Archive for the ‘wild dogs’ Category

I have to admit that I am bit of a Joe Rogan Experience fan. I generally watch the podcasts that are about politics, hunting, and animals. I’m not really into pugilism stuff.

I actually came to Steven Rinella’s work through Joe Rogan’s program, and a few years ago, he mentioned something about Dan Flores and his work on the “American Serengeti,” which is actually a book by Flores that I have not read.  It is about the megafauna of the North American Great Plains, and it is a topic I’m somewhat interested in.

But as you know from reading this blog, I am a big coyote fan. I have had an experience with a male coyote in the woods, which I blogged about right after it happened I blogged about right after it happened, and I’ve written some more literary accounts of this encounter (but not for public consumption yet).

I then heard that Flores had a book about coyotes that came out, and I decided to read it.

And I didn’t like it.

I found that he adhered way too much to the paleontology of canids and pretty much ignored all the latest molecular data. At one point in the book, he makes the comparison that the genetic difference between a coyote and wolf is like the genetic difference between a human and an orangutan.  I think that assertion comes from an mtDNA study from 1993, which was the first to say that dogs were wolves and that “red wolves” had no unique mtDNA haplotypes.  It posited a 4% difference in the mtDNA sequence from wolves and coyotes, which is pretty accurate.  (Ironically, this study comes from Robert Wayne of UCLA, whom Flores largely discounts in his interview with Rogan at about 22 minutes.)

But mtDNA studies are notorious for leading people astray when we’re dealing with closely related species that can and do hybridize. For example, initial studies on mtDNA in European wolves found no evidence of dog hybridization, but because virtually all matings between dogs and wolves in the wild involve a male dog mating with a female wolf, the influence of dog genes in European wolves never could be accurately measured. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, and thus, it misses a lot of genetic information.

More recent full-genome analyses have revealed a greater than 99 percent genetic relationship among wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs. That’s not at all equivalent to the genetic distance between humans and orangutans. In fact, we know that domestic dogs, coyotes, and wolves readily hybridize and produce fertile offspring, and no hybrids between a human and orangutan has ever been documented.

Flores pretty much rejects off-hand the more recent genome-wide studies that have found red and Eastern wolves to be hybrids with wolves and coyotes because Robert Wayne and his colleagues do not use morphological studies or pay much attention to the fossil record of canids in North America.  And the Fish and Wildlife Service adheres to the red and Eastern wolf paradigm.

I’m going to defend Wayne and his colleagues here.  You really need to be careful about morphological studies in canids.  That’s because canids can evolve quite rapidly, and there is a great tendency toward parallel evolution in the family.  I can remember when it was seriously discussed that the bush dogs of South America were a potential close relative of the dhole, based solely upon their “trenchant heel dentition.”  We now know that the bush dog is very much in the South American canid clade, probably a close relative to the maned wolf.  Until very recently, it was believed that the diminutive coyote-like golden jackals of Africa were the same species as the golden jackal of Eurasia, but a recent mtDNA study suggests a much great variance– enough to consider them separate species.  The similarities between the two forms of golden jackal likely resulted from parallel evolution.  The African “golden jackals” are actually much more closely related to wolves and coyotes, and the name “golden wolf” has been suggested for them.

This tendency to evolve rapidly is something we see in the domestic dog. Every single kennel club critic blog posts photos of dog breeds from different periods to show how much breeds change through selective breeding.  Nature selectively breeds, too, and dogs in the wild can rapidly change to fit new niches.

These issues are going to confound virtually every study on canid evolution.  This is one reason why we have nothing resembling a consensus on dog domestication. It is very hard to figure out when a sub-fossil wolf is a dog or is too much like a wolf to be a dog.

This is why I trust molecular studies far more than paleontology, and it is why I think the Fish and Wildlife Service is largely misguided in trying to hold onto the red wolf paradigm. It is possible that a recent wolf and coyote hybrid is going to look a lot like an ancient wolf-like canid, and the amount of convergence between the two can be enough to fit character-based analysis that paleontologists and anatomists use.

