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Archive for March, 2019

armadillo

We like to think of our common fauna as having always had their current range. It would be news to most people that at the time of European contact, red foxes were uncommon south of New York State and were unknown south of the northern tier of Pennsylvania. The clearing of the forests allowed red fox to colonize southward. Similarly, the Virginia opossum did not range north of a line that stretches from extreme southern Ohio through to Virginia.  The expansion of agriculture, the killing of predators, and a generally warming climate have allowed the opossum to make it into Canada.

In recent decades, a new species has begun to shift its range.  The nine-banded armadillo is the only xenarthran found north of Mexico. This is a bit of an oddity in the history of mammals on this continent, because the US was once home to several species of ground sloths and a species of glyptodon. Until around the year 1850, there were no armadillos in the US.  But after 1850, the armadillo became known in Texas. Maybe it swam the Rio Grande. Maybe soldiers coming back from the war in Mexico turned them loose. We really don’t know.  But Texas became the epicenter of armadillo’s colonization of the United States.

It began its range expansion from Texas up through the central states. It is well-established in parts of Missouri, Southern Illinois, and Kansas.  They have also colonized Eastern Colorado. So these creatures are quite cold tolerant.

In the 1920s, it was introduced to Florida, and from Florida, it has launched its eastern colonization. Because it had a comparatively late start, this colonization northward has been quite a bit behind the colonization of the Central states.

But it is on its way.  We now have reports of them in the Smoky Mountains National Park, Smoky Mountains National Park, parts of Western North Carolina, and even sightings of them in Southwestern Virginia.

Milder winters are certainly helping their advance. Their diet is primarily insects, and when the winters fail to kill of their food, the armadillos have much easier time surviving in the cooler parts of North America.

This colonization is a sort of replacement. During the Pleistocene, a close relative of the nine-banded armadillo lived over a broad swathe of the United States. This relative, the beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus), lived from New Mexico to Florida and up to Indiana and Illinois. This remains of this species are quite difficult to tell apart from the modern nine-banded species, but it is likely that these animals behaved quite similarly.

However, because it lived in these regions during the Pleistocene, it had to have been even more cold tolerant than the nine-banded species.

So armadillos went extinct from much of the United States when the Holocene rose out of the Pleistocene, and now we have a very close relative restored during the Anthropocene.

Of course, the armadillo invasion means some potential risks. Nine-banded armadillos are a vector for leprosy, and it is quite possible for humans to catch leprosy from armadillos. As armadillos become more common in the United States, the potential for a rise in leprosy cases certainly exists.

So the armadillos have hit the Southern Appalachians. In a few years, we’ll hear of them in the Central Appalachians, and then they will reach their projected northern range limit in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They could potentially colonize the Eastern Seaboard as far north as Massachusetts.

So they march northward, armored up for protection.

 

 

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The red wolf is still not a good species

red wolf

I’ve received a few inquiries in the past day or so about a report by a panel of scientists funded by the US Fish and Wildlife Service that states that the current evidence suggest that the red wolf is a species and therefore needs protection.

I’ve not seen a single study look into the real red wolf and Eastern wolf problem, which isn’t that they are hybrids. It’s that even if we were to have definitive evidence that they were not, the genetic difference among gray wolves, coyotes, and these canids is tiny.

Indeed, the full-genome comparisons have all found that these animals are hybrids, but they are not hybrids between two species that have been distinct for a million or even 500,000 years.

The best estimate of the divergence between coyotes and gray wolves is around 50,000 years ago, which only slightly earlier than when all extant coyotes diverged and when all extant gray wolves diverged. The difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is best described as a difference of subspecies, and if red wolves are hybrids, they are simply crosses between two subspecies. And if they are not, they are not that genetically different from coyotes, which would be their closest relative, to be suddenly afforded species status.

The best way to think of these animals is a single behaviorally and phenotypically diverse species, which is even more reflected in the domestic form.

Until red wolf advocates deal with the real problem of the recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes, I don’t think they have much of a case for their species status.

I have no problem with a coyotes being considered a divergent form of gray wolf. It is now accepted by most experts that domestic dogs are part of Canis lupus.   It’s not really such a stretch to think of coyotes as being part of this species as well.

What this says about conservation of the red wolf is a bit more complicated. I am not for eradicating red wolves from the face of the earth, but I wish we were more realistic what these animals were.  At the very least, introgression with Eastern coyotes should be accepted as a source for genetic diversity within red wolf populations and that crosses between red wolves and coyotes should be left alone in nature. Coyotes could be conferring on the quite inbred red wolves greater genetic diversity and perhaps useful alleles for dealing with life in a human-dominated landscape.

The red wolf was said to have derived from Canis edwardii, but it was then more appropriately placed as a descended of the Mosbach wolf.

But if the full-genome comparison study’s estimates hold, then we’re looking pretty silly here holding onto the red wolf as an ancient form of North American wolf.

If this calculation holds, the coyote also appears to have derived from the Eurasian gray wolf radiation, which means North America has lost all its original wolf-like canids that rose at the beginning of the Pleistocene.

