights.

But right now, he was lost in the reverie of succeeding in the hunt and succeeding at human relations.

Who could want anything more?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Old Man and the Dog

neo mastiff

The Old Man didn’t know where the time had gone. All he knew now was that six years had passed since he drove home with a Neapolitan mastiff puppy, which he had named “Brutus.” And the little cropped-eared hippopotamus of a puppy had matured into a massive creature. It took the beast three years to reach 146 pounds, and for two years, he was a fell stallion among dogs.  But in his sixth year, Brutus was starting that ascent in old age, which comes awfully early for dogs in this breed.

In his prime, Brutus was slate gray and wrinkly.  He woke with the Old Man each day, and after his morning turnout, the big dog would trundle back into the house. The Old Man would prepare a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage, and he would talk to the mastiff dog as if he were human. For as an old bachelor, now living fairly well on his pension, he had little company to entertain him, so he allowed his big dog to be his comrade at arms, his confidant, and his dearest friend.

The tunnel of the years was growing closer and closer on both Brutus and his master.  And the master knew it was coming sooner for Brutus than for himself.  So he knew now was the time enjoy the dog as best he could. He doubted that when the time came that he would be able to get another dog.  It took two years of hard core obedience training to turn that sloppy pup into something that society would deem a respectable dog, The stubbornness of Neapolitan mastiffs, especially plucky males like Brutus, meant lots of leash pops and shouting. The Old Man was not an expert at dog training, but he was an expert at exerting his will. That’s how he’d made a killing in the insurance business, and how he’d also gained many admirers and enemies– and not a single true friend.

He had owned dogs all through his life, mostly poorly-bred over-sized and oversexed male Labradors, but when that time came to collect his pension and go off and lounge in the world, he felt an aching for a real dog. He bought a few books on dog breeds and then became infatuated with the lore of the Roman Molossus, the dog of legend that is said to be the ancestor of all the European mastiffs. “Said to be” is, of course, dog world speak for a wondrous flight of fancy. But the Old Man was not an historian or a dog expert. However, he loved movies and novels about the Roman Empire, and he thought that somewhere along the line he might own a piece of Old Rome.

Within four months of retirement, he was on a breeder’s waiting list. Six months after that, he picked up Brutus and brought him home, and the two had begun their six year odyssey of training a ham-headed mastiff into a civilized guard dog.

His neighbors thought he was insane for bringing such a beast into the leafy green neighborhood. They feared for their children, their carefully manicured lawns, and delicately cultivated flower gardens.  But the Old Man made his dog obey, and he never left him outside to bark booming warnings at traffic or passersby.

He knew that he had a real dog on his hands, and that he had better make that beast listen.  And so he did.

He made civilizing Brutus is full-time avocation, and for a man who was used to working long hours, this project was the perfect thing to keep his life occupied. Twice a day, he marched the big mastiff down the quiet suburban lanes, popping leash corrections if the big boy stopped to sniff the grass or even hazarded an attempt to growl at barking dogs that cursed the pair as they passed by their fenced yards.

And Brutus responded with all that work by becoming intensely loyal. Indeed, the two began to develop a relationship of such intensity, that the big mastiff came to respond to clicks of his master’s tongue and the casting of his eyes. They were bonded man and dog, and no one could separate them.

So tightly were they bond, that the Old Man decided against taking that big European vacation that he’d always dreamed of. He couldn’t find anyone who could care for the big dog anyway, and what’s more, he couldn’t bare leaving his best friend.

So the Old Man lived out the first years of his retirement as a full-time dog keeper, and he felt better than he had in all those years of selling insurance policies, setting up new insurance offices, and generally being a successful businessman but a failure as a human being.

He smiled more. He laughed a lot.  He lost weight and gained muscle.  Brutus’s had given him so much more than he ever could have dreamed.

But now that Brutus was turning six, the reality of owning a dog such as this began to set in. Brutus began to limp with a bit of stiffness on cool October mornings. The vet put him on an anti-inflammatory medicine for arthritis.

The next month saw the Old Man get surgery for his cataracts.  Then a colonoscopy revealed a few nasty polyps that had to be excised.  The Old Man wasn’t that ill, but he wasn’t getting any younger. That realization was hitting him harder than before.

