Archive for the ‘out of place animals’ Category

After spending two winters in a row in the deep freeze, it looks like this one is going be one of those depressing, gray ones. It also makes it easier for me to imagine the real effects of climate change, even though the global climate was definitely changing when we were having -20 degree nights last year.

One of the real effects of climate change is that the ranges of animals are changing. Those native to cold climates are pushed deeper into arctic and subarctic climates, while those from more southerly climes work their way north.

Nine-banded armadillos are being spotted in Virginia for the first time ever.  The Virginia opossum continues its conquest of North America, and the gray fox is starting make its presence known in Canada beyond its typical range of Southern Ontario and Southwestern Quebec.

The gray fox is very common in the United States. If you live east of the Great Plains and near some woods, you’re likely not far from a gray fox. We take the animal almost for granted.

The gray fox does range into Canada, but it’s generally found only near the US border. As far as I know, the only breeding population that has ever existed in Canada is in Southern Ontario into Southwestern Quebec, and currently, the only listed breeding population is on Pelee Island, which is between Detroit and Cleveland on Lake Erie.

Climate change means that winters are getting milder, on average, and this means that Eastern Canada is likely to experience an upward growth of gray fox populations as time goes on. I think this a fair trade. The red foxes we have in the Eastern US migrated from Eastern Canada as the forests were cleared, and as the climate warms, our gray fox will become part of its native fauna.

In 2008, the potential of the gray fox becoming more established in Canada was realized when a gray fox was caught in a beaver trap in Charlotte County, New Brunswick.  This gray fox was well north of its breeding range. The nearest breeding population is just east of Bangor, Maine, so this fox was a long way from home. The fox had traveled something like 84 miles, which is pretty long distance for an animal that is usually a bit smaller than a pug. The young dog foxes of this species do occasionally make wide dispersals from their parents’ territories, and this one made a big run from his mother’s den. He was a subadult, just lighting out for the territories.

The stomach revealed the last meal of the fox– a ruffed grouse. Parasites in his small intestine revealed that he’d been living on snowshoe hares, probably his entire short life.

The authors who explored the New Brunswick gray fox case examined the historical distribution of the species. We have archaeological records of gray foxes from Manitoba, Ontario, and at least Cumberland County Maine, but 350 years ago, the population crashed in Canada. It also crashed in the Great Lakes region of the US, northern New York, and Northern New England. Then in the period from 1930 to 1940, it began to recolonize much of northern New England and the Great Lakes states. They do occasionally wander into Quebec, Ontario, and extreme southern Manitoba.

But with a warming climate, it looks like the gray fox is moving north, and it is very likely that breeding populations will be found deeper into Canada.

No one had ever heard of a gray fox in New Brunswick, but it may not be long before they really do become established well outside of their historic range.

I once read that the main thing keeping them from spreading north was they were too reliant upon cottontail rabbits as a prey source, but apparently their numbers have only increased in Maine as the rabbit population has crashed. Maine, like most of northern New England, is becoming more and more forested, and those forests are maturing. Cottontail rabbits don’t like that particular habitat, and what’s more, Eastern cottontails aren’t actually native to Maine. They were introduced for sporting purposes, and they thrived in the land of small farms.

Gray foxes prefer forested habitat, and they have spread well outside the range of cottontail rabbits in Maine. The remains of the dear New Brunswick fox revealed that the gray foxes of Maine were living well on snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse. They simply don’t need cottontails to thrive.

If gray foxes do become more established in Canada, it will be interesting to see what kind of foxes actually do evolve to adapt to that part of the world. Will they be bigger (in keeping with Bergmann’s rule)? Will they grow thicker coats?

Only time will tell.





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mule deer in WI

One of the more interesting stories of the past week comes out of Polk County, Wisconsin. A bow-hunter killed a mule deer.

That may not sound so weird, but the thing is mule deer are a Western species. Wisconsin is home to white-tailed deer, which are the most common species of deer in the East and Midwest.

The bow-hunter who took the deer is named Randy Haines, and when he saw the nice little buck get within range he took it.

