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maned wolf bring em back

Of late, there has been a trend among some with ecological and romantic flights of fancy. They call it “rewilding.”   Put wolves and beavers and moose in the Scottish Highlands and let them roam. Turn out recreated aurochs onto the great plains and marshland of the Netherlands. Or maybe clone the woolly mammoth and let it thunder across the taiga again.

Some wags have even suggested stocking the American west with the modern maned lion of Africa. As ersatz as the puny leo might be compared the great atrox lion, I don’t think many cattlemen would approve.

Life in the Anthropocene is oddly disconcerting.  Our species has risen to its highest level of technological advancement. We’ve become terrestrial deities in a world we barely understand and from which we become more and more alienated from its life processes. We think it is moral to attack indigenous seal hunters in Canada but don’t think the mass producing of extreme brachycephaly in the dogs we claim to love is even worth discussing.

Simply put, we are a mess.

But I’ve often wondered in all these conversation about rewilding, why we don’t we try something a bit easier than cloned mammoths and savage lions?

The maned wolf is big wild dog native to South America, and although it now roams the grasslands of Brazil and a few adjacent countries, it first appeared in the fossil record in the American Southwest. Its fossilized remains come from the Blancan in what is now New Mexico and Arizona.

Much has been made about the Mexican wolves that have been introduced to that country, but maned wolves were there long before the true wolves and coyotes roamed the canyons and mountains. There were there among the last of the borophagine dogs and the running dog-like hyena.  The ancestor of the modern wolf and coyote was a puny little jackal thing that roamed among the big dogs and the hyenas and the big-fanged cats as they tore into their kills.

The big bad bone-crushers and big-toothed cats are all gone.  All we can do is search around for things that were roughly contemporary with that bestiary.  The best I can come up with is the maned wolf.

And the maned wolf has a lot going for it. It’s called “wolf,” because European imaginations were so limited when it came to describing this long-legged beast of the grasslands.  It actually feeds much more like a red fox, attacking small prey in the open expanses of grass and nibbling away at fruit. It doesn’t pack up at all. It just goes around on stilt legs, hunting like the diminutive Reynard at the edges of humanity’s conquest.

In a land of chicken houses, it wouldn’t be too welcome, but in a land of open range, it wouldn’t be too much trouble. It would be a curiosity to see the red coyote on black stilts slinking along some arid grassland, pouncing upon kangaroo rats and pack rats that scurry along in range of its ears.

I don’t how it would fare in a sea of coyotes. Indeed, it is the dogs of that lineage that came to rule this continent. Different waves of Eurasian wolf species dominated the maned wolf and its kin in North America, and if many of these odd North American canids hadn’t wandered in South America, they would have been lost entirely.

South America has held onto these lineages, like a canid version of Jurassic Park, and if we are to play around with this rewilding concept a bit, I bet we could find a place to restore a few pairs of maned wolves.

I say this tongue-in-cheek, because I know fully well this will never happen. It’s not going to capture the imagination of the most romantic rewilders. It’s not a particularly fell beast like a lion or a recreated aurochs.

But if we really believe in all this rewilding stuff, why the heck not?

It is true that climate has changed since the last time maned wolves roamed the Southwest, but I am sure we can find areas that could hold them well. We might have to go to Texas, and Texas is already home to all sorts of animals that belong in tropical and semitropical savannas, like blackbuck and nilgai. I’m sure could find a good place there to set out some true North American “wolves.”

Most rewilding theories and postulates are nothing but flights of fancy, and I’m happy to indulge myself here. This isn’t going to happen, and if you push me a bit, I’m going to say this is silly.

But maybe the roar-bark of lobo-guará will someday rise among the coyote yodels on some Southwestern twilight.  The big red coyote on stilts will become a legend as the great cattle and sheep-killing wolves once did. A beast from North America’s deep past now roams the backcountry, no longer dead but on the prowl.

