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Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

red panda mom

Mozilla Firefox is a browser with an interesting zoological name.

I think it’s a little strange that people don’t know what a “firefox” is, but it is an alternate name for the red panda. The company that developed the browser is quite into red pandas for this reason, but I don’t think the typical user of the product really thinks much about the name.

Red pandas are perhaps the most unusual carnivoran from a taxonomy perspective.  For most of the twentieth century, it was assumed that red and giant were close relatives. Both animals live in Asia, and both have this unusual “thumb” that is made out of one their wrist bones. The feature is used to grip bamboo, and it was just assumed they evolved this trait from a common ancestor.

Red pandas look a lot like raccoons, and it was proposed that they were procyonids, just because they looks so much like a more specialized form of raccoon. And if this animal is a raccoon and the giant panda is its closest relative, giant pandas are not bears.

The classification of the giant panda was resolved though a molecular and genetic measures that were published in 1985. Giant pandas are bears, though they are a very divergent form of bear. Further, the giant panda’s chromosomes were found to be mostly fusions of the typical bear karyotype.

Red pandas, though, were even more strange. They weren’t bears, and they weren’t procyonids either.  In this study, they were as divergent from bears and procyonids as bears and procyonids are from each other, but the techniques in those days were rudimentary and not conclusive.

However, this finding suggested that red pandas really are something else. They were given their own family name (Ailuridae), and researchers have spent several decades trying to figure out where these animals fit in the order Carnivora.

Of course, figuring out exactly where they fit they were took some time. In 2009, we finally got a good molecular study that looked at a relatively large same of nuclear DNA of red pandas, procyonids, mustelids (weasels, ferrets, otters, wolverines, martens, and mink), and mephitids (skunks and stink badgers).  It found that red pandas formed a clade with procyonids and mustelids. They are roughly as closely related to mustelids as they are to procyonids, so they definitely do deserve their own family name.

This is largely the consensus view on where red pandas fit, but there is an alternate view that has popped up as result of another molecular study.

In 2010, an analysis of the cytochrome-b sequences from 243 carnivoran species and subspecies found something unusual. The red panda was found to be most closely related to canids.

This finding is somewhat surprising, and because this study is based upon a very small part of the mitochondrial DNA from each sample, it is problematic. If you look at the phylogeny proposed in this paper, it puts the kinkajou outside of Procyonidae, and a clade is formed with the Ethiopian wolf, red wolf, and the coyote, while another clade is formed with the various subspecies of the Holarctic wolf and the golden jackal. These are problematic because full-genome comparisons tend to place the coyote as much closer to the Holarctic wolf than we ever thought, and the exact position of the other species still must be worked out.

But let’s just say that this study’s findings about the red panda are later confirmed in another nuclear DNA study or one that uses full-genome comparisons.

If the red panda is the closest living relative to the dog family, then we’ve got something interesting. Canids were an early diverging family in the order Carnivora. Their sister family were the amphicyonids, which are often called “bear-dogs” in English. This family consisted of plantigrade species that were sort like wolverine-lions. They went extinct 1.8 million years ago.

Dogs are not that closely related to rest of what are called the “caniform” carnivorans, so when the amphicyonids became extinct, they were the last of their lineage.

If the red panda really is that close to the dog family, its exact position with regard to both canids and amphycyonids is not entirely clear.  It could be that red pandas are actually a sister taxa to the extinct bear dogs, which would be an interesting find.

One should keep in mind that the red panda family used to include some pretty fell beasts.  Simocyon was a genus of cougar-sized predators that lived throughout Eurasia and was also found in North America and Africa during the late Miocene and Pliocene epochs. These creatures were fully carnivorous– and they had the wrist thumb that one finds on the red panda living today. The discovery of this thumb on this extinct relative with such a different ecological niche revealed that the red panda’s thumb came about far earlier than we expected. And it had nothing to do with gripping bamboo to eat.  It had more to do with climbing around in trees.

The giant panda’s thumb does have to do with eating vegetation.  A Miocene bear in the panda lineage from Spain called Indarctos arctoides already started to have some deviations with the bone that becomes the “thumb” in modern pandas.

The trait evolved without any common ancestry, and it is only one of those ironies of natural history that these two creatures have this feature and use it in much the same way.