And then Brutus started becoming more tired on his walks, and the Old Man cut them shorter. And big dog gained weight. Within two months, Brutus tipped the scales at the vet’s office at 163 pounds.

And it was at that point that the vet intervened and told the Old Man to cut back on the daily ration of scrambled eggs and sausage.

But the first day he cut back, Brutus glared back at his master with sad but rheumy eyes, and the Old Man knew he couldn’t do it. He gave him his usual ration.

He knew intellectually that he shouldn’t do it, but he couldn’t refuse the old dog. He knew the dog’s life wouldn’t be too much longer, and life was too short to be rationing away all the goodness.

It is this sort of rationalization that leads to so many fat old dogs, but it is one that is hard to argue against, even with all the facts and reasoning on one’s side.

So Brutus grew slower and fatter all through the winter. The Old Man did much the same. His belly hung back out over his pants, just as it had done when he worked ten hours a day at the office.

Very little snow fell that whole season, so all Brutus and the Old Man woke up to was the decaying grayness of winter all around them. The sallow rays of the winter sun cast ugliness upon the skeleton trees. It frosted hard enough that one would worry about the plants, but the temperature would soon rise in the daylight to make the land nothing but ugly mud.

In late March, when the trees finally showed signs of budding, Brutus collapsed on the kitchen floor. The Old Man let the dog out for his morning urination and defecation run, and when the dog sallied back into the house for his daily rationing of sausage and eggs, he dropped to the floor.

And he would not rise.

The Old Man called the vet’s office, and the receptionist told him to bring Brutus in right away. The Old Man wanted to, but Brutus could not get up.

What is a man to do when his dog is too big for him to lift on his own?  The first thing most would do is call out to the neighbors, but he didn’t know any of the neighbors.  And he didn’t want to trouble them.

But in his panicked state, he realized that he’d have to swallow his introversion and ask for help.  Within a half hour, he’d assembled a crew of neighbors, including one particularly macho man whose main hobby was body-building and used to work for the local high school as a strength and conditional coach for the football team. They lifted the big dog onto a thick sheet of plywood and then hoisted the beast on this makeshift litter into the back of the Old Man’s SUV.

And off he sped to the vet clinic.

For two hours, the Old Man waited in complete silence in the reception area. He watched the various people passing back and forth with their golden retrievers and Labradors and pit bulls. He could not make a smile grace his face as he sat there staring into the foreboding, for he knew that nothing good was going to come of today’s events.

A receptionist called his name, but he did not hear it. She called it ten times, but the sound did not register upon the Old Man’s ears.

But then he heard his name, and it pierced him like a knife.  And he rose and entered the examination room. He waited there for twenty minutes, when a young veterinarian with closely cropped black hair and slender build slid into the room. His face was stubbly and grim, and his eyes had that look of sorrow mixed with professional dead seriousness of a medical professional.

Cancer of the spinal chord, probably quite malignant. Brutus would never walk again, and now was the time to have that serious talk about mortality.

The Old Man wept as he had never wept before. The tears rushed down the sides of his face and the skin of his cheeks flushed deep red. For twenty minutes he cried and cried and tried to catch himself.

And when he finally reached that level of composure to talk, his only words were.

“It is time.”

He then asked to see Brutus off on his final journey, and he was led to another room, where the great gray mastiff lay prone and still.

He stroked the old dog’s wrinkled head and sobbed out some goodbyes and a sweet little musing of “good dog.”

And then came the euthanasia, and Brutus’s hours of not being able to rise were ended.

The Old Man wept deeply, kissing the dead dog’s brow as he held the beast’s head in his lap.

And so the Old Man’s six year tenure as a mastiff keeper were ended.

A month passed, and the Old Man made arrangements to travel to Europe. It would be a six month vacation, traveling all over Europe.  He did make a special point to see the Coliseum in Rome, where he stood still and wondered if Brutus’s many, many greats grandfather had grappled with a lion there. All through Italy and especially the countryside around Naples seemed to sing the song of that old mastiff.

He couldn’t quite let go of the majesty and love that he had once known, and feeling such sadness when he finally left Italy for tour of the French Riviera, he didn’t know much what to do with himself. Sure, the sunny seashore should have raised his spirits.