 

 

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African blueticks

Blueticks crossed with Grand and Petit Bleus de Gascogne:

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new guinea dingo

One of the most annoying things about “dog people” is the constant jockeying for the prize of the “most ancient breed of dog.”  If you watch Westminster on television, I would say a third of the breeds are described as “ancient.”

Most of them aren’t that old, and even if they do resemble ancient forms of domestic dog, the modern day representative often has very little genetic connection to them.

So it was with jaundiced eyes when I saw the latest headline that “The world’s rarest and most ancient dog was discovered in the wild.”  The headline is clickbait, of course, because most people don’t have a clue about what was actually found.

Some camera traps caught images of a type of dingo called the “New Guinea Highland Dog,” which is a new name for the “New Guinea Singing Dog.”  It is a dingo that lives a semi-feral existence in the highlands of New Guinea. Note that I said “semi-feral,” because different indigenous groups in New Guinea have used these dogs and their descendants for hunting.  It lives in the wild, but it can be tamed.

Genetically, these animals are not vastly different from Australian dingoes, which lived in much the same way.  They could breed in the wild, but indigenous people used them to hunt things like tree kangaroos.

These dogs exist where there are no wolves and are found in cultures that are mostly involved in hunter-gatherer societies. These animals might give us a window into how hunter-gatherer people in the Paleolithic may have related toward wolves and perhaps give us an insight onto how domestication may have occurred.

But the problem with these dogs is that there are fantastical claims about them. When someone says this is “the most ancient breed of dog” one needs to understand something. The most complete genetic studies we have on dogs have revealed that this type of thinking is quite flawed. One of the big problems is that no domestic dog is more closely related to wolves than any other. The only exception are dogs that have actual modern wolf ancestry.

Dogs are derived from an extinct population of wolves, and yes, a recent genome comparison study says we have to call this ancestor “a wolf” if we are to adhere to cladistic classification.  The reason is that dogs split off from Eurasian wolves at about the same time Eurasian wolves split from North American wolves.

genome comparis fan wolves and dogs

Arbitrarily declaring dogs and dingoes a species makes the entire Canis lupus species paraphyletic, according to Fan et al.

Dingoes are commonly used in genetic studies about dogs and wolves. When compared to a large number of samples of different breeds and different wolves, they almost always group with East Asian domestic dogs, as this dingo did with a Chinese street dog.

Another study, which found initially reported dogs originating the Middle East (but has since been retracted in light of more recent evidence), also found that dingoes fit with East Asian domestic dogs.

dingoes fit with domestic dogs wayne

It is well-known that New Guinea dingo-type dogs can be recognized as dingoes using a genetic test that looks for only certain dingo markers.

So the animal that was found in the New Guinea Highlands is a dingo, and a dingo is an East Asian domestic dog that has gone feral.

Now, about the question of this dog being “the most ancient.”

One of the problems with saying a breed is the most ancient, as I pointed out before,  is that no breed of dog is more close to modern wolves than any other, and the other major problem with saying a breed is ancient using genetic studies is that many of these so-called “ancient breeds” are actually just populations of domestic dog that have been isolated from the main swarm of dogs. This gives a “breed-like” isolation that confers upon it some antiquity that really doesn’t exist.

Thus, we really can’t say that a breed is the “most ancient,” even with genetic studies.

What I think is more interesting in regard to dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs is that they represent a different permutation of domestication than the bulk of domestic dogs.

Domestication is a cultural process as well as biological. The vast majority of dogs in the world today are street and village dogs, which are very easily tamed if captured at the right age. This is the permutation of dog domestication that arose after the Neolithic Revolution, and it is still the rule when dealing with societies that have not engaged in extensive selective breeding for working characteristics in domestic dogs.  We also have a permutation in which free-roaming and freely breeding livestock guardian dogs accompany herds across grazing lands. Any dogs that show aggression towards stock are driven off or killed. Another permutation, which is older than either of these two, are the people who actually rely upon their dogs as hunters. Here, I am thinking of the laikas of Russia, which are used to bay up boar and moose and tree gamebirds and furbearers in much the same way the Jōmon relied upon their hunting dogs for survival.

