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Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

young raccoons

Life and death act out their forces on nature and man. And so it went with this old house. No one lives there any more. The lawn has grown thick with meadow grasses and multiflora rose, and no one seems to remember much about who lived there or the dramas of existence that played out within its walls.

But one would be wrong to think such an edifice would be without life. Two orphaned raccoons, both brothers, wound up commandeering the premises one sweltering hot July evening.  Their mother had been crushed on the highway. She darted out just as a massive semi came racing down the lane, and she was exited this mortal coil in a loud thud and the whirring of tires upon bone and ligament.

They were well-weaned when she was killed, and they spent the better part of the summer learning to be proper raccoons. They negotiated the lazy streets and moved onto quite country lanes, where garbage was sometimes illegally dumped.  They avoided the barking dogs and the murderous boar racccons. They bluff-charged cats and swatted away slobbering opossums.

For weeks, they meandered about, but one day, the came across something quite nice. One a quiet country lane, an old house stood.  And to the curious young raccoons, it was a beacon. It was like finding an island full of hidden treasure. It smelled so interesting and so beguiling.

Weather had worn down some siding near the front door. All it took was a bit of chewing and pulling, and the two brothers had made themselves a good entry hole.

Upon entering the house the found it full of old tables and chairs and couches from the time Gerald Ford was president.  Scores of insects, including beetles and moths, had taken up residence in the house, and these creatures were a welcome nighttime repast for the two brothers.

A fox squirrel had made her nest in the attic, and her four little babies also were a nice snack, but after going through the house in search of food, the two brothers realized they had stumbled upon a true treasure.

Most raccoons den up in trees. A few unfortunate souls use burrows that were dug by other creatures.  Some raccoons do well in old barns, and countless ones have taken up residence in chimneys.

Normally, those that choose to live in human created structures find themselves evicted pretty quickly, but no one cared about this old house. A car might pass by the structure twice or three times a day, usually the crotchety old man who lived at the end of the road. He would curse about the eyesore had to pass when journeyed back to civilization, but he wouldn’t do anything about it. He would just motor on in disgust and go on with his day.

So the two brothers had found themselves a raccoon castle, and for the rest of the summer, they used it as their retreat. At night, they would make sorties into true dwelling civilization, and by morning, they would be at home in the old house.

And so through the summer, the two brothers lived well in their castle, but this situation could not go on forever. They could not know that the coming winter would bring on the rut, the great war between the boars. They could not know that someday they would be tearing at each other’s faces.

But for now they curled up beside each other as the sun cast down into the smudgy old windows. The light it cast in the house was ethereal. Ancient dust rose into the beams of light, casting about like some forlorn glitter.

They snuggled into each other as the hissing of dog day cicadas buzzed out from the adjacent walnut trees.  The youthful summer was now, and they could thrive and wallow in it.

But just as all things with man and nature, the summer of peace would be fleeting on.

But in youthful raccoon existence, there is no time to think of such matters or even to consider them. That something is temporal is not even understood.

And so they slept in the bliss of the current hour as if it were all that lay ahead. To be is to be, and one must be right now and not in the horrors of the coming future.

They were young raccoons in that state of ignorant bliss, a state our kind secretly admires though publicly disdains as if we all didn’t know the real truth.

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fox cat

Wildcat taxonomy is hotly contested, especially with the 2017 revision of the taxonomy of Felidae, which posits that the wildcat of Africa, the Middle East and South and Central Asia is a different species from that of Europe and the Caucasus.

The island of Corsica, once home to many insular endemic mammals during the Pleistocene, has always had a legendary wildcat, one that farmers claimed was a predator of goats and other livestock.  However, it was debated about whether this cat was a European wildcat or just a feral cat.

However, in recent days, various outlets have reported that a team of scientists is now examining this cat more closely.  Its DNA is different from the mainland European wildcat.

One hypothesis is that these “fox cats” arrived with the second human colonization of Corsica, which would put it closer to the ancestor of domestic cats than to the European one.

The current thinking is that this Corsican fox cat is a new species, but more analysis is going to be performed before anyone can make that conclusion.