A relative of Haines took this photo of the mule deer from his tree stand before Haines managed to kill it:

Wisconsin mule deer

The tail gives it away. If you didn’t see the weird forked antlers, you’d still know that you were looking at mule deer by that scraggly tail with the black top.  And if that didn’t give it away, if you spook a mule deer it stots like an impala, while white-tailed deer are quick bounders.

What this deer is doing in Wisconsin is a good question. The nearest mule deer to Wisconsin are in the Dakotas. The mule deer had no tags on it that would indicate that it had been on a deer farm, but that seems like the most obvious answer. However, there is no proof that it is a deer farm escapee.

Because we have had such good public management of deer in the US, we know where each species belongs. This is unlike England, where only two species of deer are native and it’s not exactly clear where their historic ranges were. England’s deer were managed using the deer park system, which is not entirely different from the private deer farms that are being promoted in some parts of this country. In both systems, deer are confined to an acreage and managed as a private entity. Deer that aren’t even native to the region, such as fallow deer (the epitome of a park deer), are brought in. If private hunting ranches in Texas are bringing in axis deer, it would make sense that a private deer preserve in Wisconsin would be trying to stock mule deer.

But this raises important questions about private deer operations. The American model of wildlife conservation is based upon the wildlife being managed as a public trust. When we start allowing people to keep large preserves full of monstrous white-tails and exotic deer, we are undercutting what has worked with deer management here.

The specter of chronic wasting disease is always on the horizon with these private deer operations, and if it winds up hitting the publicly held deer herds, then it will be upon the taxpayer to fix the problem.

So yes, it’s really cool that someone did kill a mule deer in Wisconsin, but let’s hope it’s the last.

For the sake of the deer and deer hunting.

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This guy made a discovery! This is not a gray seal or harbor seal. This is a harp seal, the same species that gives birth on the ice in eastern Canada and the Canadians love to take clubbing.  (Or so I’m told!)


Harbor seals are not incredibly uncommon in North Carolina, especially during the winter, but that is about as far south as they actually do range in the Western Atlantic. A gray seal was also spotted in North Carolina this past spring.

Both harbor seals and gray seals are gray dappled, almost like bluetick hounds. This seal is black and white pied!

This footage was taken in 2011, when there were four sightings of harp seals in North Carolina.  The reason why the seals were coming so far south still has not been answered.

Many of North Carolina’s coastal rivers have a pretty healthy population of alligators, which means during that winter American alligators were within just a few miles a seal that gives birth on the ice.

Weird North America, eh?


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west virginia alligator

From WSAZ.com:

An alligator is such a bizarre, unusual sight in the waters of the Upper Mud River that even seeing isn’t necessarily believing.

“I didn’t even tell my wife,” says Jack Stonestreet, who was fishing on the river last Thursday. “I didn’t tell her because, to be honest, I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”

Fishermen over the past several days contacted the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to tell them of the gator sighting. On Saturday, Nick Huffman, a field superintendent with the DNR, saw the scaled reptile with his own eyes.

“I would say he’s a half grown alligator, a total measurement of 67 inches,” Huffman says. “That’s big enough I knew not to get on him in hand-to-hand combat.”

The DNR shot the alligator and pulled it out of the water.

The alligator will now be dissected. Opening the alligator’s stomach may give the DNR some insight as to where it may have come from and how long it was in the river.

West Virginia has almost no regulations on alligator ownership– probably because most people have sense enough not to own one!

But I have seen alligators and caimans available at pet stores, and every once in a while, someone releases a pet alligator into a river or lake in hopes that it will survive in the wild (I guess).

The problem is that alligators live only as far north as northeastern North Carolina.  There is some debate about about them having an historical range into southeastern Virginia. I’ve always heard that the Great Dismal Swamp was the northern boundary, but I’ve also heard that alligators once ranged into the James River. In North Carolina, they are found only in the coastal plain, where the winters are comparatively mild. My guess is if they were found in Virginia at one time, they were never found out of the extreme southeastern part of the state, and if they did occur in the James River, my guess is they were found only near the coast.

