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marsh rabbit

One of the most interesting aspects of North American wildlife is the wide diversity of rabbit species. The most common rabbit species in the Eastern and Midwestern US is the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus), but it only one many North American rabbits.  The genus of cottontails, Sylvilagus, includes many regional and specialized forms. In the Allegheny mountains, there are Appalachian cottontails (S. obscurus), and in parts of New England and New York State, one can find the New England cottontail (S. trasitionalis).  In the West, we have desert cottontails (S. audubonii) and the mountain cottontail (S. nutallii) in the interior, and the brush rabbit (S. bachmani) along the Pacific coast.

However, those are pretty banal bunnies. Over the past week or so, though, I’ve seen the video clip from the CBC showing a swamp rabbit swimming strongly to evade predators, So I thought I would take some time to talk about our “water rabbits,” the two species of cottontail have evolved to live in the Southeastern swamps and marshes.

From Southeastern Virginia to Florida and as far west as Mobile Bay, the short-eared marsh rabbit (S. palustris) lives makes its home among fresh and brackwater marshes and swamps.  They live among the cattails and mangroves and thickets of black gum and magnolia. They tend to be smaller than Eastern cottontails, which can also appear in similar environments, and their tails are usually shorter and are almost never fully white.

The swamp rabbit (S. aquaticus) by contrast is the largest cottontail species, averaging double the mass of an Eastern cottontail.  It is much larger than the marsh rabbit. The only states where both of these species are found are South Carolina, Georgia,  and Alabama, but there isn’t much range overlap. This rabbit likes cypress swamps and lowland river floodplains. They range as far north as southern Illinois and Indiana, but they are particularly common in the Mississippi Delta.

These two species are considered sister taxa, and these two rabbits are placed in the subgenus Tapeti. This subgenus includes mostly cottontails from Mexico on south, and these two water rabbits are the only two members of these subgenus found in the United States. This classification has been determined through a limited mitochondrial DNA study. 

Of course, I would like to see more studies of the various cottontail rabbits’ genomes, but this classification is the only one currently accepted.

I should note that one subspecies of marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), which is found in the Lower Keys of Florida, is considered an endangered species.  It is named for Hugh Hefner, whose corporation donated a substantial sum to research this rabbit.

This rabbit is vulnerable because of predation by feral cats, as well as other invasive predators, such as boa constrictors and fire ants. Invasive plants have also destroyed the undergrowth that these rabbits use to hid from their predators. Many of these rabbits are also victims of traffic.

Maybe this rabbit would get better attention as an endangered species if conservationist played up its connection to Hugh Hefner. We could call it “The Campaign to Save the Real Playboy Bunny. ”

The swamp rabbit has a following among beagle houndsman in much of its range, and these rabbits are taken as monster trophies in much the same way that Eastern deer hunters who have hunted white-tails their whole lives will go west in search of a monster mule deer.  The old way of hunting both swamp and marsh rabbits was to burn them out of their marsh grass hideouts, but wildlife management agencies regulate the hunting of both species.

So when you see that clip of the swamp rabbit swimming think of both of these rabbits. They are amazing creatures, perfectly adapted to living near water and using their strong swimming abilities to evade their most aggressive predators.

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4,000 year old dog

The skull of a 4,000 year-old dog has been used to reconstruct what its head may have looked like.

The dog was quite wolf-like and described by the BBC as being about “the size of a large collie.” In the UK, “collie” almost always refers to border collies, so this dog probably would have been on the large side of a medium-sized dog.

The dog’s skull was found at Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn on on Mainland, Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. 3D images of the skull were use to make the reconstruction, which was created in clay. The artist then made the fur look like that of a European wolf, which is not entirely unreasonable given the morphology of the skull itself.

The dog may have been used to tend sheep or guard settlements. It was clearly a respected creature in the society that interred in the tomb. Maybe it was a valued working animal or simply a totem of its people.

Whatever it was, it was clearly more wolf-like that one might have expected from a dog from this late a date. The Ancient Egyptians, who were contemporaries of these Orkney cairn tomb builders, were already breeding dogs that were quite distinct from wolves.