So giant panda really is a bear, and the firefox might be a kin to the dogs.  (But probably isn’t).

 

 

 

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pronghorns

Our brains like simple answers. We love to see the cause and then the effect, and we constantly look for them in nature.  At one time, we believed that the appearance of comets in the sky would be harbingers of great doom. And even in the past century in my home state, it has long been claimed that the appearance of Mothman in the area around Pt. Pleasant corresponded with the Silver Bridge collapse.

Correlation does not equal causation. Chanticleer, that old rooster of English Medieval lore, believed that his crowing at dawn made the sun rise.  When two variables occur at the same time but don’t have any causal relationship, they are called stochastic. Stochastic is one of my favorite words from graduate school, and even today when someone posits a bogus relationship between two variables, I say “Those are stochastic variables.”  I get some odd looks, but that was the point.

In trying to understand the complex phenomena that comprise evolution, we are constantly looking for these relationships. Some of them make some good sense and are well-supported with the data. We know that predators are the driving force behind making the prey swift and nimble, and we also know that plant-eating animals are the driving force behind the development of thorns and toxic plants.

But sometimes, our desire to see patterns leads us astray.  One example of what may be an erroneous positing of stochastic variables involves one of North America’s most unusual animals.

If one were to go to Wyoming on a hunting trip, there is a good chance that the outfitter will tell you to buy “antelope tags.”  Tags, of course, are licenses that give permission to the hunter to take a particular species, and in Wyoming, there is great interest in the pursuit of antelope.

But the little secret is there are no antelope in Wyoming. Indeed, the only true antelope in the United States are gemsbok that have been introduced to specific part of New Mexico, and Texas game ranches are full of various species of Old World antelope.

But no true antelope is native to the Americas. The animal we call an “antelope” should be more appropriately called “the pronghorn.”  It is not an antelope at all, but it is the last survivor of a lineage of creatures that are much more closely related to the various giraffe species and the okapi.  The pronghorn and its extinct kin are placed in a superfamily of Artiodactyla called Giraffoidea. These animals have bony processes that stick off their heads. In the giraffe and okapi, these are called ossicones and are covered in hair. In the pronghorn, a sheath of keratin grows over the bone. This sheath is shed every year, which leads to the claim that the pronghorn is the only animal that loses its horns every year.

The animal we call a pronghorn is superficially quite similar to what we would call an antelope or gazelle in the Old World.  But these similarities arose through parallel evolution. Both gazelles and pronghorns evolved in the open land where all sorts of cursorial predators hunted them. Predation forced these animals into swiftness and nimbleness.

That part is not much up for debate.

The problem comes with a specific claim about pronghorns.  One odd feature of this species is its speed. The top speed of an adult pronghorn is 55 mph (88.5 km/h). This speed far exceeds any of its predators that were around in historical times. A pronghorn can smoke a pack of wolves or coyotes and can easily outrun a cougar or a bear.

This high speed has vexed science for quite some time, but there has been an attempt to explain how it could evolved using predation as the driving force.

The hypothesis even points to a specific predator.

At one time the cougar lineage was much more diverse than it is now.  Right now, only three cats still exist in this lineage:  the cougar/mountain lion/puma/catamount/painter/panther (all names for one species), the jaguarundi, and the cheetah of Africa and Iran.

But during the Pleistocene, there were long-limbed cats that superficially resembled the cheetahs of the Old World. They were called “American cheetahs,” but analysis of mitochondrial DNA extracted from their fossils revealed they were much more closely related to cougars. Indeed, they were more closely related to cougars than cougars are to jaguarundi, which complicates the whole move to place jaguarundis in the same genus as the cougar. The two extinct American cheetahs are currently classified in the genus Miracinonyx, while the cougar is in Puma and the jaguarundi is in Herpailurus. Because these two American “cheetahs” are closer to the cougar, placing the jaguarundi in Puma creates a paraphyletic genus. This problem could all be solved if we just placed the two American “cheetahs” into Puma, but not everyone agrees with the mitochondrial DNA assessment of their phylogeny.

Let’s just say that the current pronghorn species lived at the same time as these lithe cougars, and it has been suggested that these cheetahs are the driving force behind the evolution of the extreme speed. The person who came up with this suggestion was a pronghorn expert named John Byers. Byers does not claim that these “cheetahs” were the sole force behind the development of speed in pronghorns. Instead, he lists them among a whole guild of running predators that could have placed selection pressures on pronghorns to force them into the evolution of speed.

