Archive for the ‘Taxonomy’ Category

red wolf

I don’t know a damned thing about football. I have hated it my whole life.  I cannot carry on a halfway decent conversation about it. Taking me to a football game for me to enjoy it is about like taking a dog to the Louvre and expecting him to appreciate the art*, and I will remain happily ignorant about the subject until my dying day.

Currently, the US is going through some great historical reckonings about racism, which I must admit that I do fully support.  There is a lot of controversy about taking down statues and renaming streets, and it’s all horrendously gut-wrenching and difficult.

Among the changes that is happening is that the professional football team in Washington, D.C. is getting its name changed. For decades, various groups affiliated with various Native American organizations have been trying to get the name changed. It has been called the Redskins, and as someone who doesn’t care about football, I think it’s kind of silly that we have a name like this for anything.

But all the recent events have finally led to decision to change the football team’s name.

And although we don’t know the new name. The current favorite is “Redwolves.”

Well, that’s a different controversy!

And no, I’m not saying the systematic racism and oppression of Native Americans is an any way comparable to a big taxonomy kerfuffle, but it is controversial.

As long time readers of this blog know, I generally reject the “red wolf” paradigm. I base this rejection upon really good genome-wide analysis. I also reject the ancient North America-only origins for the coyote, and I believe that both the red wolf and coyote are offshoots of the Eurasian gray wolf.  Indeed, I have proposed that the coyote is a form of gray wolf in the same way the domestic dog is , and that it should be recognized as Canis lupus latrans.  The red wolf is a hybrid between relict gray wolves that lived in Louisiana and Texas and the coyote.

One unusual discovery about gray wolves, coyotes, and “red wolves” is that all three populations are about as genetically distinct from each other as humans from different continents are.

And this discovery might tell us thing or two about racism in our own species. At one time, the various races of humanity were often classified into different species. Some people resisted this notion, which popular in the nineteenth century.

However, among them was the Rev.  John Bachman, a Southern Lutheran pastor, who also ministered to the slaves. He defended the institution of slavery, of course, but he did not think that African Americans were a different species from Europeans.

Bachman also believed the wolves of North America represented one species, and this idea was very much expounded in Aubudon’s The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Bachman and Audubon worked closely on the text, and although Bachman and Audubon are credited with documenting the red wolf as a species, they were very clear that were the same species:

“The Wolves present so many shades of colour that we have not ventured to regard this [the red wolf] as a distinct species;  more especially because it breeds with those of other colours, gangs of wolves being seen in which this variety is mixed up both the grey and the black” (243).

Bachman and Audubon’s initial idea that the “red wolf” was just a color phase has since been revealed in the genome-wide analysis of wolves, coyotes, and red wolves are so closely related to each other that it would almost make sense to classify them as one really diverse species. Bachman and Audubon were certain that the coyote was a very distinct species, but it likely diverged from the gray wolf within the past 50,000 years. And a gene flow still exists between coyotes and gray wolves across the continent.

Humanity is so caught up in labeling, and now, we’re trying to undo some of the damages that were done through our pseudoscientific labeling in the past.

And Confronting past and present racial discrimination is the current zeitgeist.

I reject racism very clearly and definitely. I don’t want to have teams with racist names or have statues of Confederate generals on public property.

I am what some people would call “left wing scum.” I wear the badge with pride.

But I wonder if much of my rejection of Canis rufus is also my rejection of racism. I think the evidence is strong that the species should not be considered valid, but I wonder if my strong aversion to the classification of this species is part of my deep anti-racist ideology.

Maybe it clouds how I view data.  Ideology does drive a lot of scientific understanding. Philosophy underpins so much more than we’re ever willing to accept.

I know that I have intellectually made the case to myself.  It makes me look like I hate endangered species to some poor readers out there.  Or that I want some sort of whole-scale blood letting among the red wolves.

But I don’t think that this species was defined correctly. It wasn’t even defined when wolves were commonplace in Texas and Louisiana, and the genetic data that was used to identify them as a species in the 1970s was rather primitive. Indeed, much of their defining characteristics were based upon what they looked like, and as Peter Steinhart pointed out in The Company of Wolves, it was not unusual for 75-pound “red wolves” and 25-pound “coyotes” to appear in the same litter. The founding population of red wolves consisted of only 14 individuals, and when they were released in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, it was assumed they would keep coyotes out and not interbreed with them.

Indeed, what happened was they started interbreeding with Eastern coyotes as those smaller canids began colonizing the red wolf release area.

Believing that coyote blood contaminates red wolf blood has resulted in several litters of pups being euthanized. The coyote cannot sully the blood purity of the red wolf, even when the genome-wide analysis shows that the red wolves are themselves admixtures of of coyote and extinct Southern gray wolf.

We have defined these animals so rigidly before the law that the wolves cannot choose their own mates.  If they pair with a coyote, they have created a mongrel.

It is this level of stupidity that I reject when it comes to nature and simple ethics. These animals cannot be thought of as truly wild and natural if they must be maintained only by keeping the coyotes from mating with them.

It reminds me so much of the racial purity nonsense that was once so prevalent in the United States and still exists, though often is never explained or articulated in this fashion.

And when wildlife management apes this sort of buffoonery, I have to reject it. I am not saying that red wolf advocates are racist, but the way they describe them and the crosses between coyotes and red wolves truly sounds so eerily similar to our antiquated ideas about blood purity that I am instantly repulsed by it.

So yes, let’s rename the football team.  Lets oppose racism in all its forms.

But renaming the team by this name is not without its own controversies. Indeed, it echoes and rhymes so much with the ones facing the human world that one cannot stop and marvel at the folly.


*Stolen from Julie Zickefoose.



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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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The most common phase for captive red foxes in captivity is the silver variety, and the most common phase for the arctic fox is the blue phase. Thus, most hybrids are silvery blue in color.

My guess is this is hybrid is the same phase combo, just in winter pelt.

However, the red fox in this hybrid was likely a cross fox-because it looks like a very freaky cross fox!

It could even almost pass for a swift fox, which is a very close relative of the arctic fox– a much closer relative to it than the red fox is.

Perhaps they could produce fertile offspring, for it is well established that a fertile hybrid zone existswhere kit foxes and swift foxes share territory in New Mexico. At one time, they were regarded as belonging to the same species, but it has since been determined that swift foxes and kit foxes are as genetically divergent as swift foxes are from arctic foxes. That means that the swift fox could produce fertile offspring with an arctic fox– but I doubt that anyone would try to do this breeding experiment.

I should note that because of their relationship to red foxes and swift and kit foxes, the arctic fox is no longer in its own genus. It is now in the genus Vulpes, with the vast majority of the other true foxes.

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These are the smallest of the Coturnix quail. Their range also includes most of southern China, southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia as far south the state of Victoria, so it’s probably better just to call them “painted quail.”

These birds are common in aviculture. In the US, though, they are offered for sale as “button quail.”

Calling them button quail is not exactly accurate, however. The bird more correctly known as button quail are Charadriiformes, the order that includes most shorebirds and seabirds.

So I wish painted quail weren’t sold as button quail.

It is taxonomically incorrect.

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