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Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

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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coyote killing cat

An analysis of coyote feces from various parts of Southern California has revealed something rather shocking.  Yes, coyotes are coming into people’s lawns and cultivated gardens and eating lots of fruit, but the analysis revealed that cats comprise 20 percent of their diet in urban areas.

This is in direct contradiction of Dan Flores’s contention that coyotes usually just kill cats because they are competitors and leave their carcasses to rot in the sun.  He makes this claim in both Coyote America and made it again on Joe Rogan’s podcast.   If cats comprise 20 percent of their diet, coyotes clearly are targeting them as a prey species.

If one thinks about it carefully, cats are about the best meat a coyote can get in most urban environments.  Where there is civilization, there are many cats. and when you’re  a 25-30 pound coyote, an 8-10 pound cat would sustain you for some time. Most indoor-outdoor cats somewhat fat and usually lack any skills for living in anything like “the wild,” so of course, coyotes are going to target cats.

One of the authors of the new study is Justin Brown, who also appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast after Dan Flores. I much preferred the discussion with Justin Brown, who was polite and knowledgeable about urban carnivorans, but it was obvious that he disagreed with some Flores’s airy-fairy ideas about coyotes.

Indeed, I think the reason why Flores’s book about coyotes gets so much attention is that it does present the coyote in a way that sanitizes it from what it really is. Coyotes are predators. They do kill sheep. They do kill dogs. They do take cats. They have killed people, including fully adult Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia.

These facts should not make us want to exterminate coyotes. Indeed, when someone says they want to do such a thing, I wonder if they might have come up with a more realistic goal in life like blowing up the sun or draining the ocean.

We err when we turn coyotes into terrible predators that deserve only death, but we also err when we turn them into the prick-eared Labradors of nature.

We should admire the coyote as the one of those Anthropocene wolves, a sort of North American super wolf that has thrived in spite of our attempts to eradicate it from the landscape. We have to adjust our behavior to live with them. Not letting cats go outside is probably a good idea, not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of lots of native species that cats target in their hunting forays.

We also need to understand that livestock producers must deal with coyote depredations.  Yes, we can encourage them to use nonlethal methods.  However, we shouldn’t be as judgmental of someone killing the odd one to protect livestock.

So yes, we now have evidence that coyotes are targeting cats in urban environments. If we love our cats, we’ll keep them inside. Cats don’t need to be outside to be happy, and they will never become a coyote’s breakfast if they stay where the Old Song Dog won’t be able to catch them.

This shouldn’t have been much of a shock. A similar study in 2009 in Tucson, revealed that 42 percent of an urban coyote’s diet consisted of cat meat.

The discrepancy in these two studies probably comes from the fact that coyote predation upon cats has become much better known by the public in the past decade, and Californians probably have at least heard of the studies that show how many birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians cats kill every year.

So yes, if you let your cat outside, you are taking risks. Some people think it’s worth it.  That’s okay, but don’t blame the coyotes for doing what comes naturally. They are trying to survive in an human dominated world, and you’re providing them with an easy, nutritious prey source.

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Snowshoe paws

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) have really big feet. They are snowshoe hare specialists, and these big paws help them move over the snow, just like snowshoes.

They are not just boreal bobcats. They are derived from a much latter migration of Eurasian lynx into North America, while the bobcat likely evolved from endemic North American lynx. They adapted to living in snowy climates, and because snowshoe hares are often abundant, they became specialists at hunting them. Their numbers follow the boom and bust cycle of snowshoe hares throughout their range.

 

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Miracinonyx

It is now widely accepted through ancient mitochondrial DNA analysis that North America’s Pleistocene “cheetahs” were actually offshoots of the modern cougar lineage and were not directly ancestral to the cheetah of the Old World.

However, these mitochondrial DNA studies did not reveal the full picture.  A full genome sequence was recently mapped from a specimen of Miracinonyx trumani, and this full genome has been compared to similar genomes of North American and South American cougars.

The researchers found something quite amazing.  We thought that the original population of North American cougars went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene as did the two “cheetahs.” About 8,000 years ago, cougars from South America recolonized North America, and these cougars that came into North America are the ancestors of the living cougars on this continent.

And because of the limited genetic diversity of the North American cougar, this 8,000 year point of origin is most likely.

However, what is particularly interesting is that between 8-12 percent of the North American cougar’s genome apparently comes from Miracinonyx trumani.  Estimates of when this introgression happened based upon the molecular clock suggest an entrance into the ancestral North American cougar 7,700-8,100 years ago.

So Miracinonyx trumani apparently lasted a few thousand years after the end of the Pleistocene, and when South American cougars recolonized North America, they mated with the now extinct “cheetah” species. This hybridization could have conferred upon these newly colonizing cougars some important alleles for surviving at temperate latitudes, which tropical cougars may have lacked.

Humans certainly were aware of the existence of the North American “cheetahs,” and if they survived to this late date, stories of their existence could have existed throughout indigenous American cultures.

Perhaps these cats lasted even longer, maybe even giving credence to the legendary Mexican onza.

Update  3 April 2019:

Hehe: April Fool!!!!!!

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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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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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bobcat

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the cougar was the most widespread wild cat species, but in the modern era, after we have extirpated the cougar from most of the East, the most widespread cat is the bobcat.

It is found throughout the Lower 48, but it is conspicuously absent from most of the Midwest. In Ohio, they are found almost entirely within a short distance of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, or Kentucky. In the Northern Great Lakes states, they live towards Canada and the lakes themselves. But they are fairly numerous elsewhere.

The bobcat is a species of lynx, which is conveniently classified in the genus Lynx.  Four extant species roam across Eurasia and North America. The bobcat includes the smallest individuals of the genus, but they are the most variable in size. 13-pound queens can be found, as can toms that exceed 40 pounds in weight.

The lynx species likely evolved in North America.  The dentition of a cat from the Pliocene that has been called Felis rexroadensis suggests that it was the earliest form of lynx.  Some authorities now call this cat Lynx rexroadensis. Bjorn Kurten believed that this species is the ancestor of the Issoire lynx (Lynx issiodorensis), which is the likely ancestor of the Eurasian, Iberian, and Canada lynx.

The bobcat is either a direct descendant of rexroadensis or is derived from the Issoire lynx that came back into North America.

The latter seems more likely,  because our current understanding of the molecular evolution of the cat family finds that the lynx species last shared a common ancestor 3.2 million years ago. 

Ancestral bobcats appear in the fossil record of North America 2.6 million years ago, and the modern bobcat evolved from a population that became marooned south of the ice sheets 20,000 years ago.

So the most likely scenario is that bobcats have a deep evolutionary history in North America, but their exact line went into Eurasia and then came back.

It should also be noted that Felis rexroadensis has sometimes been placed into another species called Puma lacustris, which fits somewhere in the cougar lineage. The cougar and lynx lineages are closely related, and as you go back towards the common ancestor of both lineages,  the basal forms tend to resemble each other. However, it is well-supported now that the lynx lineage first evolved in North America and then radiated into Eurasia.

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