That last survivor of that lineage was the dire wolf, which became extinct as the Pleistocene faded into the Holocene.

Indeed, it is better to think of red wolves as an Anthropocene form of wolf, one that is well-adapted to living in the humid subtropics and hunting white-tailed deer and raccoons.

So no I’ve not changed my mind on this question. My government, especially now, is often quite wrong.

And before you peg me as a person who is a science denier or opposed to environmental protection, just understand that I care about climate change and the protection of countless wild species.  I think this species is quite problematic and that there are good scientific reasons to be skeptical.

And I think my idea of Canis lupus being a phenotypically and behaviorally diverse species is much better fit with our understanding of the species as it exists in the Holarctic.

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portuguese man o' war

On our recent travels to Florida, we stopped at a dog-friendly beach at Jupiter, and we came across this Portuguese man o’ war.

This thing is not a jellyfish.  It is a colonial organism called a siphonophores, and as a colonial organism, it consists of four animals called polyps.

The tentacles can leave a nasty sting, so we kept the dogs away. And we weren’t touching it.

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bobcat tracks ocala national forest

We came to the forest to run the dogs. Many days of hard driving down the East Coast had made them edgy, so we left the wild road of I-95 at Ormond Beach and slipped down through the land of the pine and the scrub until we entered the Ocala National Forest.

Eyes peeled for these little sand roads that cut off into the scrub and pine, we knew it would just be a matter of time before the hounds and German shepherd were racing as wild beasts of the field once again.

We found just such a road, and though I had never driven on such sand and dolomite before, I eased my way into this bit of preserved Florida Wilderness. The dogs were loosed. No one would care. Locals run their dogs on these roads every day, and it would be good for me to stretch my legs as well.

So the dogs tore down the road. My eyes were peeled for wildlife, but the general rule is one doesn’t typically see much wildlife when a pack of dogs is frolicking about. These were once the haunts of the Florida black wolf, a melanistic form that ran the swamps and pine and palmetto scrub and was extirpated from the peninsula to protect growing cattle interests. It had to have been a hardy creature to put up with all that disgusting heat and worminess of such a land.

But even with it gone, most wildlife would have retained some instinctive fear of large canids, which would be reinforced with the advance of coyotes deeper and deeper into the Southland.

So I went to look for a bit of wildness, but I guessed I would see nothing. Where Poet the whippet ran down one sandhill, I thought I glanced at some bobcat tracks. I told myself that I’d merely mistaken whippet racks for those of a large cat. I was getting rusty as a naturalist anyway, and my brain was likely to make me see things that simply were not there.

We ran the dogs up and down the road. Whooping and shouting like foxhunters calling to their hounds on a distant ridge in West Virginia on a starry December night.

And it was as we turned that Jenna spied the tracks, her eyes flew wide.

“What kind of tracks are those?”

“Bobcat.”

And they certainly were. The cat that had left them had to have been a fairly large tom, and judging by the ATV tracks that skirted down the road around them, he had been there that morning, crossing from one set of palmetto scrub to another.

My eyes followed the bobcat tracks on the dolomite and sand road. I spied turkey tracks coming the opposite direction. The two species had crossed paths, though they did not meet in the road.  There was no sign of a struggle in the tracks.

I guessed the bobcat had gone out across the road to go do a bit of turkey stalking. Maybe he’d jumped this turkey, which was also a fair-sized tom, and it had realized that it needed to cross the road, where no fanged and clawed beasts were lurking.

bobcat and turkey tracks ocala national forest

This part of Florida is still essentially wild. The national forest merely keeps it way by the law, but all around there is wooded country.  The people who live in the little towns around the forest choose to live in Florida’s subtropical rusticity. This is not Miami or Orlando.  This is a wild country. Signs along the road warn you of bears crossing the highway, and yes, I would have loved to have seen a Florida black bear.

I didn’t though, but it was enough romance for me to know that they were there, loping around the scrub and pines with the big flocks of wild turkeys and stalking bobcats.

Florida does not draw attention to its wilderness. It advertises its beaches, its urban scenes, and its amusement parks.

But wild places still exist. They just must be encountered, usually with the help of someone with local knowledge.

And yes, I urge travelers to take the jay-off of I-95 and take the country road into the Ocala National Forest. The kids might want to see the cartoon princesses, but you can show them a real enchanted forest.

If I had seen such a place when I first traveled to Florida as a kid, I think I would have such a different impression of the place. I certainly have one now.

Yes, it’s the land of urban sprawl and wild real estate speculation, but it is also a land of bears and bobcats and swaying palmettos in the March breeze.

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streamer getting saluki shaped

My saluki-tazi Streamer is turning into a proper sighthound. His feathering grows a little every week, and he’s decided that he absolutely is mine.

The affection one gets from one of these dogs is of a different quality than what I’ve received from other breeds. It’s quite understated but adoring. He looks at me with soft-brown eyes, and I run my fingers through his nascent ear feathers.  He doesn’t even do the whippet thing where they leap around with silliness.