The Western permutation of dog domestication has been to breed many specialized dog breeds and types. We’ve selected for much higher levels of biddability in some of our dogs. We’ve bred out quite a bit of aggression and predatory behavior. We’ve accentuated certain predatory behaviors, like pointing and retrieving, and we’ve produced dogs that look you right in the eye for approval.

Western dogs have been removed very much from wolves, and from our perspective, it looks like the dogs of different cultures are more ancient than our own. But that’s from our perspective. Our own Eurocentric perspective.

For example, the indigenous people of the Americas were very much involved in producing specialized dog breeds. The Salish bred their own wool dogs.  The Tahltan bear dog actually was used to hunt bears, even though it was quite small.  The hairless trait that exists in most hairless dogs actually originated in Pre-Columbian Mexico.

The truth is people all over the world have produced dog breeds and types that are distinct. The various forms of dingo that exist in Australasia are exactly the sort of dogs that would occur in hunter-gatherer societies that were not engaged in the selective breeding of working animals. Instead, they are societies that relied upon feral dogs to provide their own hunting dogs, which often reverted back to the feral existence once they hit breeding age.

This is not the permutation of Western dog domestication at all, and because it resembles the ancient way man may have related to wolves, a lot gets read into these dogs.

These dogs aren’t more or less ancient than any other dog on the planet, but they are dogs that give us a glimpse of what might have been.

That is the amazing story.

But, of course, dog people can’t leave an amazing story to be told on its own, so claims about these dogs are made that simply aren’t backed up by serious inquiry and scholarship.

Unfortunately, we’re always going to be dealing with these sorts of clickbait stories about ancient feral dogs, but that’s not what the genetic studies are revealing. And it is quite sad that we’re still dealing with the erroneous Canis hallstromi classification for the New Guinea dingo, as well as its attendant “dogs are not wolves” hypothesis, which has been as thoroughly debunked as the “birds are not dinosaurs” hypothesis.

So it is interesting that the New Guinea dingo still roams in the Highlands,  but I wish peole would be very careful of clickbait canid taxonomy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Blood-tracking Deustsch-Drahthaar:

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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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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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The Land Left Feral

feral-land

My roots are deep in central West Virginia.  I am not many generations removed from people who truly lived off the land as subsistence farmers.  They were hill farmers like one would find in the North of England or the Harz Mountains of Germany. They ran rugged dairy cattle and woolly-backed sheep and turned out hogs into oak groves to fatten them on acorns before the November slaughter.

Though I grew up in essentially the same location as my ancestors did, their world is not mine. I didn’t grow up hoeing acres of corn on rocky soil. I didn’t go out with a scythe and cut hay and brush. I am high tech. I use the internet. I grew up watching MTV and The History Channel.  I am a product of industrial America evolving into the information age.

I was lucky to have grown up just down the road from grandparents, who could remember the days when everyone farmed, and areas that always seemed like virgin wilderness to me were actually places where many families lived.  My grandpa told me stories of hoeing out corn for pittance during the hard days of the 30s, of feeding his foxhounds shot groundhogs and rabbits, and of times when there were great coveys of bobwhite that moved through the pastures and cornfields.

I have never seen a wild bobwhite in West Virginia in my life, but I have seen many ruffed grouse and tons of wild turkeys.  The ruffed grouse and the wild turkey are creatures that prefer more forested habitat than the bobwhite.

My grandparents grew up in the pasture and the cornfield. I grew up in the woods.  Their sustenance came from the land near them. Mine always has come from the grocery store.

Their world had been tamed. The wolves were all trapped out and poisoned, and the cougar or the panther or puma or whatever you call the species known as Puma concolor had also met its fate.  The gregarious passenger pigeon and the loquacious Carolina parakeet were gone for good, as were the bison that roamed the Eastern forests and bugling herds of elk.

