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Archive for the ‘Carnivorans’ Category

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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chinese mountain cat night

We lump. We split. We recombine. We split again.

Taxonomic disputes. Cladistics. Phylogenetic trees. We quibble. We quarrel.

I particularly love these disputes. They are what happens in this era of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis and the rise of cladistic classification models.

Ever since it was known to modern science, the tufted-eared wildcat of mountains of Qinghai and Sichuan were thought be a unique species, an endemic mountain cat of China.

It was called Felis bieti after the missionary naturalist Felix Biet who was stationed in Tibet. Pronounced the proper French way, Felis bieti sounds a lot like Felix Biet, though he was not the person who named it. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, the scholarly French mammalogist, named the beast.

And all was fine taxonomy-wise.

Then, as the Chinese population grew, they began to put lots and lots of pressure on the mountains. They poisoned the pikas and rodents, and the cat’s numbers have started to drop.

It might be easy to get people interested in preserving the cat.

Even more so, because its classical taxonomy has been called into question.  A 2007 genetic study that sought to find the origins of the domestic cat found that the Felis bieti was actually so close to the wildcat that it ought to be regarded as a subspecies. This was a limited mtDNA study, which has its potential problems.

It could be that there is indeed a unique Felis bieti but that it has hybridized so much with wildcats or their domestic kin that they have a wildcat-like mtDNA sequence. So we’re going to need some nuclear DNA studies to confirm whether this is a subspecies or not.

If it turns out to be wildcat subspecies, then it might actually be easier to rally support for conserving it. People love cats so much that it often gets very hard to have discussions about them as invasive species, so when we have a potential close cousin of Fluffy or Morris that might go extinct, it might be easier to get people interested in preserving them.

These cats are found not far from the where the last wild giant pandas roam. The Chinese mountain cat, as it is known in English, isn’t quite as rare as the panda.

Taxonomic quibbles and quarrels do have political consequences.  Some of them are good. Some are them are negative.

We use the information the best information we have, but we always manipulate symbols in order to rally support for our causes.

The tufted wildcat of China might be one of those species we might easily manipulate.  The Scottish wildcat has been called “the Highland tiger, ” and even though it’s unlikely that any pure Scottish wildcats still exist, it has captured the imagination of the British conservation-minded community.

Perhaps something could be done here as well.  People love that which is nearest to their own understanding, and domestic cats losing their closest wild kin is something that would bother many.

This is what has helped wolves in their public relations and led to their ultimate success as a conservation story.

A little wildcat could have a lot of appeal, and maybe it can be saved, bieti or silvestris or whatever it is.

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This is from a documentary about brown hyenas on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia, but the black-backed jackals stole the scene here!

They are like piranhas in canid form!

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The little AWD puppy robot is so cute!

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I put out some sardines in oil in front of the Moultrie 1100i.  I dripped some oil down the trunk of this tree, and these two young raccoons came to visit.

I would say these two are siblings from last year’s litter, and it is obvious one of these raccoons isn’t into sharing at all.

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Almost black skunk

This is a striped skunk smelling some sardine oil.  Striped skunks vary greatly on how extensive their white stripes actually are.  This one just has some white on its head.

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