Also, the Fish and Wildlife Service is government, and in the US, government moves quite slowly.  I think it is going to take some time before the molecular data finally corrects these errors, but it doesn’t stop them from being errors.

The comparison of full genomes of wolves and coyotes that came out last summer pretty much ended this debate. Unless you’re going to argue over fossils, which is a dubious undertaking, I don’t think we can say that red wolves, Eastern wolves, or coyotes are what we thought they were.

Granted, Flores probably had the book at the publisher’s by the time this study came out, but the fact that he adheres to the old paradigm because Wayne and Wayne’s colleagues didn’t look at the fossils is pretty troubling.

If I were to rewrite Flores’s taxonomy, I would argue that coyotes have nothing to do with Canis edwardii.  That species was an early North American wolf that went extinct, and it could have been related to virtually any species in the genus Canis, including really divergent things like black-backed jackals.

The comparative genome study found that the most recent common ancestor of the wolf and coyote didn’t live 3.2 million years ago, as Flores asserts. Instead, it lived around 50,000 years ago, and it probably was living in Eurasia at the time. This animal was probably an archaic form of Canis lupus or maybe Canis mosbachensis.

When this animal crossed in North America, ancient North American wolves already dominated the landscape. There were also coyote-like forms of wolf, which likely weren’t coyotes at all.  The packing hunting wolf niche was already occupied by dire wolves and ancient North American dholes, so this radiation of the Eurasian wolf had to become more of a generalist to survive. The larger wolves, like the dire wolf, and the various forms of large predatory cat killed this ancestral coyote, and over time, it evolved into a smaller jackal-like canid.  This is how the coyote likely evolved the fission-fusion strategy of existence that Flores writes about. When the numbers are high, coyotes form stable packs and have relatively few young. They hunt mid-sized prey. When numbers are lower, they hunt rodents and lagomorphs, and female coyotes actually have a hormone change when the numbers are low and produce more ova during their estrus cycles. The females mate at 10 months instead of 22 months, and with more ova produced and more bitches breeding, the population can easily recover from a dire wolf or Smilodon attack. This is also why killing coyotes can actually force their numbers up, and it is one reason our intense persecution of coyotes has resulted in them spreading North, South, and to the East,

This is something that would have evolved in a mid-sized canid in the presence of many other large predators.  The fission-fusion strategy has just recently been confirmed in the Cape subspecies of black-backed jackal, which is another smaller canid that has evolved around large predators.

The Cape black-backed jackal is sort of the coyote of Southern Africa.  It is  generalist predator and scavenger, and it actually does cooperatively hunt small antelope species. It also kills sheep and goats.

It is not, however, closely related to wolves or coyotes. It is a very divergent form of Canis, which may actually be given its own genus (Lupelella) in the near future.  It has evolved coyote-like strategies for survival entirely in parallel with the coyote of North America.

This tendency toward parallel and convergent evolution in wild dog species is something that really messes up paleontology and morphological studies, and that is why the genome-wide studies are such compelling evidence. I’m dead-certain that many dinosaur specialists would love to have genomes from descendants of T. rex or the triceratops.

But those animals, like the ancient wolf- and coyote-like canids of North America, have left no descendants.

And what we likely have is a very diverse Holarctic wolf species that includes mid-size convergent jackals, massive megafauna-hunting wolves in taiga of Canada, the desert wolves of South Asia, and the all the weird domestic dogs that we have now.

That’s every bit as amazing as the older paradigm. Of course, I’m a bit of a rogue for suggesting that we include coyotes in the wolf species, but it seems to be right if we hare to adhere to cladistic classification.

This poor understanding of genetic studies actually ruined what could have been a great book on coyotes.

If you’ve ever looked into a coyote’s eyes, it is like looking into the eyes of a very bright dog.  They have so many dog-like mannerism that is hard not to see the similarity.

But you’re actually looking into the eyes of a super wolf.  This is the wolf that took all we could throw it at, and it thrived beyond our wildest expectations.