The claim that these “cheetahs” were the driving force behind pronghorn speed has been picked up on the popular press though. Wildlife writer Dan Flores even made this claim recently on the Joe Rogan Podcast, and one can find countless pieces on the internet (including this blog when I was a lot more naive) that the extinct North American cheetahs are the “but for” cause of the pronghorn’s fleetness.

The problem with this claim is that it leaves out the nuance of the original hypothesis, and what we’re left with is a sort of cartoon version of evolution.

On the blog Laelaps, a great amount of skepticism is leveled at this hypothesis, largely because the popular understanding of how North American cheetahs might have affected pronghorn evolution.

One problem is that no one really knows how the two species of North America cheetah lived:

We don’t know very much about the natural history of either Miracinonyx species. Their skeletons are cheetah-ish, but that’s not nearly enough to pin these carnivores as the inspiration for artiodactyl agility. In fact, the ecological context of Miracinonyx bones hints that these cats were not simply speedy specialists who prowled open grasslands.

In their 1990 study, Van Valkenburgh and collaborators noted that later Miracinonyx bones have been found from Nebraska to Pennsylvania and Florida in deposits which accumulated under varying conditions. These cats were apparently just as at home among coastal savannahs as mountain stream valleys. More recently, at the 2010 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting, John-Paul Hodnett and coauthors presented a poster about Miracinonyx that frequented caves in prehistoric Grand Canyon, Arizona. There was a distinct lack of fast-running, open-savannah prey animals during the same time period – the researchers noted that the extinct mountain goat Oreamos harringtoni was the most common possibly prey animal in the area. Rather than speeding over the grasslands, Hodnett and colleagues reported, the Grand Canyon Miracinonyx may have lived like snow leopards, bounding down sheer rock faces in pursuit of mountain goats.

This isn’t to say that Miracinonyx never bolted after equally-swift prey. It’s only to point out that we don’t know much about the cat’s ecology, feeding habits, or hunting strategy. There are a few ways we could find out a bit more, though.

Coprolites attributable to Miracinonyx might contain identifiable bone fragments of the cat’s prey. And while such a find is a longshot, perhaps a trackway made by a Miracinonyx running or launching itself into pursuit could tell us about how these cats actually moved. Both lines of evidence suffer from the complexities of accurately attributing a particular trace fossil to a trace-maker, though. Another route may be to compare the isotopic clues in the teeth of Miracinonyx to those of their potential prey, as was recently done for two sabercats and a bear dog found in Spain. By ascertaining where herbivores were feeding, and how geochemical signatures of prey became locked in carnivore teeth, paleontologists could narrow down the preferred habitats and prey of Miracinonyx. Furthermore, a poster presented by Natalia Kennedy and coauthors at the 2012 SVP meeting outlined a new attempt to compare the spine of the modern cheetah to that of Miracinonyx and other extinct cats to see how skeletal anatomy influenced flexibility and lifestyle.

Miracinonyx might have been the reason for the swiftness of pronghorn. False cheetahs and archaic pronghorn overlapped in time, if not habitat, for as much as three million years. But saying Miracinonyx was certainly a speed demon that gave pronghorn a reason to run is only supported by the barest amount of evidence. If we’re going to understand the evolution and natural history of these animals, we must first untangle their histories and the specific details of their ecology. The Just-So story of how the pronghorn got its speed has yet to be tested by the evidence which resides in the fossil record.

So we really don’t know enough about the extinct North American “cheetahs” at all, and we certainly don’t know enough to make claims that they were the driving force behind the evolution of speed in pronghorns.

Further, if one reads Byers’s text on these predators, he does say that these cheetahs were “the principal agents of selection” behind the pronghorn’s speed, but the author does point out that things like dholes, wolves, and various species of Borophaginae could have been part of the mix as well.

Pronghorn don’t just have speed. They have endurance.  Endurance is one way that Old World antelope elude the speed of cheetahs, but the main way they elude them is through agile running maneuvers. Pronghorn are fast, but they don’t have the quick turns of a Thomson’s or dorcas gazelle.

