Archive for January, 2019

Snow leopards are those high altitude cats that have long fascinated Westerners. Peter Matthiessen won a national book award for writing a memoir about his trip to the Himalayas to go looking for one, and for most of my life, we had no idea how many were around or where their exact range was. Huge debates about their taxonomy weren’t even resolved until recently, when it was finally settled that they were indeed members of the genus Panthera and that they were a sister species to the tiger.

But as we’ve looked at the snow leopard genome, something really odd has come to the fore. In the bulk of their genome, they are clearly closely related to the tiger, but their x-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA are oddly quite close to those of lions.

In 2016, genome comparisons were performed for many cat species, and the researchers found that these lion-like x-chromosomes and mitochondrial DNA entered into the snow leopard population just before the lion and leopard split. The authors think that there was an introgression between the ancestral male snow leopard and female lion/leopard ancestor. This matriline is now all that survives in snow leopards.

So yes, snow leopards are most closely related to tigers, but they did receive some genetic contribution from the lion and leopard ancestor. This hybridization happened over two million years ago, but it is the closest thing to a liger ever occurring in the wild.


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I have a cat now

It happened. I got a kitten. His name is Pallas, named for the Prussian naturalist Peter Simon Pallas, who was the first Westerner to document the manul or Pallas’s cat.

He’s very chill and affectionate. He will meow piteously if I get up to use the bathroom, and he follows me everywhere that his little feet can take him.

I’ve never been a cat person, but he’s such a nice little kitten. He will probably turn into a wonderful cat.

And yes, he will be kept indoors only to protect both himself and native wildlife.

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The traditional understanding of coyote evolution is that coyotes are basal wolf-like canids. This understanding comes from the hypothesis that coyotes directly evolved from Canis lepophagus in North America alone. Coyotes look and behave a lot like jackals of the Old World, and because we know that the larger wolf-like canids evolved from jackal-like ones, we just assumed that the coyote was a primitive form.

One problem with this positioning has always bothered me. Jackals tend to have proportionally smaller brains than wolves, but coyotes have proportionally larger brains than wolves. Domestic dogs have evolved smaller brains from wolves, although wolf and dog brain size comparisons aren’t as cut and dry as people think. 

No one thinks of dogs as basal forms of Canis, so it is possible for animals in this lineage to lose brain size, just as it is possible for a primitive lineage of canids known as coyotes to evolve a larger brain.

Please note that my discussion on brain size here isn’t really a discussion about intelligence, because the literature on which form is most intelligent is quite all over the map. Domestic dogs kept in Western countries in the modern way do appear to have social cognitive abilities that virtually all other species lack, while wolves are much better at working with each other to complete tasks.

But coyotes have proportionally larger brains than either wolves or dog do, and in this lineage, larger brains are generally a derived characteristic.

However, the really important data about coyote evolution is the discovery that they shared a common ancestor with gray wolves much more recently than commonly suggested. A genome-comparison study of various North American canids found that the common ancestor of both gray wolves and coyotes lived around 50,000 years ago. Because anatomically modern gray wolves replace the Mosbach wolf in the fossil record between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, the ancestor of both had to have been a form of gray wolf from Eurasia.

The coyote is thus a jackal that has evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, which means it is not a primitive canid at all. It likely evolved this jackal -like morphology and behavior because the form of gray wolf that it derives from was unable to compete with the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear and the machairodonts as a top-level predator. It was forced to evolve a smaller body that could be fed on carrion and small prey.

We know now that there is a big difference in what prey predators target once they exceed 20 kg. Predators that weigh more than that mass target large vertebrates, while those that are smaller than that weight target smaller prey. Although coyotes do cooperatively hunt deer, they primarily feed on rabbits and mice. So by becoming smaller, coyotes were not directly in conflict with dire wolves or the other large predators of Pleistocene North America.

Only through analyzing full genomes of coyotes and gray wolves did we realize that our assumptions about their evolution were wrong. Earlier studies that looked at mitochondrial DNA alone found that coyotes fit within a basal position of the wolf-like canid lineage. However, recent full genome comparison of various wolf-like canids that looked at the role hybridization played in their evolution found something interesting. The lineage that leads to wolves, dogs, and coyotes experienced some introgression from a ghost species that was closely related to the dhole. The authors think that the reason why coyotes turn up so basal in these mitochondrial DNA studies but appear so wolf-like when their full genomes are compared is coyotes have retained a mitochondrial line that comes from that ghost species.

So the generalist coyote is a re-invention out of the gray wolf lineage. It is not basal to the wolf-like canids. It just merely resembles the basal forms in some of their ecology, in some of their behavior, and in their odd mitochondrial inheritance.

