Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2019

Dare looking good

She was 8 months old on Christmas Day.

dare looking good

Read Full Post »

Isle Royale’s new wolves

isle royal new wolf

The wolf reintroductions that began last year on Isle Royale are starting to bear fruit.. Reports are that two male wolves and a female are running together,and they are beginning to hunt moose calves, snowshoe hares, and beavers.

Further, it was reported today that one the last survivors of the original Isle Royale wolf population was killed in a scuffle with the new wolves.  This male wolf from the original population could be the last survivor, because the other remaining wolf is a ten-year-old female that has never been radio-collared or studied. She could very well be dead by now, but researchers are trying to figure out her whereabouts.

Wolves and moose were not the original predator-prey dynamic of the island.  The original dynamic involved woodland caribou, which became extirpated, and Canada lynx, which became extirpated in the 1930s, and coyotes, which became extirpated shortly after wolves arrived.

The first wolves crossed an ice bridge from the Ontario mainland and colonized the island in 1949. The moose showed up in the early 1900s and came either by swimming or through human stocking.

The original wolves of Isle Royale were a unsustainable population. The ice bridges stopped forming every year to connect the island to the Minnesota and Ontario mainlands, and new genetic material never had a chance to work its way into the population. One wolf, Old Gray Guy, did manage to walk over into the island in 1997, and he did offer some genetic rescue. However, his genes wound up swamping the population, making inbreeding issues worse.

This island, which never was known for having wolves or moose, is now a sort of experiment that is going to be managed through human interference. Every few decades,  wolves will have to be released on the island, just to maintain the population’s genetic diversity.

Isle Royale now exists somewhere between a zoo and a wildlife preserve.  Wolves must be maintained through constant human interference. Moose are controlled by wolf predation. Moose control the growth of trees on the island, and by continuously introducing wolves, the ecosystem is managed.

This is not an attempt to restore an ecosystem to the time of yore, before man began industrial level exploitation of the forests on the island. If it were, then the National Park Service would open up a moose season on the island with hopes of eventually extirpating them. It would restore caribou and turn loose a bunch of Canada lynx and coyotes.

But so much research and public awareness of the island comes from its studies of wolf and moose dynamics that it will be maintained as a wolf and moose park. In this way, it is an artificial wilderness.

But no place affords such easy access to wolf and moose predator-prey population dynamics, so it will be restored to the state it was in the 1950s.  It is an amazing place, and the research tells us so much.

But it is not being left to nature. And it is not a restoration of the original condition. It is an aesthetic that exists beyond our usual concepts of wilderness. We have a place where wolves can hunt moose, and scientists can study them with relative ease.

And that practicality trumps Gaia and probably will every time.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

galante and wolf

Forrest Galante hanging out with a socialized wolf that has features similar to the Southern Rocky Mountains gray wolf.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Forrest Galante’s Extinct or Alive on Animal Planet.  In the new season, he documents the discovery of the Fernandina tortoise, a Galapagos giant tortoise that has been declared extinct in the wild.  He also has found an unusual giant lion in Zimbabwe that has genetics that cannot be described to any known form of lion in Zimbabwe and might be descended from the massive Cape lion of South Africa.

So yeah, I love this show. The most recent episode involved looking for the Southern Rockies gray wolf in the Sierras of California. Some canid had been killing cattle in that part of the world, and when Galante’s team went into the region looking for the animal, they found lots of interesting things. With use of a German shepherd tracking dog, he discovers a massive deer that has been killed by a canid, and later investigations revealed a large canid that left massive tracks in the snow.

He finally captured the animal on trail camera, and he initially thought it was a wolf. But it had too many coyote-like features to suggest that it was pure.  So Galante surmised that this animal was a coywolf.

Now, this raises a lot of questions. One is that no one has ever seen a coyote-wolf cross in the West before. We know that they exist or existed because the genomes of Western wolves suggest some tiny amounts of coyote ancestry. But no one has seen one before in the West.

Further, the first wolf to enter California from Oregon was noted for his friendly relationship with coyotes. This wolf was of the Northwestern wolf subspecies, but it is possible that he passed some genes into the coyote population.  In recent years, wolves have colonized and bred in California. One pack, called the Shasta Pack, mysteriously disappeared, either killed by poachers or just dispersed. It is possible that a survivor of this pack wandered south into the Sierras and bred with a coyote.

So Galante is finding lots of interesting things in the wild.  One thing I did sort of quibble with in the episode is idea that wolves and humans were at constant enmity in indigenous cultures. Yes, there was conflict between hunting man wolves on this continent, but the work of Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg has revealed that many indigenous cultures had a close relationship with wolves, which often bordered on something like a pre-domestication symbiosis. He played up potential conflicts between indigenous people and wolves, but reality was a lot more nuanced than that.