But the truth of the matter is that this dog was significantly smaller than most modern and contemporary European wolves, and the mainland of Scotland was full of wolves that were probably still interbreeding with domestic dogs on occasion at this time.

So the Orkney Islanders from 4,000 years ago clearly had dogs, but I imagine this dog as being something like a Norwegian elkhound, a laika, or one of the old German herding dogs, like the Thuringian sheepdog.

I would love to see more reconstructions from ancient dogs skulls.  I would love to see the Goyet Cave canid and the Razboinichya Cave “dog” undergo a similar reconstruction.

Yes, this is art, but it is art that is informed through science.

 

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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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Egyptians saluki

A big part of what a dog breed is can be defined culturally.  A breed is often defined by what its fanciers believe its defining characteristics, and they set what the essential traits and bloodlines of that breed can be. We currently have breeds with rather open registries, like Carolina dogs, a breed of which I’m sure includes a few dogs that are just Down South chow mixes. And we have all those closed registry breeds in the various established kennel clubs and societies throughout the world.

I currently live with two dog breeds that have quite divergent cultural definitions of their breed.

The saluki-tazi or “salukimorph” type of dog has been in existence since at least the Bronze Age.  These dogs appear on lots of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy from the 18th Dynasty.  Lots of debate exists on what is a true saluki here in the West, and because we do not have a true breed foundation date or complete pedigrees going back thousands of years, this debate can be quite subjective.

The German shepherd dog, by contrast, developed in its current form after the foundation of the SV on April 22, 1899. The breed is based off a breeding program that inbred quite tightly off a single Thuringian sheepdog that was bred to dogs with a similar “wolfy” phenotype from southern Germany. This organization was the second one founded in Germany to standardize a sheepdog breed from the various landrace herders that could be found throughout the nation. In 1891, an organization called the Phylax Society was created with that purpose in mind, but this organization was prone to infighting about whether working characteristics or conformation were most important in breeding a standardized German pastoral dog.  This organization was gone by 1894, and Max von Stephanitz and Artur Meyer revived the idea based upon breeding a standardized form of wolf-like shepherd dog.

German shepherds, unlike salukis, have a defined date for their formation, and although Stephanitz speculated about the ancient origins of these dogs, the dogs that we call German shepherd dogs today are clearly defined by phenotype and bloodline. Yes, a debate exists about their conformation, particularly the amount of angulation in the rear, but there is also a debate about whether white ones should be a distinct breed (and there are actually now two white German shepherd breeds in existence now). There are Shiloh shepherds, king shepherds, American Alsatians, Saarloos wolfhonden, Czechoslovakian vlcak, and the volkosoby. The first three are based upon breeding an oversized, less rear-angulated GSD, and the American Alsatian is supposed to resemble a dire wolf (somehow).  The final three are GSD crosses with wolf. An assumption exists that there is bit of wolf in GSD, and adding a bit more wolf will somehow improve them. The vlcak and volkosoby are mostly GSD in ancestry and have successfully been used as working dogs, while the Saarloos wolfhond remains a bit of novelty.

And then we have the Blue Bay shepherds, which have a little wolf in them, but they are based upon dilute GSDs, which are considered faulty by the breed standard.

But these breed exist only because there is a clearly defined breed with a culture and fancy that have clearly defined its traits and characteristics. The spin-off breeds exist because people want dogs with those traits, which will never be recognized as acceptable by the mainstream of the breed.

German shepherds do not have a lot of genetic diversity as a breed.  Even dogs that don’t really look like each other or share common ancestors all derived from Horand von Grafrath and three of his grandsons out of Hektor von Schwben.  The GSDs we have tested on Embark have had relatively high genetic COIs. The breed average is around 30 percent, while golden retriever breed averages are close to 20 percent.

This is not to say that German shepherds are a genetic mess. The breed founders must have purged a lot of weakness and genetic anomalies out of the foundation stock, which can be a way of establishing a relatively inbred strain that strong and viable.

Our saluki’s parents have come out as purebred salukis, but their genetic inbreeding coefficients have been less than 3 percent. I have seen crosses between Western breeds that have higher genetic COIs than purebred salukis.