If these North American “cheetahs” ran down their prey in the same way the Old World true cheetahs do, then one would expect the pronghorn to have evolved some of these tricks.

Instead, pronghorn are running machines. They can take off and go and go and go. An animal that evolved to do such a thing likely didn’t evolve to outpace a sprinting cheetah. It likely evolved to outrun endurance runners.

Dholes are known in North America’s fossil record largely from Beringia, but we do have remains of dholes from Mexico. So their distribution in North America was probably more extensive than we might have assumed, but their fossil record is still quite spotty. Dholes run down their prey in long endurance chases, and dhole predation could have been a pretty strong selection pressure on pronghorns to make them fast endurance runners.

But another species could have also provided this pressure, and its presence in North America is well-established. What’s more, it lived in roughly the same areas where pronghorn were common.

This animal was North America’s only hyena, Chasmaporthetes ossifragus. These hyenas were far less like the modern bone-crushing species of hyena. Indeed, they were quite dog-like and are part of a grouping of hyenas that were called “dog-like hyenas.” The only dog-like hyena still in existence is the aardwolf,  which eats almost nothing but termites.  Its extinct relatives, though, were pretty adept predators of ungulates. They are thought to have run down their prey in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do today.

So it seems that the pronghorn’s speed and endurance are much more likely to have evolved in response to predation from these long-distance running predators.

Further, we really don’t know how early North American wolves hunted their quarry.  Edward’s wolf and Armbruster’s wolf were both pretty common in North America until 300,000 years ago. They may have also hunted in much the same way dholes and African wild dogs do.  We don’t know enough about their natural history either, so we can only speculate.

The truth is we really don’t know why pronghorns are so fast.  It is possible that the North American “cheetahs” were the principal driving force behind the pronghorn’s speed. It is possible, but the evidence still is wanting. Further, there are more likely candidates that should be explored as having some influence on evolution pronghorn predation avoidance behavior.

So it is possible, but right now, it looks like we have two stochastic variables. We need much more evidence for a causal relationship.

And like everything else in evolution, we need to be careful about looking for patterns where they might not exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A few days ago, I came across a story about a jaguarundi sighting in New Mexico, and I have to say I was pretty excited. I have been following accounts jaguarundis north of Mexico, and I have had great hopes that they will finally have a breeding population in the United States again soon.

Jaguarundis historically ranged into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but we have no breeding population. A few years ago, there was talk of them being restored to South Texas, but I’ve heard nothing new about that project. My guess is it fell apart as the new austerity regime took over.

Jaguarundis have been known in the fossil record from Florida, and of course, there are countless sightings of jaguarundis in Florida and in Alabama as well.  None have been confirmed, of course, and if they were discovered in that part of the country, they would be the first ones known in historical times. And they definitely would have descended from “released captive animals.  But the current thinking is that most of these Southeastern jaguarundi are misidentified domestic cats, bobcats, and even otters.

After hearing that story about the possible jaguarundi in New Mexico, I went on a Google safari for potential sightings in the US.

Most of them were quite weak sauce, and I have to say that people really do need to look carefully at photos before posting them

One of the most egregious is this one by a blogger called “Texas Cryptid Hunter,”  who claims that the below trail camera photo is of a jaguarundi in Missouri or Mississippi.

Texas fake jaguarundi gray fox

That animal sure does look like some kind feline, right?

Well, it’s not feline at all.

It’s a gray fox. There are two big identifying features that say this is a gray fox in a subtropical summer coat.  The masking is very unjaguarundi-like, but it is very much like a gray fox. But that alone isn’t enough to scream gray fox at me.

Check out the tail. There is a black stripe running down the tail. No other carnivoran on this continent has that feature, and jaguarundis certainly don’t.

Gray foxes and their cousins, the island foxes of the Channel Islands of California, have this feature.

Further, notice that the deer and the creature seem to be eating the same thing. My guess is that the trail camera was set out near a deer feeder, which shoots out corn. This is a common practice where it’s legal, especially in late summer. It allows the deer hunter to figure out which bucks are developing the best antlers.

A little known fact about gray foxes is they are quite omnivorous, and they particularly like to eat corn from deer feeders.

My guess is the deer and fox were eating corn on the ground, and because the fox is in summer pelt and is holding its ears close to its head, it looks a lot like some kind of cat.