His affection is deep, but it is of a quieter quality. This is a dog that is only seven months old, but he already has that essence of something a bit wilder, a bit different from what I’m used to.

I call him my snow leopard. Part of that joke is that his brindle coloration reminds me so much of that Himalayan pantherine, but he also has that mystery about him.

I have him trained fairly well, but I also recognize that his innate nature is somewhat different from Western sighthounds, herding dogs, and gun dogs. He does not have that desire to gain my approval. He loves me, but he is still distant.

The fact that he is so bonded to me is an odd paradox. He thinks I’m the best person in the world, but he is very much is his own dog.

This is the true appeal of a dog like this.  You don’t get one hoping to have an obedient servant. You get one hoping to become its partner, its human.

And I have become one, and for no other reason than I take him out and run him during these formative months. He was not initially going to be mine, but he made his decision about which of the household he preferred.

So it is a strange thing to have a dog like this. This is a different quality of dog than I am used to.

 

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erika on the run

Many techniques of the study of history exist. One of the most innovative is what is called “environmental history” in which human castes, classes, and professions are given ecological/economic niches that allow their behavior to operate as if species in an ecosystem.

It is this history that Edmund Russell lays out in his Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900.  This is a book that anyone interested in dog history should read, for it is an odd comprehensive history of the redefinition of a particular type of dog through the social, economic, and political changes of a nation shifting from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Russell’s book is not the history of “the greyhound,’ the breed we know today. That breed is included in this work, but it is also the history of the proto-whippets that worked the rabbit warrens and larger forms of greyhound that were used to hunt deer and wolves. It is also the story of eventual breed standardization within the context of the rise of the kennel club and the closed racing greyhound registries.

Russll begins with the earliest mentions of greyhounds in England, which is around the year 1200. The dogs belonged solely to the patrician class in the feudal system, and different forms of greyhound were used to on different quarry.  Large greyhounds coursed the deer and the wolf.  Mid-sized ones worked hares and foxes. Smaller ones were used to catch rabbits in enclosed warrens. And commoners were never allowed to own a any of these dogs, except under very explicit circumstances.

For over five centuries, various forms of greyhound were used in this way, but then in the late eighteenth century, the forces of democracy and early capitalism began to change the way the English related to their land. The Enclosure of the commons meant that vast tracts of territory could be set aside of the protection and promotion of hares for what was called “club coursing.”

In this coursing clubs, patricians ran their dogs on these hare estates. They were clubs that were quite exclusive, and the commoners could not own these dogs. Russell includes the account of a commoner convicted for owning greyhound, which the commoner tries to pass off as an Italian greyhound.  But he is still convicted of the crime.

At this time, greyhounds are bred to lurchers and bulldogs to improve their runs on hares, and we learn about the various eccentricities of Lord Orford, a founder of the Swaffham Coursing Society.  He was an extreme spendthrift, infamously selling countless priceless family paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off debts that he had accrued. He also died while running one of his hounds, Czarina, at a Swaffham meet. He had been ill but left his bed to run the hound. He is said to have either died in the saddle or fell from the saddle then died.

As the eighteenth century progresses into the nineteenth, big coursing events, called public coursing, became a popular rural activity. The famous Waterloo Cup began in 1836, and as the sport became popular for spectators, a National Coursing Club was founded to standardize coursing rules. Commoners were eventually allowed to own these dogs, and coursing became more democratic and meritocratic endeavor. The working classes begin to have leisure time and money, which they put toward gambling on coursing events and speculation on various hounds.

This democratic shift in coursing coincided with the rise of the Kennel Club and the purebred dog fancy. Here, Russell introduces us to Sewallis Shirley, the same founder of the Kennel Club and retriever fancier who has been mentioned on this blog many times. Russell portrays Shirley as purely patrician. He is anti-democratic and opposed to tenant rights on his estate in Ireland, and his anti-democratic leanings lead to his promotion of the show greyhound over the coursing one.

As the nineteenth century draws to a close, we see the closing of the greyhound registry with both the Kennel Club and the National Coursing Society. No longer would anyone consider crossing to lurchers or bulldogs to make a better greyhound. The goal was to produce a superior greyhound within the population already ascribed as greyhounds.

Russell leaves us at this juncture but alludes to the rise of greyhound racing in the twentieth century in which the dogs are reborn as objects on which to wager in a new event.

This type of history could, in theory, be written about any type of dog in virtually any European country. However, this particular breed in this particular country is documented well back in the Medieval period, and because it was owned solely by the wealthy originally, the documentation can be followed fairly easily into the modern era.

If one is interested in an academic history of dogs, this book is a great read.  Russell uses the primary sources in his work so clearly, and the prose is posited so logically that one can easily follow the winding history of running dogs in England.

These dogs were made to run, but we now live in a world where they are slowly losing their purpose. Nation after nation, state after state, coursing is losing its legality.  Professional greyhound racing is likely on the way out in much of the world, but we will keep them alive. We will run them, even if it is just after plastic bags raced along on pulleys.

 

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Our travels took us the Ocala National Forest, where there are plenty of Dolomite roads to let the dogs rip.

ocala national forest dogs

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