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Archive for January, 2020

Mullock, James Flewitt, 1818-1892; Charles Randell with Greyhounds at Stonehenge

One common trope that exists in old breed histories is an attempt to connect extant dog breeds with ancient ones.  These stories were fanciful, and with the advent of the molecular revolution in biology, almost none of these stories can be taken seriously.

Among these stories are those that connect “greyhounds” with the Middle East. Often cited are the texts in the Bible, which you may have noticed, were not originally written in English.  English Bible translations were done long before we had established breed or a firm understanding of dogs in other countries, so when one reads about greyhounds in the Middle East in the Bible, it is important to understand that “greyhound” was a translated term. The dogs in the original source are not the same as the greyhound known in England and Northern Europe at the time. They are most likely referring to salukis.

Salukis and greyhounds are often thought of as being similar dogs, but having lived with both, I can tell you they are quite different dogs. Salukis are distance dogs. They don’t have lots of round muscle over their body. Greyhounds are sprinters.

Further, if I were going to pick one to train as a pet, I would go with the greyhound. They are far more biddable. Indeed, I find myself losing my temper far less with the greyhounds than I ever did with the salukis.

The reason for this difference is that the two breeds are out of entirely different stock. We know this from study of their genomes. We know that greyhounds–and whippets, Italian greyhounds, and borzoi– are from a root-stock that is most closely related to herding dogs of the general collie-type. This discovery came about through study of genetic markers.

This same study found that salukis and Afghan hounds are in a whole other clade with several livestock guardian breeds. The prick-eared sighthounds of the Mediterranean– the so-called Pharaoh hound of Malta, the Ibizan hound, and Cirneco dell’Etna– are in a different part of this same clade. They, too, are related to livestock guardians. Their closest relative is the Great Pyrenees.

In Edmund Russell’s work on the history of the greyhound in England, there is careful attention paid to the real history of these animals.

Russell contends that there is no real history of the greyhound in England until 1200, when they become common place in Medieval hunting art and literature.  The archaeology of British dogs shows that there was not much morphological variation in them until the Romans arrived. Indeed, the only main morphological variation observed in dogs in Britain before the Romans is that one specimen from the Iron Age had a shortened muzzle.

So Russell spends more time on the “greyhound” as a term that means the ancestors of these various British sighthounds, which we know from genetic data are most closely related to various herding dogs that originated in Britain.

He follows the evolution of these hounds from Medieval hunts, where there were many regional and quarry-specific strains, to the beginnings of club coursing to the modern racing and coursing greyhound. He clearly understands that some of these regional dogs become distinct breeds through political and cultural memes. The dog we call “the greyhound” today is a very specific animal that evolved through club coursing into modern racing and dog showing. The whippet is a subset that evolved from working class racing and rabbit coursing. The Scottish deerhound is a subset the was used to hunt red deer in Scotland on those large estates.

These three breeds have intertwined histories, and their evolution as breeds need to be understood within the cultural and political ideas of the societies that produced them.

Russell’s work is an environmental history, which means that he attempts to understand dog breeds and human tasks within the concept of a niche. “Niche” in this case means exactly what it does in ecology– a particular place or task within an ecosystem.

Hunting cultures will create niches. The gun dog breeds of Britain are all divided into three niches:  pointer/setter, flushing spaniel, or retriever.  We could try to understand their evolution in much the same way as Russell attempted with “the greyhound.”  The spaniel started out as the original dog, but some were good at stopping before the flush. These dogs became the setters and pointers. Later, with the advent of firearms, there was a desire to produce dogs from spaniel and setter stock that were good at picking up shot game. Having large numbers of dogs on a shoot that did different tasks was a symbol of patrician largess, and because British hunting cultures were patrician-based, these breeds evolved in this way.

This basic dog became something different in Germany, where hunting became much more egalitarian following the failed revolutions of 1848.  Commoners were given access to the forests in the various German states, as a way of alleviating class antagonisms. Because commoners could not keep vast hordes of specialized dogs, German hunters bred all-rounders. Even dachshunds have been used to pick up shot game and flush birds and rabbits. The various Vorstehhund of Germany not only did the gun dog’s task, but they were bred to flush and bay wild boar, dispatch badgers and foxes, and to retrieve any manner of game.

Russell might have made his work stronger if he had looked at other Northern European sighthounds. Dogs of this type were widespread across the North European Plain into Russia and Ukraine. Some societies lost their traditional sighthound. France, Germany, and the Benelux are without their traditional sighthounds, but Hungary and Poland have their hounds. Russia has several breeds of these type, including the widespread borzoi.  Of course, Russell’s main area of focus is the British Isles, specifically England, where the coursing greyhound was developed.

So the real histories of breeds are often a lot less fanciful than what we read in old dog books. The truth of the matter is that it is complex, and we should try to avoid putting the cart before the horse when trying to figure out the truth.