Also, I don’t think most people are aware of the really upsetting discovery that gray wolves and coyotes last shared a common ancestor only around 50,000 years ago and that the two forms of canid have exchanged genes across the continent. That discovery has been sort of paradigm shattering for me. I have never looked at coyotes the same way since it came out.

Wolves and lions were once the most widespread large predators in the world. Depending upon which version of lion taxonomy one prefers, the American lion was either a subspecies of modern lion or a lineage of cave lions, which were a sister species to the modern lion.  If one considers it the former, then lions had a much larger range than gray wolves ever did, but if one considers it the latter, then gray wolves were the most widely distributed large predator.

It should be no surprise that lions and wolves have lots of mysteries lurking in their double helices.  Galante is getting the public to look at these animals with new eyes.  Lots of hidden things are there to be discovered.

More work need to be done to document Galante’s coywolf, but it is something that should be taken seriously.

 

Read Full Post »

coyote wolf cross.PNG

An F1 cross between a gray wolf and a coyote that was produced through artificial insemination.

A few months ago, I wrote about a discovery that two species of howler monkey have evolved greater genetic divergence in a hybridization zone in southern Mexico. The hybrids were less fit to survive or reproduce, so natural selection has favored those individuals in both species that were genetically more divergent where their ranges overlap. This phenomenon, known as “reinforcement,” is a powerful tool that maintains both species as distinct.

I have been thinking about how this phenomenon may have played out in wolf evolution in North America.  We have found that gray wolves across North America have at least some amount of coyote introgression, which has been revealed in several full genome comparisons.

The wolves that have most evidence of coyote introgression are those that live in areas that were not in the historic range of coyotes, while those with the least coyote introgression tend to be in the areas where gray wolves and coyotes were sympatric.

It is possible that something like reinforcement went on with wolves and coyotes living in the West. Hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes were probably less likely to be able to bring down large prey or were too large to live on small game, which is the staple diet of most Western coyotes. Over time, reinforcement through natural selection could have caused greater genetic differences between Western wolves and coyotes, and Eastern wolves were without coyote and thus never developed these greater genetic differences.

When coyotes came into the East, they mated with relict wolves, so that we now have whole populations of wolf with significant coyote ancestry.

Now, this idea is not one that I find entirely convincing. One is that ancient mitochrondrial DNA analysis from wolves in the East suggests they had coyote-like MtDNA, which, of course, leads to the idea that the wolves of the East were a distinct species.

Further, the discovery of the recent origins of the coyote makes all of this much more murky.  Again, reinforcement is a process that is only just now being sussed out in the literature, and gray wolves and coyotes are unique in how much introgression exists between them.  Their hybridization has essentially been documented across a continent. The only wolves that have no evidence of coyote ancestry live on the Queen Elizabeth Islands of the Canadian arctic. No coyotes have ever lived on these islands, so they have never introgressed into the wolf population.

The howler monkeys in the reinforcement study hybridize only along a narrow zone in the Mexican state of Tabasco. They are also much more genetically distinct than wolves and coyotes are. The monkeys diverged 3 million years ago, but the current estimate of when gray wolves and coyotes shared a common ancestor is around 50,000 years ago.

So gray wolf and coyote “speciation” is a lot more complex than the issues surrounding these monkeys.

But reinforcement is something to think about, even if it doesn’t fit the paradigm exactly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

The Big Black Dog

Drake is a fit beast these days.

black

Read Full Post »

panama coyote

The coyote has spread to almost the entirety of the North American continent. They are absent from much of the treeless tundra of the Canadian High Arctic, but they are at home in Alaska and Labrador. They range all through the United States and through all of Mexico. They live in every Central American nation and are working their way through Panama.

A recent survey of coyotes and crab-eating foxes in Panama revealed that two species now have an overlapping range. The crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) is widespread in northern South America, but only recently did a few of them wander into Panama.  This survey used a combination of camera trap and road-kill data to get an idea of where both canids live in the country.

Deforestation in Panama has opened up new territory for both species, which do much better in human-dominated environments.  Coyotes now are at the edge of the great forests of Darien. Beyond those forests lies Colombia– and a whole new continent.

Further, coyotes could possibly enter Colombia through a coastal approach, simply crossing onto the beaches of eastern Panama and walking down the coast.

Also, the researchers are noticing that some coyotes have dog-like features, which suggests they are interbreeding with village dogs. The dogs could confer onto the coyotes some advantageous genes that might make colonization of South America easier.

So my guess is it won’t be long before coyotes make it to Colombia, and when they do, they will be the first wild Canis species to enter that continent since the dire wolf.