It’s an easy mistake to make. I initially thought the first gray fox I saw running in the broad daylight towards me was a cougar!

Cougars and jaguarundis are close relatives, and compelling molecular data suggest that we ought to classify them in the same genus, which I tend to do. So I can see where someone might see a gray fox and think it’s a jaguarundi.

I am friendly with the cryptozoology community, but I do know there is a tendency among people who “believe” in “cryptids” to be hold fast to bad pieces of evidence. I don’t think there is compelling evidence for bigfoot or long-necked dinosaurs in the Congo, but I’ve run into people who absolutely know these creatures exist.

So it is really hard to have a conversation with people who have decided that a piece of evidence is “the truth.”

I also know there are some sportsman types who will tell me there is no way that can be a fox.  If you can find me a photo of a jaguarundi with a black tail stripe like the animal in the photo, I will stand corrected.

You won’t find it.

I still think that jaguarundis belong in the US, but if that asshole orangutan who thinks he runs this place gets his way, we will have big ol’ wall that keeps them stuck down in Mexico.

And we won’t have a chance at restoring jaguarundis to our southern border country.

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panther

I don’t believe in them, though if you travel up the roads in most of West Virginia and ask around, you will find people who believe. More than believe, they know.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t think there are any wild felines in the whole state but bobcats. I don’t think there are any cougars lurking about. Cougars were here, and one might wander in from the West.

But I don’t think there are any native “Eastern cougars” left.

And now, I don’t need to say that I don’t believe in black panthers roam the forests of the Appalachians.

But if you did a poll in West Virginia, I am dead certain that you’d get a majority believing they exist here.

It’s an odd thing, for the only large cat that routinely comes in black in the Americas is the jaguar. North American jaguars are very, very rarely black, and although one can talk of the old stories of wandering jaguars popping up well into the United States, the truth of the matter is the species has a very limited range in this country. The ones that live in this country all are male, and all live along the border with Mexico.

Black leopards might have been turned out here, but no one has found a breeding population of these cats. Black leopards come almost entirely from the tropical subspecies, and although there are jaguars that live in coldness of Korea and the Russia Far East, those subspecies have no melanistic individuals and are not well-represented in the captive leopard population.

If one were to poll people in West Virginia about the existence of bigfoot, only a tiny percentage of people would say they exist. Bigfoot is a ridiculous idea.

But black panthers are not.

I don’t know why the belief in these beasts is so persistent, but it may have something to do with the mystery of blackness.  Blackness on cats has a strong connotation for people of Northwestern European heritage.  Depending upon the region:  Black cats are good luck. Black cats are bad luck. Black cats accompany witches.

So adding a black pelt to a massive cat gives it some sort of mysterious power.

Mystery is good. Romance is better.

And I’ve found once people believe something for those two reasons, good luck dissuading them of the moonshine (and I mean this under both definitions of the word!)

West Virginia is full of coonhounds, bobcat hounds, and bear dogs.  One would think that if there were a population of big cats in this state, they would have been treed by now.

It hasn’t happened, but I know that one day, maybe not soon, but someday, a cougar from the West will wander into this state. It will be known, either from the trail camera photos or from a hound treeing, and half the state will lose its mind.

The DNR will say that cougars are protected species, and the guns will rage against the felines. Feral cats will be shot, and everyone who can will fill a few bobcat tags a year.

That’s because the cougar will be real, and in its reality, it will bring up that old-fashioned hatred of anything predatory in the woods.

But the black panther doesn’t bring that same feeling, and the reason why is that most people know somewhere back in their minds that they don’t exist in these forests.

They might not admit it in an argument at the barber shop. But they know.

Belief in the romance is what it keeps the black panther slinking along forest paths, slipping along until it crosses into the thick cover. It roars up in the imagination, wild and mysterious and untouched by encroachment.

It won’t be molested by the gun or the baying hound. It will slink on into the gray mists of winter, where it will roam as it always has in the magic and mystery of human reverie.

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Crick Coon

crick coon

The stream runs in a soft trickle over the sandstone. It doesn’t babble like any old New England brook. This is an Appalachian creek, best pronounced “crick” for the little crickety sound that it makes as it journeys down the hollow.