The saluki breed must have developed over the millennia with selection for coursing traits out of a diverse set of dogs. My guess is that gene flow existed between what became salukis and the local pariah dog populations. Then they just selected which puppies could run, and then they bred back into the general saluki bloodline.

So we have one breed founded by late nineteenth and early twentieth century “scientific breeding” methods, and another breed that just developed over a vast territory over the long annals of history.

I’ve had people tell me that Streamer is not a saluki because he is brindle and because his father is a Central Asian tazi.  That’s because Western saluki fanciers have decided that salukis can be only from Middle Eastern countries, and brindle salukis in the UK, usually from caravan people, were often crossed with brindle greyhounds but still registered as salukis.

Most people are unaware that Iran borders on Turkmenistan, a place where tazis exist. The border between Turkmenistan and Iran was clearly defined during the Great Game period of competition between the Russian and British Empires in the nineteenth century.

But those dogs have been traded through Persia and Central Asia for thousands of years. The political demarcation by two European great powers in the past 150ish years is but a blip on a map. However, that political demarcation is seen as a breed barrier in much of the saluki fancy, and thus, my dog cannot be a saluki. He’s a cross between a desert-bred saluki and Central Asian tazi.

What I have found interesting, though, is that I have developed a certain cognitive dissonance about these two different types of dog. I am totally fine with the German shepherd dog as defined by the established breed clubs, but I do think the saluki people are being just a bit short-sighted.

It may be that I see the German shepherd as something recently created. The characteristics and bloodline are clearly defined in the breed. I don’t see salukis the same way. I see salukis as a more natural, more organic sort of breed, one that exists almost as a distinct subspecies of dog, one that even has its own ecomorphs that have been adapted for colder and hotter climates.

This dissonance and my acceptance of cultural norms are issues that I will continue to wrestle with in my head. We all have some level of cognitive dissonance as we learn to live in a complex world, but it is still worth exploring and ferreting out our contradictions to understand what we truly believe.

And belief is a big part of what a dog breed essentially is.  It is not an act of faith necessarily, but it is the acceptance of the society and strictures that allow that essentialism to accept what a particular dog is.

When we start thinking about dog breeds, we need to explore the cultures that define them as such, as well as how that culture developed over the years. This can lead to some uncomfortable conversations and some uncomfortable self-realization, but it can help our understanding of why we think the way we do.

And that self-awareness is useful if we wish to continue breeding and working with dogs.

 

 

 

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skunk

With declining populations of pheasants and waterfowl plaguing South Dakota sportsmen, the state has instituted a new bounty program aimed raccoons, badgers, striped skunks, red foxes, and opossums.  A household can earn up $590 from trapping and hunting these animals during the new bounty season, which runs from April 1 through August 31.  The state is paying $10 per tail of these predators, but it will stop once the bounties pay out $500,000.

This state, which relies heavily upon nonnative ring-necked pheasants as a game animal to attract sportsmen, is essentially trying to turn the whole state into English gamekeepers.

I’m not opposed to controlling nest predators, but I’ve always had a problem with bounties. Bounties are easily defrauded. My grandpa used to tell the story of his friends in Ohio, one of whom was a city cop, who would drive to West Virginia and shoot crows. They would take the crows back across the river and present them for the bounty payment, and no one would know.

Controlling nest predators is important to promoting gamebird population, but humans can only do so much.

The predators that the state is targeting are mostly ones that have only existed there since colonization and settlement. Raccoons didn’t live in the Upper Midwest or the Great Plains until barns spread everywhere. Opossums were originally restricted to the Southeast.

The pheasant is entirely introduced. The first successful introduction was in 1908, and the state promotes that bird to the hilt.

So in this new world, there really isn’t any wild that is let go. This is the world of the English gamekeeper managing wildlife for gamebirds on the American marshes and prairies.

It’s not really all that natural. But it is the new world of wildlife on this continent.

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streamer-oinky-pig.jpg

Streamer likes to fetch and then zoom around with the oinky pig.

His feathering is coming in nicely too.

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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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