No, they aren’t as impressive in their forms as that creature was. But they are impressive in how they have thrived despite all humans have thrown at them.

Of course, when Panama was a province of Colombia, Panama was considered part of South America, and if that were still the case, we could already say they colonized the continent.  Many old maps of South America show Panama sticking off upper left of Colombia.

But whatever one thinks, coyotes are very likely to make it into Colombia. They will likely spread from there throughout northern South America. What this means for the native species of South America, we can only conjecture.

But it is going to be an interesting mess.

Read Full Post »

moobli

We have a tendency to romanticize nature writers. We think of Thoreau or Edward Abbey as sages on the land, revealing profound truths about the nature that was their true muse.

I just finished a book, a dog book that I’ve been meaning to read for several years.  It is called Moobli by Mike Tomkies. Tomkies was famous for his first hand studies of Scottish wildcats, red deer, and golden eagles on the vast Highland wilderness on which he roamed.  He set himself up in an ancient crofter’s cottage on the shore of Loch Sheil and spent years chronicling its wild creatures. For nearly 9 years, his main assistant in his wildlife studies was an “Alsatian” named Moobli.

Tomkies became a wildlife writer after leaving the Coldstream Guards and spending years wandering around North America. North America, of course, is a place with much more wilderness than the island of Great Britain. He became an expert tracker of grizzly bears and cougars, and when he returned to set up his mission in Scotland, he used these skills to find wildcats and badger setts.

When one reads Tomkies’s prose about wild creatures, a profound sensitivity and tenderness is revealed. His passion for them oozes through every description, and I thought we would get an even more intimate sensibility when the subject switches to a beloved dog.

I was strangely jarred by his inability to understand dogs. If you believe in positive only dog training, this book is very difficult to read. Moobli is hit often, and in many cases, Tomkies’s description of the why he gave the punishment would lead to me think that Moobli would have had no way to understand the correction.  For example, Moobli gets hit for defecating in the cottage, even if the offense happened some time before the correction,

Knowing this breed as I do, my guess is that poor Moobli spent much of his life in constant terror of offending his beloved human, who seemed to offer very little attempts to communicate with him.  These dogs are not stubborn or recalcitrant. I’ve never known dogs that worry so much at trying make sure they are doing your bidding. It distresses them to know you’re cross with them far more than it does with even golden retrievers.

And yes, they do have an edge to them, and they must understand rules and boundaries. They just must be communicated to the dog in a way that dog understands them, and for someone with such a deep sensitivity towards animals as Tomkies, it can be distressing to read how he is utterly tone-deaf in dealing with this dog.

From my reading of Tomkies’s biography, he owned only two dogs in his lifetime. The first was a free-roaming German shepherd-Labrador cross that he owned in Canada. This dog later accompanied him to Hollywood and made an appearance in a movie as an extra, and this dog was obedient and sagacious. Though he loved this animal very much, he left the dog in Canada on his return to the UK, but his partial German shepherd heritage inspired Tomkies to get one of his own for his Scottish missions.

Tomkies didn’t know dogs. He tried to, but as I read the book, I kept wondering if he would ever understand what Moobli actually was. I laughed quite hard at his description of “Alsatians” as independent dogs, for I will tell you in all honestly that “independent” is one word I would not ascribe to this breed. I can only image what would have happened had Tomkies taken in a Siberian husky or some form of scenthound.

However, despite my reservations with Tomkies’s understanding of dogs, his honesty in the prose is almost refreshing. He confesses to hitting Moobli, even after he decides it is immoral, and he also is open about his abuse of alcohol and how lonely he becomes as the one man sage of this wilderness.

Moobli, though, is such a compelling figure. Moobli has loads of tending and warding off instinct. He finds many injured red deer and sheep on their long hikes into the wild. He also becomes a proficient tracking dog, tracing foxes to their earths and badgers to their setts.  That Moobli is able to figure out what Tomkies wants, even though Tomkies obviously had no clue how to train a dog, is a testament towards his German shepherd biddability and intelligence.

Moobli is also a contradiction. Though he is gentle with most sheep and red deer hinds and calves, he could be quite aggressive towards rams and stags that came to raid Tomkies’s sprout and cabbage patch.  Tomkies describes the great battle between Moobli and a garden raiding stage, which stands to fight the barking dog.

Further, Tomkies caught Moobli chasing a brown hare while on a visit to Southern England, and although he was able to call Moobli off, his predatory instincts are stimulated. On the returning to Scotland, Moobli gets after a roebuck, which he pursues into the water and kills in a most lupine way.

So the same dog that would tend a starving lamb or an abandoned red deer calf could also kill a roe deer on the run.