But it didn’t.  At a simple French cafe, he met an English woman, a lecturer of literature who had a simple country home in the Devon Countryside.

A bit reluctant to talk to her, he suddenly felt at ease, and spoke to her about his life, about his hopes and dreams.

They met every evening for a week, and then she invited him to come and visit her in Devon. He spent a month there, and in his odd way, he fell in love with her. She fell in love with him.

And he fell for the lush countryside and for this wonderful woman, who somehow assuaged all his sorrow and made him feel complete as a man for the first time in his life.

And he knew the next step would be to move. He returned to the US, sold all his property there, and moved to that Devonshire cottage to be with his love. She was in her 40s, and he would be 70 next year. But it didn’t matter.

He was in love, and he knew it.

Every day, he walked along the country lanes of Devon, eyes open for the spying the hares and pheasants that popped out along the hedgerows. He walked every day, and some times he thought of Brutus and his old life. He missed that old dog so much. He wondered what he would think of walking freely in the beautiful countryside.  He figured the dog would have loved it so much.

One rainy April day, about a year after he had moved to England, the old man came trundling down one of his favorite country lanes, when a dog suddenly came bursting out of a hedgerow.

It was lurcher, blue merle and short-coated, and so gaunt even for being a lurcher that it was obvious that he wasn’t being fed well.

The dog approached him cautiously. It sniffed his hand and wagged its tail. Its eyes possessed that silly sighthound seriousness, which was bit offset because one was flecked with blue.

It was a female dog, and the Old Man didn’t know what to do.  He could take her to the animal shelter in town, but that would mean a long hike back to his car.

So he continued his walk, half hoping the dog wouldn’t follow and half hoping that she would. She followed. Indeed, she followed so closely that it almost appeared as if she had always belonged to him.

And when he turned to go back to the car, she followed him just as closely, and almost without thinking, he let her in the backseat, and drove back home.

At first he thought he would take her to the animal shelter in town, but as he drove, he felt strangely good to have a dog back there.

And by the time his wife arrived home from the university that evening, the lurcher was sprawled out on a blanket by the fireplace. There was no real discussion about what needed to be done.

The lurcher was to stay, and his love pretty much had to accept it.

And so the lurcher was named Bracken, and every day, she and the old man walked the countryside of Devon. She might have been a poacher’s dog, but she was now the pet of a transplanted country squire.

In her smooth flowing paw steps into the grass, the Old Man could sometimes hear the whisper of Brutus passing by. No, she wasn’t a Neapolitan mastiff.  She wasn’t broad-headed beast that needed to be made to obey.

Bracken was easy and light and soft, the perfect dog for an aging man who missed exquisite existence of being a dog keeper.

And so the two marched along those sweet country lanes. Man and dog together as one team.

Just as it once was, it was to be again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve long admired Joseph Carter’s work training mink as hunting animals. He’s now getting a Dutch shepherd or Belgian Malinois as a versatile hunting dog and mink tracker.

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indian rock python

I should note now that I really hate the way science journalism tends to overplay certain discoveries, and this week I saw a great example of “clickbait” science journalism run amok on what really is an interesting finding.

As long time readers know, I have been a bit obsessed with the successful colonization of Burmese pythons in South Florida. As someone who has lived his life in the true temperate zone of Eastern North America, which is usually called “humid continental” by some climate classification schemes, I have lived where most of the reptilian fauna are quite diminutive. The species that I will call a “black rat snake,” because of bizarre taxonomy boondoggle in which it is next to impossible to find a consensus on what one should properly call it, is the largest species of snake. The biggest specimens of that species can approach six feet in length. It’s an impressive snake for something in this cooler temperate zone, but it’s not a monster among squamates.

Florida, though, by a geographical accident, is a place where the lower parts of the peninsula have a climate much like Southeast Asia, and this area is connected to the 48 contiguous states.  This accident of geography means that Florida’s middle class had access to all the wonderful exotic pets that were popular throughout the country in the decades following the Second World War. The problem is that green iguanas and spectacled caimans cannot survive the winter in New Jersey or Michigan, but they can survive in Florida.

Burmese pythons became established in large swathes of South Florida around the year 2000. Lots of studies have gone into figuring out what the establishment of this large non-native constrictor could mean for biodiversity in Florida. A 2012 study concluded that massive declines in mammal diversity coincided with the establishment of the python in Everglades National Park. And a long-going debate still exists about how far north Burmese pythons will spread, a debate that started when the US geological survey released its analysis of how much of the southern US was actually quite good python habitat.

An experiment in which some Burmese pythons were kept outside year-round in South Carolina found the snakes just didn’t do well. The ten snakes died during a January cold snap, but the possibility exists that a more free range population could have found shelter in an armadillo burrow.

So maybe they won’t make it up through the South, but there has always been a catch in those studies. We assume that the Burmese pythons will remain pure, but various species of python do hybridize.  Burmese and African rock pythons do hybridize, and there are reasons to be concerned that a population of African rock pythons has also become established in parts of South Florida.  Many articles have been posted about the potential issues that could result if those two species hybridize, but thus far, no one has documented a hybrid of the two species in the wild.

But a study released a few days ago revealed that there was evidence that some of the feral Burmese pythons have mitochondrial DNA that can be traced to another species of python, the Indian rock python. It was the first study to do any kind of DNA analysis of the feral Burmese python population, and what it found was 13 Florida Burmese pythons out of the 426 sampled had Indian rock python mitochondrial DNA. The study did look at some nuclear DNA characters, and pretty much found that these odd ones still were overwhelming Burmese python in ancestry.

That is a quite small number, and the researchers were careful to point out that the hybridization event probably happened long before the pythons became established as invasive species.

I should note now that for most of my life, we regarded the Burmese python as a subspecies of the Indian rock python. Currently, there is a move to have the Burmese python raised to a full species status, but in the classical definition, the Burmese python was the subspecies of Indian rock python that evolved to live in humid and wetter places in Southeast Asia, while the Indian rock python proper lived in the more arid regions of South Asia.

The authors of the study that found the 13 pythons with Indian rock python mitochondrial DNA are using the paradigm of the Burmese python as a distinct species, so it does look like you have full species hybrid, even if it is just a mitochondrial DNA introgression.

This introgression could have happened in Asia, because it is not exactly clear how much hybridization happens in the wild where the ranges of the two species overlap. To make things even more interesting, the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Indian rock python as an endangered species through the ESA, and it was common for keepers of Indian rock pythons to cross them with captive Burmese pythons to avoid regulations on keeping and selling that species.

But the popular press’s understanding of what was discovered has been, well, not that nuanced.

Headlines, like The GuardiansSuper-snake: hybrid pythons could pose new threat to Florida Everglades” and Hello SWFL’sBurmese and Indian Pythons Breeding, Creating New Species,” lead one to think that this discovery is a sign that something really unusual has been discovered.

But the truth is that there is still a debate as to whether Burmese pythons represent a distinct species or not, and the authors have not found anything but some limited introgression of mitochondrial DNA from the Indian rock python in the feral Burmese population.

I should note that I do think that the Indian rock python and the Burmese python are distinct species, because the amount of genetic divergence between the two is pretty significant. However, they can hybridize and probably do so in the wild on a very limited basis. .

And it shouldn’t be a surprise that people would cross related species of exotic pets. Campbell’s and winter white dwarf hamsters have been crossed quite extensively, and hybrids with captive-reared felids are also quite well-known to the public.

Further, there are issues that we don’t know about the evolution of Burmese and Indian Rock pythons. We don’t know which genes each species has that allow them to be adapted to arid or wetter conditions. If we knew about these genetic differences, then we could test those hybrid snakes to see if they had inherited any other genes from the Indian rock python that would make it more easy for the snakes to colonize other areas.

We also don’t know how much Indian and Burmese pythons have been interbred in captivity or in the wild.  It very well could be that having some captive Burmese with this Indian rock python mitochondrial DNA is actually pretty representative of the pet population.

But we don’t have that information yet.  What we do have is the discovery of this mitochondrial DNA in the Burmese population, and that’s a pretty amazing discovery.

But it is not sign of a new hybrid species of super python. I will gladly eat my hat if more evidence is discovered, but I think we have a good case of the press blowing a really interesting discovery totally out of proportion.

Which does happen, especially during the silly season of late August and early September.

 

 

 

 

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