By 1900, central West Virginia had been tamed into landscape of hill farmers. Sheep could graze without fear of wolves tearing into them on some moonless night, and the hog-killing black bears had been driven to the highest mountains. Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic could now finally be realized here– but only for just a few decades.

Sooner or later, the industrialization of America and lure of good jobs “up in Ohio” began to take their toll. In the 1950s, a generation  of hill farmers was lost to the steel mill and the auto plant. Then, the dual forces of subsidized agriculture and the interstate highway system brought in cheap groceries at the store, and all but the toughest and most stubborn farmers held onto the plow.

Decades of rural flight meant that farms were left behind, and in a rainy climate that has always favored forest over grassland, it did not take long before the pastures became filled with brush, usually introduced pests like multiflora rose and autumn olive. But then the Virginia pines start growing, and sooner or later, an aspen colony gets founded. And then you’re back to the woods again.

Much of rural West Virginia now looks like primeval forest. It is almost entirely an illusion. Those forests are built upon the ruins of the old hill farms. If you take a long walk in virtually any of them, it isn’t long before you find rotten fence posts that still hold a few twisted strands of barbed wire. You make think you’re in an ancient grove of red maples, but you’re standing in old cow pasture or oat field just decades ago.

I call such lands “feral land.” When it comes to animals, we often talk of feral cats, which are descendants of fully domesticated animals that just happened to go wild long enough to raise kittens without human contact. These kittens grow into fully functional wild animals, superb predators of birds and small mammals. They live uncultivated lives without our direct control.

I don’t see why such a concept cannot be applied to land, for just like those cats, it was once tamed and now is pretty wild.  It is now home to things like Eastern coyotes, prowling bobcats, and a resurgent population of black bears. Bald eagles can be seen along the rivers, and ravens now drive crows off of road-killed deer. Every time I walk in the woods, I am amazed at the plethora of songbirds and woodpecker species, creatures that simply would not have thrived when the hills were pastures and the bottom lands filled with corn.

Probably no creature exemplifies this transition than the rise of the gray fox once again over the red. The red fox is a creature of the grassland. The gray fox is a creature of the thicket and the forest.

The red fox was not here when the Europeans arrived, and conventionally, it has long been argued that it came from England to give the wealthy planters of Virginia and Maryland some sport.  We now know through analysis of red fox DNA that our red foxes came from Canada and are not that closely related to those of England.

The gray fox, however, is a native an American dog as exists anywhere. Its lineage has been solely confined to this continent for the past 8 to 12 million years, a very distinct and very old form of wild dog.

The two species are enemies. Grays are known to run off red foxes if they encounter them. Even though they are typically just a bit smaller, they are much more aggressive.

The gray fox requires the forest to thrive. When it is hard pressed by predators, it usually shoots up a tree, and its prowess as a climber also gives it access to bird nests. When the forests are gone, it just does not do as well.

But when the land was turned into pasture, the Canadian red fox saw its opportunity and moved south. Because of its long association with England, the red fox was seen as a sign of civilization.

The gray fox’s extinction was event that at least one historian noted. William Henry Bishop, in his History of Roane County, claimed that the gray fox had gone extinct there in 1882. It was a lamentable step on the way to domesticating the county, but it had to happen as surely as the bison were killed off and the last virgin timber was cut.

But if you were to go to Roane County now, it would not be hard to find a gray fox. The return of the forest has meant halcyon days for its kind once again.

The old hill farms now stand in ruins. We pass the old barns and chicken houses and wonder about the people who built them. We wonder about the the livestock they kept and of the varieties of plants they grew in their gardens. We think of the shame that they are no longer being used. We become saddened that the culture that grew up out of the agrarian society is now holding on only with palsied fingers.

But to a gray fox scenting for cottontails along an old farm road lined in autumn olive the world couldn’t be better. The trees and the brush cover its movements as it slinks along in the feral land. Its lot in life enhanced because of our demise.

 

 

 

 

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