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I’ve been scribbling away at this space for over a decade. Ten years ago, I was cocksure and dumb, and those two things are never a good match. I am amazed that anyone read that stuff I wrote back then. I was so full of crap, and my style was all edgelord and lilting.

I am not the same person now. I’ve had my successes and my failures. I’ve moved on, and I’ve taken leaps of faith that led me to different avenues, different perspective, different ideas.

I wish to God that I’d had the foresight to give this blog a better URL. It is so derivative that I almost shock myself at my naivete and utter lack of imagination. I named in the vein of hero worship, but I don’t have the same heroes now that I did back then.

I have come to hate much of my prose, even now when I’ve mostly found my voice and style. I’m profoundly insecure about what I write, and I must confess that I always was. Even when I wrote with the faux authority of an angry young man, I never felt that I was writing anything good.

I always felt a bit of fraud. I could write things so clearly that I made this weird illusion that I knew things I simply did not know. But as you get older, you learn what a damned fool you were.

I hate the way I write now more than ever. I write here mainly so I might cast off these ugly bugs that devour my syntax. It is a vain ritual, for I know sI will always write the way I do– and I don’t really like it.

So I will plunk away on this keyboard. Maybe you’ll like it, but I will always doubt.

I’m a doubter by nature. I no longer can write the pithy things that made this sort of blog get attention ten years ago. I no longer feel that that is my current purpose.

I don’t know what it is now, except to analyze out what I think the current science of dogs and their kin is and then maybe paint some pictures with words.

“Paint some pictures with words”? I can’t believe I wrote such a cliche!

Damn these bugs.

I’m so isolated from others writing blogging about these topics now that I sometimes feel that I’m just shooting out a load of nonsense that no one can follow or care about.

I suppose those of us who perform with written words feel these insecurities and sometimes become swamped with doubt.

It’s a hard business, especially when you feel so over-matched no matter what you do. But I stand where the rivers of fate have flushed me.

I stand as a writer. Nothing more. Nothing less. Without significance or favor, but without entirely losing faith in it all.

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Poet, the twister and turner, takes the stick.

Then Zoom, Quest, and Clavo begin the long chase:

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Long-time readers of this blog know that I am quite critical of Dan Flores’s Coyote America, a book that has been hailed as a sort of definitive source for the natural and cultural history of the animal. The good parts are where the author talks about native peoples and their relationship and understanding of the animal. The bad parts are where he misrepresents the molecular research on coyote evolution, most notably where he contends the genetic difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is equivalent to that of humans and orangutans (page 27, if you’re looking for it). I’ll give Flores a pass in that he didn’t do his research for the book until after the coyote, gray wolf, Eastern wolf, and red wolf genome comparisons came out, and found that all these animals were as closely related to each other as humans from different continental origins.

But I don’t know of anyone who thought that coyotes are to wolves what humans are to orangutans. At best, we thought coyotes were to wolves what our species of human was to Neanderthals.

So that was my beginning of great distrust in Flores’s account of how coyotes evolved in North America.

I do remember one part that I thought might have been true, simply because it mirrors the way coyotes moved into the eastern parts of North America. Flores contends that coyotes did not make it into Southern Mexico and Central America until after European colonization took place. The clearing of the tropical forests and the introduction of sheep and goats made all of this possible.

This made sense to me, but then I thought, well, I should look it up.

It turns out that Flores was dead wrong about Southern Mexican and Central American coyote populations. A 2004 paper that looked at the paleontology and sixteenth century accounts of coyotes in the region found that coyotes were in the region before European conquest.

So coyotes have lived in Guatemala and El Salvador long before Europeans felled the forests and turned out sheep and goats. Their recent range expansion into southern Panama may eventually lead to their arrival in Colombia, and they will have the Southern Continent to colonize.

This book gets so many facts wrong about the evolution and natural history of coyotes that I do worry a lot about its impact. It is written as a popular natural history, so it needs to be understood in that vein. However, the author seemed to choose which scientific facts he wanted to present without looking deeper into the fullness of the literature that exists on them.

And as a natural history writer, I find such errors to be problematic, but I always find some way to make sure you know that I am not the final authority on any subject. Because I blog, I can show you my evolution in thought more easily. Books are far more permanent inscriptions. That’s why you will see me hedge about certain subjects where I know more research is being done, such as what the African golden wolf actually is or where dog domestication happened.

The challenge is to make natural history subjects interest and to make your interpretations fit the literature, both of science and of prose.

And yes, it took me a month to read Flores’s coyote book. I had that many problems with it.

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