If they aren’t found outside of North Carolina’s coast plain, how on earth could they survive in West Virginia?

People are amazingly dumb about animals. Alligators are not good pets. I’m surprised I had to type that sentence. An alligator can eat you. It has very powerful jaws and a relatively small brain.  And although they are smarter than, say,  iguanas or box turtles, they are about the same level of intelligence as a chicken.  Powerful jaws and a small brain are a combination a combination for a dangerous pet.

Oh, yeah, and you need a massive heated enclosure that contains both a swimming area and a basking area, which has to be cleaned on a regular basis.

But if you get one and live in one of these states that has an actual winter, please don’t dump it in the local river. It’s either going to freeze to death or someone is going to shoot it.

There is no “born free” scenario that works out well for the alligator.

But some people just don’t care.


One of the most interesting alligator populations that has been established outside their normal range is the Tennessee River in northern Alabama. Most of these are on the Wheeler Lake Reservoir.

Alligators are native to southern Alabama, but they were introduced to the Tennessee River at some point in the 1960’s or 1970’s.

These alligators are outside their native range, and they also are living in a somewhat cooler climate than they normally would experience.

However, even northern Alabama has much milder winters than West Virginia, and there is no chance of them ever becoming established here.



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Ab4458 the Edwardian lynx. Photo (c) Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. From Tetrapod Zoology.  

An errant Canada lynx was killed in the English county of Devon in 1903.

Darren Naish writes in the Tetrapod Zoology blog:

For over 100 years, a potentially significant dead cat has been sat in storage in a British museum. Specifically, the specimen – the lynx Ab4458 – has been at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery ever since it was added to the collections there in February 1903, and what makes it significant is that it was shot dead after living wild in Devon, southern England. As revealed in a new paper published by Aberystwyth University’s Max Blake and a team of colleagues (myself, Greger Larson, Charlotte King, Geoff Nowell, Manabu Sakamoto and Ross Barnett), the specimen represents a historic ‘British big cat’, though with ‘big cat’ being used very much in the vernacular sense, not the technical one (Blake et al. 2013).


For over 100 years, a potentially significant dead cat has been sat in storage in a British museum. Specifically, the specimen – the lynx Ab4458 – has been at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery ever since it was added to the collections there in February 1903, and what makes it significant is that it was shot dead after living wild in Devon, southern England. As revealed in a new paper published by Aberystwyth University’s Max Blake and a team of colleagues (myself, Greger Larson, Charlotte King, Geoff Nowell, Manabu Sakamoto and Ross Barnett), the specimen represents a historic ‘British big cat’, though with ‘big cat’ being used very much in the vernacular sense, not the technical one (Blake et al. 2013).

A lynx of any species would not technically be a big cat. The term “big cat” in the taxonomic sense applies only to the cats in the genus Panthera (the tiger, the lion, the jaguar, the leopard, and now, the snow leopard) and the two species of clouded leopard. All other cats are technically “small cats,” which means that the cougar, the largest of the small cats, is actually larger than the smallest of the big cats, the mainland clouded leopard.

This particular lynx caused quite a stir before it was it was killed.

Accession documents at the museum describe how it was shot dead by a ‘Mr Heb’ (the handwriting in the accession catalogue is difficult to read and this name might be wrong) after killing two dogs. It was then donated to the museum by a Mr J. Niblet of Newton Abbot, Devon. The geographical origin of the specimen is given as ‘Newton Abbot’. Foreign specimens are clearly marked with a place of origin, so we have to conclude that the cat really did come from Devon.

No one really paid much attention to this cat until 2011, when Max Blake, a student at the University of Bristol, found it while doing volunteer curatorial work at the museum. The animal was quite clearly not a Eurasian lynx, as everyone had initially assumed.

Blake, who was then studying zoology, knew it either had to belong to one of the two New World species of lynx, the bobcat or the Canada lynx.

But the animal appeared to have a mixture of both Canada lynx and bobcat features. The cat had just enough facial markings to suggest that it was a bobcat, and thus, it could have belonged to one of the northern subspecies of bobcat.