Assuming that we can piece together a breed history based upon folklore or what was written in one of those all-breed books from fifty years ago is an act of folly. We need to understand that the molecular revolution is changing how we understand how dogs evolved, and right now, it is tearing away much of our understanding of how dog breeds themselves came to be.

 

 

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Yesterday, I picked up a young golden retriever puppy from European show bloodlines.  Her name is Aspen.

aspen

She is a natural retriever. She will already put that toy in my hand!

aspen cocky fetch

Yes. I said I’d never own one of these. I said the same thing about German shepherds.

And cats.

And here we are.

 

 

 

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Writing for 2020

trout

You cast a line into a trout stream. The water runs black and then spumy white around the riffles and rocks. The bait disappears below the surface. You know nothing about the bait. The stream-bed gravel or the submerged limbs can more easily catch the bait than a fish’s lips can. And that is often what happens, but you keep casting and casting. Maybe the bait will pass in just such a way as to draw the fish in for a little taste. And then you’ll catch him.

So goes the theory anyway.

The truth about writing a blog is that is so much like fishing a black-water trout stream. My prose goes out into the ether, passing through the search engines and Facebook shares, and usually no one clicks. No one nabs my bait. But sometimes they do bite, and they keep coming in for more.

In 2012, this blog was its height of popularity.  I had not monetized it yet, and I had time, back in those days, to throw out more writing than I ever could now. I honestly don’t know how I did it.

But maybe I do. In 2012, I was more cocksure, and I was so woefully ignorant that I thought I could be brave and speculate about things I didn’t understand.

I was 29 that year. It is amazing how much you think you know when you’re not yet 30, when you’re still wet behind the ears but still know enough to be interesting.

And I suppose that is the dilemma I now face.  I have changed my mind. I have grown. I am less sure of myself, not because i am more ignorant but because I know my limitations.

Writing in a forum such as this for as long as I have means that I can see the transformation. I can see the young idiot whose only real skill was in playing around with prose. Now, I sometimes feel that this is my only skill, and knowing what damage a clever phrase or cultivated meme can produce means that I take it way more easy than I used to.

Since I have matured, the readership has dwindled a bit. I don’t throw out my speculations as much as I used to, and much of my invective is toned down.

In the end, I know that my true muse will always be nature, and the animals will be my truest characters. I know that whatever I will write must have those features looming in it somewhere.

My writing for 2020 will better than it was eight years ago. It might not get as many hits, but it will be more mature and more reasoned.

New adventures lie before me. I can feel their pull in this oddly instinctual way, but they are coming. New chapters in my life are about to be written. What’s past is prologue. The rest is still unwritten but coming into view. Through the haze of existence, I can see what lies ahead.

Maybe the reader will like it. Who knows?

But I cast my line into to the stream. Maybe I’ll get a nibble or two.

 

 

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coyote pupps.jpg

I have a lot of quibbles with Dan Flores’s book, Coyote America. Among them is a contention that coyotes howl because it allows them to “take a census.”  If no other coyotes howl back, the females wind up releasing more ova and having larger litters. This description, which Flores calls an “autogenic trait,” cannot be found anywhere in the coyote literature. His account is not described in the book, but it is mentioned in his interview with National Geographic and on The Joe Rogan Experience.

I have no idea where Flores got this idea, but it’s not really what happens. The literature on why coyotes have larger litters in areas where they have been heavily hunted says that the larger litter sizes are associated with better access to food resources. The best-known paper on this issue comes from Eric Gese, a researcher with the USDA, who studied coyote population dynamics in an area of Colorado.

Gese contends that what happens with coyotes in pressured areas is that the surviving females are healthier, simply because they have access to more food resources. This greater health causes them to release more ova during the estrus cycle, and this increase in ova results in greater litter sizes.

It is not because the coyotes are taking census and can somehow magically figure out that they should produce more young.  It is simply that the coyote females’ own bodies respond to greater food resources by becoming more fertile.

What has possibly evolved in coyotes is that they have a tendency to become significantly more fertile when the females are at their most healthy. This is a great trait for a mesopredator to have.

After all, coyotes evolved in North America with dire wolves and a host of large cats breathing down their necks. Natural selection favored those that could reproduce quickly if populations were dropped dramatically.

But it’s not because of some “autogenic trait.” It is simply how coyote populations expand as mesopredators with increased or decreased access to prey.

So yeah, my take on Coyote America is that it is mostly a science fiction book. Not only does he mess up the exact genetic difference between a wolf and a coyote, which is not equivalent to the genetic difference between a human and an orangutan (as he claims),  he also messes up that coyotes really do hunt down and kill cats and eat them. They are not just killing a competitor. They are using cats as a food resource.

This was a book I was so looking forward to reading. It got good press, but the actual science in it was so lacking.