In Anthropocene, the meek do inherit the earth.


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Warthogs vs. side-striped jackals over a cheetah-killed impala :

(Yes. That’s a black-backed jackal on the Youtube featured image. It is not in this video).

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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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dire wolf mesomelas

Yep. This was an April Fools’ prank.

That’s okay. I had one pulled on me last night at the cabin where we were fishing. About 10 o’clock last night, my dad shouts “Oh my God! There is a bear in the trash!”

By the time everyone had rushed to the windows to see– and I had just been roused from slumber– it was soon revealed there was no bear.

Yes, and just as there was no bear, all that was in the post about the dire wolf’s genome being closely allied to black-backed jackals is utter nonsense.

But I have always imagined that this was a possibility, because I think our assumption that dire wolves were very closely related to modern wolves really hasn’t been tested out empirically.  We have some phylogenetic trees drawn from paleontological analysis, but one must be very careful of these studies. Parallel evolution is a very common occurrence in canids, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everything one reads about paleontology and canids needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

So yes, it’s an April Fool, but it is a definite possibility.

Oh, and please don’t hate on my dodgy “photoshop.”

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dire wolf mesomelas

It was always assumed that the dire wolf and its kin, the endemic extinct North American wolves, were very closely related to modern wolves.

However, the genome of the dire wolf was just sequenced by a team of independent researchers at the Russian Institute of Cytology in Saint Petersburg.  The team of geneticists and paleontologists was led by Boris Yudin. The team wanted to have access to the remains of dire wolves at Rancho La Brea, but they were instead able to obtain access to several skeletons that were being held at the Indiana Museum of Natural History.

“It was very hard to get access to the specimens,” says Yudin,  who has always been fascinated by Pleistocene North American megafauna, “But once we did get access, the DNA sequences were quite easily obtained from the shoulder bones.”

“We were able to get one full genome sequenced, and then we began to compare this genome with other species in the genus Canis,”  says Yudin, “and using a Bayesian analysis, we were quite shocked to learn that the dire wolf wasn’t really a wolf at all.”

Most paleontologists had believed that the dire wolf was a sister species to the modern gray wolf, and if this assumption were true,  the dire wolf genome would be most similar to this species.

However, the dire wolf didn’t share an affinity with the gray wolf. Instead, it shared a much stronger relationship with the black-backed jackal, a species of canid found in East and Southern Africa, which is quite genetically distant from other wolves and jackals.

“There is even a debate as to whether the black-backed jackal even properly belongs in Canis,” says Yudin, “It is so genetically divergent.  But our research found that the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal are sister tax.”

Using the genetic differences between the dire wolf and the black-backed jackal to calculate when they last shared a common ancestor,  Yudin’s team estimated that the two species split only about a million years ago. Black-backed jackals and their current living closest relative, the side-striped jackal, are believed to have diverged from the rest of Canis some 5 million years ago, and the same is true of the dire wolf.

“The two divergent African jackals and the dire wolf form a clade, and if we are to classify the  two jackals outside of Canis, then the same will have to be done with the dire wolf,” Yudin points out.

“Within the dog family, the tendency towards parallel and convergent evolution cannot be underestimated.  We now know there are jackals and wolves that exist now and have existed that come out of divergent lineages. This is the most important discovery,” says Yudin.

So now we have the golden wolf of Africa, which is a convergent form of jackal out of the wolf lineage, and we have the extinct dire wolf, which was a divergent jackal that evolved into a wolf.

Yudin’s team plans on extracting the genome of the Armbruster’s wolf, which is conventionally believed to have been the direct ancestor of the dire wolf.  If this is true, then the Armbruster’s wolf will also share an affinity with the black-backed jackal.  The team also is beginning an analysis of Pleistocene coyote genomes from across the United States.

“It is an amazing time, ” says Yudin. “Many discoveries to be made.”

Disclaimer:  Please do not post this story as authoritative until reading this post that acts as a follow-up. 

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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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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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