Tomkies is more angry at Moobli for the attack. He does not take the time to marvel in this profound contradiction that exists in dogs and humans and in all species that are social hunters. We can be gentle and tender, even loving, but we can also be so savage at times.

Moobli’s relationship with the various wildcats that Tomkies raised is also worth noting. Tomkies lived with wildcats in much the same way that Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived with wolves in Idaho. He really got to understand what a European wildcat truly was in its essence, and Moobli was an expert in tracking down the cats once Tomkies gave them liberty to roam in the wild.  He also was the gentle caretaker of any kittens that Tomkies raised in the house.

Moobli is a good dog. He is active and fit, and because of his great tracking prowess, he is the ultimate naturalist’s dog.  He can get on the track of the different species on command, tearing off after wildcats and ignoring badger and fox spoor and then tracking those beasts when his master gives the appropriate command.

He is also a superb retriever. Fetching many objects just based upon their name, and when one reads Tomkies’s description of teaching the dog to do a retrieve, it is obvious that he never heard of any kind of formal retriever training. He just points at the object and gives it a name, and Moobli deduces the object by his master’s “Nahs” and haranguing.

That this dog performed so well with such inexpert handling is truly remarkable. At one point, the dog figures out how to push Tomkies’s small boat to shore when the engine gives out. After trying to look for objects to retrieve,  he begins to push boat with his paws as he swam strongly in the water.

This dog is on the move. He swims several miles a day in the loch during the warmer months, and he also spends hours traveling over the mountains with Tomkies.  The photos of Moobli in the book reveal a faded out black and tan. The dog is a sort of homely creature. His ears don’t really stand properly, even though they were posted.  Judging from the photos, he is a hair fat, even though he does get this exercise, and I wonder how much venison and sausage that Tomkies was feeding him every day.

Despite his physical defect, Moobli’s temperament and proclivities are so typical of what the best of this breed has to offer. If only he had experienced a more careful hand to mold him, Moobli would have become an even more special dog than what he became.

I suppose that my difference with Tomkies is that I am a nature writer whose dogs have always been my conduit for exploring the natural world.  Tomkies is a nature writer who happens to like the odd dog that he finds useful. Tomkies does not take much time to understand the canine condition. It is always projected through his own very human nature.

The hardest part of the book is what comes at the end. In animal biographies, we know what happens. The animal dies.

And Moobli died of degenerative myelopathy. When he was going through the disease in the early 80s, we had poor understanding of the disorder. Tomkies describes one veterinarian who calls it “the Alsatian disease,” even though other breeds get it, and in those parts of the book, he conflates it a bit with an unrelated arthritis issue that Moobli also developed.

We now know the disorder is conferred by a recessive allele. The spine degenerates when the dog is in late middle age, and in our popular understanding of the disorder, we often see a conflation between this disease and hip dysplasia.  Not all dogs that are homozygous for the recessive allele get the disorder, but it is a big problem in the breed.

Tomkies had a hard time letting Moobli go. Swimming was superb exercise for the dog, and after several months dragging his rear, the dog winds up with massive shoulders.

Tomkies writes veterinarians all over the UK, hoping that one might have a the cure. The offer only new treatments. There was no cure then. There is no cure now.

He hits Moobli for defecating in the house when the disorder hits. That was the hardest part of the book to read, but Tomkies realizes that this lack of bladder control is a symptom of the disease.  He then rearranges the cottage for ease of cleaning.

For nearly a year, Tomkies keeps Moobli alive. It is only when the dog’s dragging tail becomes infected with bottlefly maggots that he decides to alleviate his suffering through euthanasia.

In the end, Tomkies realizes what a profoundly good dog he had, and in the epilogue, he admits that he has not purchased another dog. He says that he is too full of sorrow to get another, and if he did, it would have to be a very different sort of dog. I detect a bit of remorse about how he treated the dog at times, which is why Tomkies included such horrible images in his prose.

It is just as well, for wild creatures are Tomkies’s true muse.  He had a great dog, but he lacked the expertise to understand this creature and its true potential.

The end of the book is Tomkies describing his loneliness. His father has just passed in Spain. Various commercial interests are pressing hard on invading his wilderness. The townspeople are no longer amused by his wilderness activism.  No publisher will buy his manuscript, and he is stuck living in the converted sheep shed on Loch Shiel.  Moobli’s grave lies just below the cottage, and he is forced to remember what once was and never will be.

This is the true tragedy of the nature writer.  He is alone. There is mystery and romance about such an ascetic existence, but it is not all the beauty and the glory of the wildness.  It is recognizing that one can put one’s self in exiled existence that is hard to rectify.

And then not even have a dog to care for you.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: