Archive for November, 2018


We know that hybridization is a big thing in the genus Canis.  Indeed, scientists are still debating about the validity of certain species because some of the extant forms of wolf could very well be hybrids between gray wolves and closely related species. Everyone thinks that the large coyotes we see in the East are all coywolves, even though they don’t have that much wolf ancestry. but then we have very good genomic data that shows that coyotes and gray wolves really aren’t that different genetically.  We know that Ethiopian wolves were threatened with and still could be threatened with hybridization from domestic dogs, but we also know that getting dog genes into a wild canid isn’t always a bad thing. Wild gray wolves in North America got their black color variant from a single Pre-Columbian black dog that crossed into the population between 1,500 and 7,250 years ago in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories.

I have often wondered if we could detect hybridization that went on long before all these wolf-like canids truly diverged, and a recent paper in The Journal Cell reveals that hybridization has always been a feature of these wolf-like canids. Gopalakrishnan et al. compared the genomes of gray wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs, golden jackals, the African golden wolf, the Ethiopian wolf, the dhole, and the African wild dog to see if there was any evidence of hybridization in the lineages.

The authors found that the African golden wolf was actually a hybrid species that developed from gene flow between the gray wolf and the Ethiopian wolf, which likely had a much more extensive range in Africa than it does now.  The authors also found that the clade (which I think is actually a single species) that includes the dog, wolf, and coyote received genes from an unknown species of canid. The dhole and African wild dog have also hybridized in the past, probably because both the dhole and African wild dog once had ranges that overlapped in the Middle East or in North Africa.

The discovery of this unknown species is perhaps the most intriguing. The authors speculate that it might have been the dire wolf or the extinct North American dhole, but seeing that this species fairly close to the division between the dhole and African wild dog, I think a more likely candidate is Xenocyon lycaonoides.  This animal has been posited as an ancestor the dhole and the African wild dog, but a more convincing argument is that the African wild dog derived from Lycaon sekowei.  It is not clear yet what the dhole derives from, but it could have derived from Xenocyon or shared a common ancestor with it.

Xenocyon was the dominant wolf-like canid in Eurasia and Africa during the early part of the Pleistocene, but by the mid-Pleistocene, it began to become less common, and as its numbers dwindled, the diminutive wolf, Canis mosbachensis, began to fill its niche, eventually evolving into the modern gray wolf, which also led to the coyote and domestic dog lineages, as well as the hybrid African golden wolf.

Maybe, as the Xenocyon’s numbers dwindled, a few remaining ones hybridized with C. mosbachensis, perhaps introducing some genes from better pack cooperation and larger size that helped the smaller wolf fill the bigger canid’s niche.

The authors are clear that we need lots of ancient DNA from these extinct canids before we can engage in flights of speculative fancy, but seeing that this unknown canid was so close to the dhole, I think that this animal is a better place to look. Xenocyon might be a bit too old to find viable DNA in fossil remains, but it is certainly possible that we could find some.

So yes, hybridization has greatly affected the evolution of wolf-like canids in the modern era, but hybridization always has. Similar findings have been discovered in bears and various members of the cat family.  My guess is that virtually every clade will have had some of this going on, even if the current species do not hybridize.  Speciation happens, but chemical interfertility isn’t lost for quite some time after speciation. Gene flow continues on with related species, which continues to affect their evolution.

Yeah, evolution is a tangled bush that also has vines that reach out and grab adjacent and not so adjacent twigs.





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The Last Covey of Quail

bobwhites (2)

They came marching through the dead stalks of corn, filling the air with their eerie little noises that denote their comings and goings to anyone who happened to listen. They were of the bobwhite tribe, and this was their last redoubt in this little rugged hilly country n middle of nowhere in West Virginia. There were 9 of them, three cockbirds and six hens, and they were living the best they could in the land of the little corn patches and brier patches. They were not the land of grass and grain, but in in the land of encroaching woodland, the stooping hawk, and the wily nest-raiding raccoon.

A man with a shotgun and stronger taste for squirrel meat than wild poultry heard their rustlings and eerie calls, and knowing that, despite their rarity, the state allowed a quail season, he decided to creep along the cornfield to flush the birds into the air.

The birds shot out of the corn like living confetti released from a can, and the 20 gauge blasted three times. Each wad of shot hit its mark,  and the birds fell, two cockbirds and a hen. The man gathered them up and put them in his game bag, then began to mosey his way to the hickory stands on a distant ridge, where the gray squirrels squacked and scurried and a hunter’s shots were sure to bring home a limit of game.

But what he didn’t know is he shot out the last covey of bobwhites that ever would grace these hills. All the old farmers knew these birds. They would set out to cut their hay with scythes, and the birds were all around their hayfields, moving in great companies of paired off hens and cockbirds and chicks of the year that varied in size from slightly larger than bumble bees to the size of sparrows.