When I initially heard of this case back in 2011, I thought it was a northern bobcat, not just for those reasons, but because it is virtually unheard of for a Canada lynx to attack dogs. Bobcats, however, are much more aggressive animals, and in the wild, the larger subspecies are known for hunting mule and white-tailed deer. Canada lynx are rangier than bobcats, but they are actually lighter in weight than the largest subspecies of bobcat. And their diet consists of almost nothing but snowshoe hare. (Canada lynx are about the most bizarre cat species I can think of).

The researchers were unable to extract any DNA from the specimen, but the museum did still have its bones on file. After a careful morphological analysis of its skull, it was determined that the cat was indeed a Canada lynx.

This lynx had very worn out teeth, which suggests that is was of advanced age when it was killed. It also might explain why it was so willing to attack the dogs. It was desperate for some sort of sustenance, and dogs may have been the only suitable prey available.

Analysis of the teeth revealed it likely hadn’t been living on its own for very long:

Examined with all of this in mind, Ab4458 lost its incisors during its lifetime. New bone then overgrew the alveoli*. Thick build-ups of calculus are present on its lower and upper premolars. Based on this data, we conclude that Ab4458 suffered from periodontal disease and – based on all that calculus – lived a life of 10 or 11 (or so) years in captivity during which it fed on soft, non-abrasive foods. In conclusion, we couldn’t find any evidence here that the animal lived for a long time in the wild. Rather, it had been a captive animal for years (Blake et al. 2013).

So someone in Devon had been keeping a pet lynx for quite some time. It then was either released or got loose when it was about 10 or 11 years old.

My guess is this cat came from Newfoundland. Devon and Dorset were the English home counties for a large number of fishermen who fished off Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.  Newfoundland English is heavily influenced by the dialects from that part of England, where the people sound like stereotypical pirates.

Perhaps a Devon fishermen brought home a lynx kitten for his children as a souvenir from his travels. The cat was probably a beloved pet for a few months. Then maybe it got a bit aggressive, and its owners moved it to the backyard, where it remained for the rest of its life.

Until it escaped or was set free.

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The following description is of a giant gray lynx that was killed in Pennsylvania in 1874. It comes from Henry Wharton Shoemaker’s Extinct Pennsylvania Animals (1919) :

John G. Davis, old-time woodsman of McElhattan, Clinton County, gives the best description of a mammoth Canada Lynx killed by John Pluff at Hyner, in that county, in 1874. Pluff, who was a noted hunter in his day, died in January, 1914, in his 74th year. One evening, when Pluff was at supper, he heard a commotion in his barnyard. Taking down his rifle, he hurried out, only to notice a shaggy animal moving about among the feet of his young cattle. Courageously driving the steers into the barn, he came face to face with a gigantic Canada Lynx, or, as was called in Northern Pennsylvania, a “Big Grey Wild Cat,” or catamount, to distinguish it from the smaller and ruddier Bay Lynx [bobcat].

Taking aim at the monster’s jugular, Pluff fired, killing the big cat with a single ball. The shot attracted the neighbors, among them Davis, and they gazed with amazement at the giant carcass, the biggest cat killed in those parts since Sam Snyder slew his 10-foot panther on Young Woman’s Creek in 1858. The Canada Lynx measured 4 feet, 10 inches from tip of nose to root of tail—(the tail measured 4 inches)—and weighed 75 pounds.

The next day being Thanksgiving, it was supplemented to the turkey feast, and all enjoyed the deliriously flavored white meat more than the conventional “Thanksgiving bird.” This lynx was probably a straggler from the Northern Tier, as none of its kind have been about Hyner since. At the same time, the Canada Lynx has been killed in many parts of Pennsylvania, as far south as the Seven Mountains and Somerset County, some claim, but never frequently. It hangs close to the main chain of the Allegheny Mountains, if it can make a living there (pg. 183-184).

Now, this story should be taken with a grain of salt.

Exaggerated sizes for large predators are almost de rigueur for frontier stories.

But I don’t dismiss it out of hand.