 

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andsdell deerhound

The dogs we call “greyhounds” today are smooth-coated. Some, like Drake, grow pretty thick winter coats, but they are all smooth-coated dogs.

This breed feature, one would think, would have been well-established in the breed, but it did not become a feature until the rise of “club coursing” in England. English patricians were part of clubs that had vast holdings where hares were managed to abundance, and each club member would come and run dogs on these hares in what were greyhound field trials.

In his book Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900, Edmund Russell writes about how memes affected greyhound evolution in England. One of these memes that arose in the 1820s was that no rough-coated greyhound could be entered. Russell even quotes the rule-book from the Swaffham that “No rough-haired dog to be deemed a greyhound.”

The reason for this dismissal of rough-coated greyhounds is that rough-coated greyhounds were better suited to the North of England and to Scotland and Ireland. The wire coats protected against thorns, rocky terrain, and the cold weather. Smooth-coated dogs were better for the open land, which was more easily found in the South of England.

And it also fit within the general prejudicial views of the elite society of the South of England, which saw itself as being “better-bred” than the North.  This division is one that sort of posits the Anglo-Norman parts of the country against the areas where Celtic people held on the longest. This same view was even more exaggerated when these elites looked at the traditionally even more Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland, where rough-coated greyhounds were the rule, not the exception.

Further, Russell points out that was about this time that lurchers began to be stigmatized among elite coursing circles. The lurcher was seen as the poacher’s dog, and the poacher’s dog very often was a rough-coated creature. Never mind that the intellectual ancestors of these elite coursing men were very much into the business of crossing greyhounds with lurchers, Italian greyhounds, and bulldogs. The lurcher and the wire-coated greyhound began to be seen as debased and low-class and Celtic.

One should also take into account the coursing men were never running hares for food. This was sport. The lurchermen was always running dogs on what could feed him and his family the next day. The wealthy coursing men were interested in the dogs as sport, not survival, and for this difference, they castigated the rough greyhound as a lurcher too.

So these ideas permeated what became the modern greyhound breed. Wire coats are dominant, and it is quite easily to expel them from a breeding program.

Thus, what became the greyhound resulted from the prejudices of the elites in the South of England and Yorkshire, rather than any practical reason.

In the Scottish Highlands, the “deer greyhounds” of that region remained wire-coated, and they eventually became the basis of the modern Scottish deerhound breed. By the time these dogs became part of the modern kennel club registry system, no one really thought of them as being related, and no one really considered the bizarre class and regional reasons why the two breeds wound up with different coats.

The deerhound retained the wire coat because it was practical for running deer in the Highlands. The greyhound lost its wire variety because the elite who coursed them saw them as a sign of debasement and excluded them from the breed.

Human whims and prejudices affect so much of how our breeds evolve. In this case, it is the deep division of the South of England vs. the rest of the British Isles.

 

 

 

 

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Epic Wolf Encounter

What happens when you catch a wolf out mousing in Montana:

 

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northwestern wolf

A lot of attention is being paid to the initiative that will be on the Colorado ballot this year. The question is whether the state will reintroduce wolves to Colorado, and various interests are queuing up for a rancorous debate about whether the state should begin this process.

The neighboring state of Wyoming, though, has a decent wolf population, and one argument against the reintroduction measure is that the wolves will do the reintroduction on their own. They will simply walk down from Wyoming and enter Colorado on their own.

Well, yesterday, there was news that wolf tracks were spotted in the snow in the northwestern corner of Colorado. There have also been sightings. An elk carcass has also been found, and wolf howls have been heard. So it is very likely that some wolves are now roaming Colorado, and they may be establishing a pack.

However, this does not change the debate on the ballot question, because if it is passed, these wolves will likely be joined by others.

And, it makes something else more interesting. The ballot question is about gray wolves, but there were historically two subspecies of gray wolf that roamed Colorado.

The ones in Wyoming are Northwestern wolves, but Colorado was also the northern terminus for the Mexican gray wolf’s range. If this ballot question is approved, then a real discussion should be had about restoring Mexican gray wolves to parts of southwestern Colorado.

A huge debate exists about the wolf subspecies of North America, not just with the potentially coyote introgressed “species.”  A real debate exists about whether the Northwestern wolf is the same as the Southern Rocky Mountain wolf, which was also a fairly large wolf.  This also where you get these big debates about giant Canadian wolves with the anti-wolf opposition in much of the West.

What would happen is that you probably would have a gene flow between Northwestern wolves and Mexican gray wolves, and natural selection would favor those that had the adaptations to handle the local prey.

But this probably would cause lots of issues, because Mexican gray wolves are seen as such a unique subspecies that a whole line of them was euthanized for merely showing some dog-like characteristics.

So wolf taxonomy is always an issue with recovery, even if you leave out the domestic dog and coyote introgressions.

 

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