If this animal arrived with people and is derived from the Middle Eastern population of Felis lybica, then it is a feral cat. However, it is a different sort of feral cat than one finds in parking lots and old warehouses.

This discovery will take a lot more work to figure out fully what it is. It may be a new species of cat, or it may give us better clues on how cats were domesticated.

It is an amazing find, and I have so many questions. And they will likely be answered in the not to distant future.

 

 

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I took the trash out this evening, and I discovered a litter of trash pandas hanging out by the bin. I did not see the mother, but they did run when we realized we weren’t to be trusted.

trash panda 1

trash panda 2

trash panda 3

trash panda 4

trash panda 5

We did not touch them.  I hope their mother is nearby. If I see them out tomorrow, I will be calling the DNR.

 

 

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Posted on The Atlantic’s Youtube channel, this week:

He’s one of my heroes. I won’t lie about it.

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ungava brown bear

The brown bear of North America is usually called a grizzly bear, but it is part of a species that once ranged across the Northern Hemisphere from Ireland to Kentucky.  Yes, at the end of the Pleistocene, this species expanded its range through a broad swathe of North America. This eastern population apparently did not exist into historic times, for the first accounts of these bears are all from early explorers entering the West or the Great Plains.

But there was a population of brown bears that lived on in the East until historic times. This population was not documented fully, though, until it was extirpated.

In Northern Quebec and Labrador, there were always accounts of anomalous bears that went on into the twentieth century.  Farley Mowat documented much of this evidence in Sea of Slaughter, and the most compelling evidence in Mowat’s text is an off-line by George Cartwright in which he describes a bear with a white ring around its neck. This is an accurate description of a brown bear cub.

However, Mowat was aware of a discovery of a female brown bear skull on Okaka Island by anthropologist Steven Cox.  The find was buried in an Inuit midden, and from this discovery,  it has become accepted that brown bears lived in Northern Quebec and Labrador until the twentieth century. This form of brown bear is sometimes called “the Ungava brown bear,” but no one has attempted to give it a scientific name, simply because it was probably an Eastern extension of the grizzly bear population.

This bear was probably killed off for its hide and because it caused great conflicts with people.

This brown bear, though, was the last brown bear of Eastern North America. It has never been clear to me why the brown bears of Ontario, Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky became extinct. It usually said that brown bears prefer more open habitat than black bears do, but brown bear live very nicely in forests on the West Coasts and in Europe.

We do know that Native America populations in the East were fairly dense, and if these late Pleistocene-early Holocene bears were as much a problem to live with as grizzly bears can be, it would make sense that humans would have extirpated them from their settlements.

But the truth is we really don’t know why the brown bear became extinct from its eastern range. It did, however, hold on in the far reaches of Quebec and Labrador until about a century or so ago.

 

 

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felis lybica

As I have noted many times on this blog, I think that the only way to correctly classify the domestic dog is as form of gray wolf. I am okay with regarding them as a divergent subspecies, but Pierotti and Fogg make a pretty good case that we really cannot define a domestic dog subspecies, because that subspecies would have to include everything from truly feral dogs to pekingese. I think that the wolf genome comparisons also show that creating a special dog or dingo species distorts the monophyly of Canis lupus.

Some will argue with me on this one, but you will have to use a species concept that is totally not based in cladistics or one that allows for a huge amount of gene flow between the two species.  An ecological species concept can work, but then you’re going to be forced to split up Canis lupus into many different species. Arabian wolves are simply aren’t ecologically equivalent to arctic wolves. So I think creating a special dog species is problematic from a systematics perspective.

However, I’ve been asked several times what I think about how to classify the domestic cat. Almost every authority in cats uses the name Felis catus to describe the domestic cat, while Canis familiaris is slowly being replaced by Canis lupus familiaris.

The revised taxonomy of Felidae  that was released in 2017 does change how we classify wildcats. Classically, we recognized a single species of wildcat, Felis silvestris. The domestic cat is derived from a Near Eastern population, which was classified as Felis silvestris lybica.  There was another wildcat that lives Western China that was sometimes recognized as Felis sivestris bieti or Felis bieti. The big taxonomy debate in this genus was where to include this Chinese mountain cat into the greater wildcat species or have it be a species of its own.