The typical Canada lynx is big at about 40 inches in length, and it weighs only 18 to 24 pounds.  They are rangier than bobcats, but they will weigh less than the biggest bobcat.

This 75- pound  “lynx” in Pennsylvania doesn’t sound like a Canada lynx to me at all.

The truth is we really don’t have a good handle on the native mammals of North America that lived before the modern conservation movement.

I think it is very possible that there were very large lynx in the United States. This animal could have been a very large gray bobcat, for bobcats are well-known to vary greatly in size. Canada lynx actually don’t. Throughout their range, they are essentially the same size– 18-24 pounds.

This particular cat– if it did weigh 75 pounds– probably wasn’t built like the rangy Canada lynx we know today. It would have had to have been a particularly robust creature.

Or it could have been a unique species of lynx that we never were able to document before it became extinct.

There is the persistent story of the Ozark howler, a giant black bobcat that lived in the mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and I think it might be possible for European man to have made it impossible for large lynx and bobcats to survive.

After all, a farmer is much more likely to tolerate a 25-pound bobcat than a 75-pound bobcat or lynx.

Eurasian lynx to reach this size, and they are very effective predators of deer.

And it is well-known that bobcats and Canada lynx evolved from the Eurasian lynx.

Traditional accounts say that the bobcat became diminutive to avoid competition with already extant large predators in North America, and the Canada lynx invaded the continent in a later wave, where it became established in the Northern part of the continent as a snowshoe hare specialist.

But could there have been large lynx-type cats in North America in modern times?

I don’t know how good the evidence is, but we do have these tantalizing historical accounts that make us wonder.

Maybe there were large bobcats and/or undocumented lynx species in North America during an earlier time, and these animals were wiped out because of the potential threat they posed toward livestock.

Again, I am very skeptical that this cat was a Canada lynx. Canada lynx are actually quite poor at preying upon livestock and deer. Bobcats are actually much better at it.

The size of this animal could be a mere exaggeration, but we do have Eurasian lynx that are that size.

So it’s possible.

But what it exactly was is still a unanswered and unanswerable question.

It’s fun to speculate, eh?

I can’t decide whether it’s a mere exaggeration or if there actually was a lynx or bobcat of that size.

It’s up in the air for me!

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Here they are:


Well, here’s the story from The Northern Territory News:

There may be lions galore roaming the Top End. West Australian Mary Ford sent the NT News a photograph showing what appear to be big-cat paw prints.

She said the picture was taken at the entrance to Kakadu National Park in 2008.

But world-renowned experts say the prints show an animal without retractable claws, which means they probably belong to a big dog – or maybe a cheetah?

Three drivers said they had to stop when a lion crossed the Stuart Highway at Pinelands, on the outskirts of Darwin, on Sunday.

The NT News reported yesterday on speculation that the animal had escaped from a private collection in Humpty Doo

An impeccably informed source said: “Surely the good people of the Doo would hear a lion roar and ask, ‘What the hell is that? And then call the police.”

Readers share his scepticism.

Mad Bull of Alice Springs wrote on ntnews.com.au: “Maybe the roar heard was from Green voters because at the next election they will be silenced.”

Humour-challenged Brian of Thailand posted: “You have excelled this time with your crap.”

But Emma, who is intelligent enough to understand that something is humorous without having to be told “this is funny”, wrote:”Hahahahha. Love it.”

And commenter Dick Handcocks, who describes himself as “brother of Leon of The Doo”, said: “I’ve noticed a lot of fat hippos walking down Mitchell Street, especially when the US navy is in town.

“Good old Darwin is full of a variety of animals and plankton. Some breed out of control – their existence is supported by the taxpayer and Centrelink.”

Well.  Whatever may have been seen in the Northern Territory,  I can say definitively that these are not “lion tracks.”

Your mystery animal is some version of Canis lupus, either Canis lupus dingo or Canis lupus familiaris.

It’s a dog or a dingo.

Which may or may not be after your baby.

Just for comparison here is a dog track:

See how it’s oval shaped and the toes are arranged to a point?  See the claw marks?

That’s how you know you’re looking at a dog’s tracks.