But the birds evolved for the farmfield, and when the farm boys all found good jobs in places like Detroit and Cleveland, no one came with scythe or tractor upon the land. The hayfields filled with multiflora rose, then Virginia and white pines began to pioneer their way upon the scene, quickly followed by quaking aspen colonies.

And the hayfields and pastures returned to forest, not the forest primeval of which we so romantically dream, but the secondary growth that is all viny and stunted. The greenbriers and the multiflora rose created a paradise for ruffed grouse for a time, but a total martian landscape for bobwhite quail.

And so the decades of disuse took their toll, and the forest conquered the pasture and hayfield. It was an ersatz reconquista, for yes, the forest is what stood on the land before the Europeans came was full of mighty oaks and chestnuts. But now the spindly secondary growth took over the scene.

Each year, the calls of the quail became fainter and fainter to the old farmers who eked out some semblance of survival upon land, and it wasn’t long before most of them thought the birds were gone. A few enterprising souls complained to the state about the continued liberal hunting season of the birds, but the state never would take action. The war against the woodland’s advance was simply not worth fighting, and there were well-funded bird dog trialers who set out pen raised bobwhites for their sport. A ban on their hunting would interfere too much with this constituency, and so nothing was done.

So the shots rang out over the cornfield, and three birds fell from the sky and out beyond their mortal coil. The man roasted the quail breasts in his oven, and he thought long and hard about nice November nights, when he’d eat some quail breasts for dinner and then he’d step out on his back porch and smoke a cigarette and stare up into the infinity of stars above. He would wonder a bit about the big questions of existence. The smoke would fill his lungs and shoot out his nostrils, and he would feel at peace in the cold, crisp stillness of a night before the coming winter.

But now he felt as if he were eating a relic from a time gone by. He savored the quail flesh, and be began to worry if these might have been the last ones to grace his plate.

And then the cold winter came, and the chill winds rushed down from Canada and froze the land for six hard weeks. The five of the quail died of horrific starvation, and the survivor, a demure but tough little hen, made it to see the greening of March and April.

But a lone bird doesn’t last long, and one night, a barred owl staked out her resting place, then stooped down from a little walnut tree and carried her off a nice morsel of night fare.

And so the quail’s little marching songs no longer pierced the grass and the corn patches. The “bobwhite” call never sung out around the old hayfields, where this call and the sound of scythes being sharpened were so quintessential of the farmer’s haycutting as to be its sound track.

The land went from big woods to farmfield then back into woods again.  Those creatures whose fortunes soared when the land was cultivated saw their fortunes collapse once the constant tilling and haycutting ceased.

The old farmers spoke with nostalgia of the sharpening of scythes and the twitter of quail, as if it always been that way, but these old farmers lived only the life time of men. And they could not have seen the world before their forebears came and opened up the land and grazed cattle and sheep and planted big stands of corn.

Their mind’s eye could only see what they knew as children and young men upon the land. They could not see the days when the forest was full of big trees, and the descendants of that Siberian colonization hunted wild game. They grew some corn and squash in the river bottoms, but they left the rugged hills to stand as big woods, parkland for the bison, elk, and bears that were their meat and hides.

And so the last covey of quail died out in the hills, but it was not the shots that killed them in the end but the simple decades of disuse that allowed their land pastures and fields to go into forest once again.

To have an ecological view of the world, one must not fall into the trap of the old farmers, who could only know what they had seen in their lives, but one must think of the way land shifts from use to disuse, how one can see things like the forces of economics driving hard against the way things are into what surely must be.

And so it was that the people of the hills learned to shoot squirrels and grouse on cool November days before the big rifle season for deer came rushing in with Thanksgiving week. A few of the old ones would reminisce about the big coveys of bobwhite, but the young ones never paid that much attention. They would never know the sound of a scythe upon the tall orchard grass on a sultry day in late June that would be accompanied by the eerie calls of quail in the tall grass.

Their mind’s eye was trained upon the woods, the yapping squirrel dogs and the solid setters. They no longer felt that connection to the land of farms, but instead, thought of themselves as truly sylvan dwellers.

Each epoch and era twists the winds of existence for each generation, and so no one alive in twenty years will miss the quail.  But as the forests grow more mature, the land stops being such a great paradise for ruffed grouse, and maybe that will be the thing that the present generation will feel a nostalgic sorrow for when their drumming ceases in the aspen.

Maybe we will know the full story of the succession of the land from field to forest. Maybe a more ecological view point will be more commonplace by that time.

But we are a remembering species. Nostalgia is our great disease, and so long as we feel peace and comfort with some association, that association will be soft and deep and balming to our spirit.

That is the story of our species, not the story of quail, but it is what we are.

We just have to be aware of its power, and its powerful beguiling.







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