The minnows and crayfish dart among the stones. No bass or crappie or walleye or sauger can make its way this far up in the hills. The shallow water is a refuge from the predatory fish, and thus the little fish and “crawlcrabs” are safe from those predatory lips.

But when night falls in the hollow, the shallow water’s security features become a pretty bad liability.

In the veil of darkness, the old boar ‘coon that dens in the old white oak that has grown thick and strong on a little rise on the creek bank is leaves his day rest and saunters down to the water.

He has done this maneuver many times, and he knows which holes hold the most minnows and crayfish.  So he doesn’t go splashing the water like a maniac. He goes deliberately, wetting his feet only when he knows he is likely to put his hand-like paws into the water and catch a little midnight snack.

He finds his first hole and wades into the trickle of water. He reaches his forepaws into the creek, feeling and feeling with his fingers for the quarry.

Five minutes of feeling around and a big crayfish falls into his hands. The raccoon savors his nice little meal and then thrusts his paws back into the water.  He catches a minnow.  He devours it.

The old boar comes to hand fish in the creek every night, except for those days of frigid winter, when the ice clogs up the creek and all wise raccoons stay up in their tree dens.

In late winter, the scent of estrus from the sow raccoons draws him to wander and occasionally wage war on the other boars that come calling, and in the autumn, he mixes up his seafood dinners with a few corn patch raids and sorties through the oak lots for acorns.

And in summer, when the wild raspberries grow black on the thorn bushes, he goes slinking along the berry patches, filling his jaws with a little sweet fruit of the land.

But he is a crick coon by trade. He knows the crayfish and the minnows, and when the rains fill the creek bed and allow the odd sucker or redhorse to come swimming up his way, he tries his hand at catching a few of those, too.

Maybe he’ll get caught raiding a corn patch someday.  Or maybe the baying hounds will tree him. Or maybe an upstart young boar will fill the creek bank with enough upper cuts and growling churrs to topple the old man.

But for now, the old boar will hold his own along the trickling crick.  The snow will fall, and the summer heat will swelter.

But his night will be spent on the quest for minnows and crayfish. His kind is named Procyon, perhaps for the star that shines brightly above him on those clear nights when the barred owl’s calls are clear and piercing and the moon casts silver beams upon the skeleton trees.

He never looks up though.  The stars and their courses mean little to a beast that goes nose down sniffing the creek banks.  Feeling hands and quivering nose are how he makes his way in the world.

And he does it well.

 

 

 

 

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When I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that one of her childhood dogs killed a civet cat.  I was old enough to know that civets lived in Africa and Asia, so when I got the chance, I asked my dad if grandma had ever been to Africa.  He said “No.” And the whole discussion ended.

I always wondered what grandma was talking about.

When I first started this blog, I was a little confused about the existence of spotted skunks in West Virginia. I asked if anyone had seen a spotted skunk in West Virginia, and of course, I got no response.

But it turns out there are some. It turns out that they are found only in the High Alleghenies, where the snow falls hard every winter.

This perplexed me.  I had always thought of Eastern spotted skunks as being a more or less “Southern” species, and although I often saw range maps of the species that included almost the entire state, I had never knew anyone who had seen one.

But maybe I did.

It turns out that one of the vernacular names for the spotted skunk is “civet cat.”

And that’s when the little anecdote my grandmother told me made a bit more sense. Her childhood dog had killed a “civet cat,” but it had most likely killed a spotted skunk.

As for that broad range map I linked to earlier, I think the reason the range appears to be so truncated now is that the spotted skunk was reviled in much of its range as a vector of rabies. Another common vernacular name for spotted skunk is “phoby cat”– “phoby” is short for “hyrdophobia” (often “hydrophoby” in some dialects)– it is very likely that there was massive persecution of spotted skunks in the lower elevations of the state.

It was just too hard to settle and farm in the higher mountains, and those mountains provided some sort of refuge for what is really a more subtropical species than one would typically find in such snowy country.

My grandmother’s childhood dog likely killed one of the few spotted skunks left in the lower elevations of West Virginia.

But I liked to pretend that she had gone to Africa.

Boyhood flights of fancy are tough to beat.

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The war of mesopredators and a family saga, sort of like wolves vs. grizzlies on a smaller scale:

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