The new taxonomy changes quite a bit of this. Felis bieti is now recognized as species, but Felis silvestris now refers to only European and Caucasian wildcats.  Felis lybica is the new scientific name for the wildcats living Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and some parts of Central Asia, where it is sympatric with the Chinese mountain cat.  The fact that lybica and bieti exist in the same area without much gene flow is apparently the reason for elevating bieti to a species.  The reason for splitting up silvestris, though, had do with a deep mitochondrial DNA divergence between European and Caucasian wildcats and the rest of the wildcat species. Apparently, these two forms split from each other 173,000 years ago.

This revised taxonomy is really, well-supported with data, and I generally think it is right in its conclusions. However, I do think it made an error with this genus.

It retained Felis catus as a full species.  The same logic that says dogs are Canis lupus familiaris says that you cannot have a special domestic cat species either.

So the best way to classify domestic cats is as Felis lybica cata. You will probably only see this name written on this space, because unlike the literature on dogs, there is a noted deep adherence to Felis catus in the literature on domestic cats.

I honestly don’t know why there is such an adherence, because domestic cats are not that different from Felis lybica.  They come in more colors and coat types, but most domestic cats can live just as wildcats do. That’s why feral cats are an ecological hazard in so many places. They are quite effective predators, the ultimate mesopredator that found a niche living under the nose of man.

We don’t have as many good nuclear DNA studies on the various small cats as we do on various forms of the gray wolf complex, and this may be why there is a tendency to avoid a cladistic classification for the domestic form.

But if we’re doing this for dogs– and for good reason– we should be doing the same for cats. And the same for pigs and domestic mallards and domestic jungle fowl.

 

 

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Something to admire about a coyote

coyote

Whenever this civilization met coyotes, be at Jamestown, the Indiana frontier, or along the Missouri River, our relations with them were not cordial. We came out of Europe. Europe had waged war on wolves, where wolf attacks on people and livestock were certainly a problem, but in the lands that became the United States, predators were cleared off.  The bigger forms of wolf held on in northern Minnesota and in the Texas and Louisiana pine woods.

The lead flew at the wolfy kind. So did the steel trap and poison. The coursing dog did its work, as did the tracking hound and the big grappling hunting bulldog or mastiff.

And the coyote, instead of becoming reduced to a mere relict range, wound up colonizing a whole continent. Coyotes are in Newfoundland and Alaska. They have expanded to the south as well, and now coyotes rest at the edge of the swamps of Darien in Panama. Beyond those swamps lies Colombia and a whole new continent to wander through.

This little wolf, which once picked at the dire wolf and Smilodon’s kills, thrives because of our persecution. We have killed countless numbers of coyotes over the years, and they now live nicely in virtually every city in the country. Everyone lives near coyotes now. They don’t have to worry about larger predators driving them or killing them. They can live nicely on garbage and cats and the fruit from our ornamental trees.

There is something to admire about an animal that thrives in part because we’ve changed the ecosystems so much. The coyote is the biggest and most charismatic (and the most problematic) of these species, but the raccoon, the red fox, the skunk, the barred owl, and the opossum have all had their fortunes rise as we have “settled” this continent.

They are these barbarous dogs, unchained, uncollared, and untrained, that come slipping in.  We hate their liberty in the same way we hate a free-roaming dog, but we hate them more because they are the wolf we just couldn’t kill off.

We tried. Their biology just laughed at our vain attempts. And they are here, there, and everywhere to stay as the Anthropocene trundles on.

They got their start running the jackrabbits, which is one reason they can run with the swiftness and agility of a sighthound, and now, in their current hybrid “Eastern” form, they moved from lifting fawns from the coverts and have grown bigger and more wolfy to run down the adults.

This is a thriving beast, a utilitarian model that can live as a mousing fox, a scavenging jackal, or pack up and hunt like a proper wolf.

And you have to admire that versatility, that cunning, even if you hate them with every fiber of your being.

They got us buffaloed. And we didn’t see it coming.  It got our goat, because it watched where we tied it up.

 

 

 

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