This is an actual lion track that is juxtaposed with a human hand:

(Source for image)

Even if we ignore the size, the toes range outward. There are no claw marks with the tracks, because lions can retract their claws.


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black leopard

Besides sightings of Eastern cougars and the errant bengals and leopard cats, I have two accounts of large cats. Both of these come from grandfathers, whose work required him to spend long days in a very remote part of West Virginia.

The first of these involved an animal that I feel is more or less a black leopard. In the late 70’s, he was driving down a well-tending road, when a large black shape appeared on the side of the road. He thought it was a dog, but as his truck approached the animal leaped across the road. He describes it as a cat, just a bit larger than a Labrador. He says it was black in color, and its tail was almost half as long as the cat itself. He also says it was rather stockily built but quite agile, for it moved very quick across the road up into a steep hillside that was densely covered in brush. As he drove by and looked up the hillside, he could not see the cat, so it must have been able to find some dense cover on the hillside or had already left the vicinity.

The second cat story is one I remember, for I was a small boy when he came home to tell me what he’d seen. He had been hunting on an isolated ridge that also had a small herd of beef cattle grazing on it. The owner of the property had allowed him to use this land as a hunting ground, but there were no other people around.

Now, he knew that a Norwegian elkhound lived at a house just below the ridge. It was a light gray one with a very thick coat. He knew the dog to be quite friendly, and he often petted and played with it when it came around.

Well, on that particularly day, my grandpa was sitting in his turkey blind, which overlooked a clearing in the forest. About a hundred yards beyond the clearing was an open pasture, where the cows with calves were grazed. On the other side of the clearing was maturing forest with rather thick undergrowth.

As he sat in the turkey blind, he saw something gray moving through the undergrowth. He thought the elkhound had wandered up, and as soon as the dog caught scent of him, the hunt would be over. However as the animal aproach the clearing, he noticed that it wasn’t moving anthing like a dog, and it lacked the elkhound’s curled tail. It also had rather unusual ears, but he couldn’t make out what exactly was so strange about its ears.

When the animal entered the clearing, the animal that appeared before him looked a lot like a bobcat. He had seen bobcats in the forest before, but this one was strange. It was about as tall as a Norwegian elkhound, but it was covered in silvery gray hair. Its ears had more pronounced tufts.

He had heard of this animal before, but he had only seen them in photographs and in old trapping manuals. As far as he knew, this animal was found only in Canada, northern New England, and the Rockies. He told me that he had seen a Canada lynx.

Canada lynx

Now, neither of these animals is native to West Virginia, although the Canada lynx is native to North America. Both of these animals were most likely former pets that either escaped or were released into the wild. This very rural part of West Virginia was a dumping ground for exotic pets. It was in this same area that he came across a spider monkey and his friends often caught squirrel monkeys.  No one else saw the leopard again, but the lynx was seen by several different people over a period of two years.

Canada lynx can hybridize with bobcats and produce fertile offspring, so maybe we have some bobcats around here with some lynx in them. I do know that some bobcats were killed in Maine that were lynx hybrids.

So those are the two accounts of unusual cats I’ve been able to catalogue from my grandfather. Just imagine what other cats have been spotted by other people whose work required them to spend long hours in remote forests in West Virginia.

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A crocodile has been spotted in a pond near the village of Xertigny in the Vosges region of France. Now, a crocodile has no place in the Vosges region, so it is either an escaped pet or zoo animal. Or an common animal that has been misidentified.

In true crocodile hunter style, the local authorities have placed a chicken near the pond to see entice the saurian from its depths.

Lacking any other option, some in the village want the pond drained, which, of course, is the nuclear option.

My guess is that someone has come across a large carp or pike. That’s also what the local anglers are saying.

I have seen very large carp in ponds, and they do look a bit like alligators.

Now, I’ve never been in an area where one could see both pike or alligators, but I cand see where someone could mistake a pike for a crocodilian.

It could be a pet caiman that has been released. Heck, we have a population of spectacled caimans in Florida that was founded by escaped pets.

This story does have my curiosity piqued, so stay tuned.

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