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Archive for the ‘wild dogs’ Category

This is something that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere, but gray foxes (Urocyon) can have blue eyes:

And another (perhaps the Western version, which might be a distinct species):

Most of them have very dark brown eyes, and you really can’t see that they don’t have the exact same cat-like pupils of the red fox. However, the blue-eyed ones really do show off their oval-shaped pupils quite well.

Gray foxes are the most basal species of canid and are not closely related to any other canids, except of the island fox of California, which is just an insular dwarf of the mainland species.

The exact systematics of gray foxes are still being worked out, but I do expect surprises in the future.  These animals have an extensive range in the Americas, and their lineage is really quite divergent from anything else we think of as being in the dog family.

Blue-eyes, well, they certainly make them more stunninglybl attractive.

 

 

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The Reign of the Little Wolf

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Coyotes and anything that is called a wolf in North America are as genetically close to each other as we humans are to each other.

This is the most radical thing I’ve ever learned from a scientific paper.

The paper is about whether red wolves and Eastern wolves are hybrids, which is a controversial topic. They probably are hybrids, but what are they hybrids between?

Are they crosses between two really distinct species or are they hybrids between two lineages of what one might rather radically and boldly declare subspecies?

The really radical discovery of these genome-wide studies on wolves and coyotes in North America isn’t that red wolves and Eastern wolves are hybrids.  The really radical discovery is that wolves and coyotes are much closer to each other than we assumed. The initial calculation suggested a divergence that happened only around 50,000 years ago.

Wolves in Yellowstone and Alaska have coyote genes, and coyotes in the Eastern US have wolf genes. That’s not a hybrid zone, which is what you get with bobcats and Canada lynx and with kit and swift foxes, where only a narrow hybrid zone has been identified.

Coyote and wolf genes have traveled across this continent, entering into what we have classically thought of as two distinct species but really aren’t.

My take is that coyote are nothing more than a diminutive wolf. Its ancestor was an archaic form of Eurasian Canis lupus, the Holarctic wolf.  It wandered across the Bering Land Bridge during a warming period that happened roughly 50,000 years ago. It came into a continent that was already dominated by dire wolves, dholes, and archaic jackal-like canids, as well as a whole suite of large cats, including jaguars, American lions, sabertooths, and dirk-toothed cats.

The way to survive was not to be a large pack-hunter. That niche was already occupied by dire wolves and dholes, so they became convergently-evolved jackals.

A jackal evolved out of the wolf-lineage is a pretty durable animal, and it played second fiddle to the modern Holarctic wolves that invaded some 20,000 years ago. The wolves that came across were large wolves that were adapted to hunting larger prey, and as the dire wolf became extinct, the larger Holarctic wolf replaced the endemic North American wolf.

The behaviors of coyotes and wolves generally keeps them from interbreeding. Coyotes are much more strictly monogamous, a trait that would be of great importance for an animal that had to live on smaller prey species and carrion for survival.

Wolves are far less monogamous, and if prey populations are high, it is not impossible for wolf packs to have several females produce litters. These extra litters come from the female wolves that have not yet left their mother’s packs but have bred with wandering males that slip around at the edges of the established pack territories. These matings happen all the time in wolf societies, but generally, these females don’t get to raise their pups. They die of exposure or are killed by the main breeding female.

Western and Northern wolf packs kill interlopers. A coyote is nothing more than interloper and gets killed. The two animals could mate and produce fertile offspring, but they usually don’t.

But the wolves that colonized the Eastern forests developed differently.  These Eastern forests had far more deer per square mile than the West, and greater social tolerance may have been a trait of these wolves, even when they were driven to near extinction. There is evidence that these wolves have mated with coyotes before European contact, but after European contact, they mated with the coyotes that came east.

The coyotes that came into the East were descendants of those little wolves that scrapped around the big predators of old. They could pack up as wolves to hunt deer, or they could remain in mated pairs to hunt only mice and rabbits. They could scavenge at the edges of human civilization, and they could thrive.

Most of North America is now under the reign of the little wolf, a remarkable feat of evolution.

Dr. Ian Malcolm’s most famous line from Jurassic Park is that “Life finds a way.” The context of the line is that he was rejecting the claim that the genetically engineered dinosaurs would never reproduce simply because they had chosen to engineer these creatures as solely female.

In our context, I would argue that “Wolves find a way.” Right now, the most successful wolf lineage in the world is the one that includes domestic dogs and dingoes. They are found on every continent, except Antarctica, and were found there until very recently. This lineage does well because it has become part of humanity. Populations go feral or go stray. Others become so humanized that they almost cease to be an entity separate from our species. It has largely given up hunting big game for survival and thrives on the fat of human civilization.

In North America, the second most successful wolf lineage is this coyote lineage.  It thrives because it can much more easily exploit life in the civilized world than the larger, more specialized wolves. They can scavenge. They can mouse and rabbit. They can run deer. They can eat apples and pears in orchards. But they do not depend upon the large ungulates for survival.

It is a wolf that cane become a jackal, then a fox, and then, should the deer numbers be high enough, return to a more lupine existence as a pack hunter.

Yes, my concept of the coyote and the North American wolf means rejecting some fossils. There are fossils that have been described as “coyotes” that date to 1 million years before present.

But the full-genome comparisons are so compelling that I have to reject these fossils. The full genome comparisons are exactly like the ones that have been used to compare humans to chimps, humans to gorillas, and domestic cats to tigers (and cats). 

The findings of these studies aren’t as controversial as the wolf and coyote genome comparisons have been, but that’s because they haven’t found that certain endangered species are likely hybrids.

The red wolf and Eastern wolf exponents can debate as to whether these animals are hybrids or not, but the real problem is the discovery of recent divergence between the wolf and coyote.

This recent divergence allows for a hybrid origin for the red wolf and Eastern wolf, but it also shows that this hybrid origin is most a debate of semantics. They might be hybrids, but they are hybrids between two different forms of the same species. And the resulting hybrids are much better adapted to living in the new North America.

That’s the best case red wolves and Eastern wolves have in light of the genetic data.

Paleontology is often the study of bones and teeth and comparing bones and teeth. Except for instances in which ancient DNA has been extracted and compared, most of these studies will miss very important parts of an organism’s natural history. Because of recombination, DNA studies can also be flawed, but they are a much more complete record of an organism’s evolution than we might get from measuring bones.

And we know now that canids are particularly prone to parallel evolution. The golden jackal species as classically defined has had to be split into two. African golden jackals are much more closely related to Eurasian wolves, while Eurasian golden jackals are much more distinct lineage. Their similarities are the result of parallel evolution, which was also at work in producing the jackal-like coyote out of the wolf lineage.

Had their bones been found in some ancient layer of sediment, paleontologists using comparative morphology methods would have declared them all one species, an error that is likely been repeated thousands of times with any number of specimens from a variety of lineages.

I like paleontology, but every time I read a paper from that discipline, I wonder if this is the full story.

And pretty sure virtually every paleontologist does too.

If the full-genome comparisons are correct– and I have little reason to think they are wrong–then we are living in the reign of the little wolves. They press on deeper into Alaska and Canada. They push east until they hit every state. They pushed deep into Central America, now running the right at the edge of the Darien Gap. Once they cross that great swamp, they will arrive in Colombia and will be the first wild Canis species to cross into South America since the dire wolf.

It’s just a matter of time. They will make it.

And South America’s guild of unique canid species are in for some disruption.

I hope they can handle our little renegade, for the reign of the little wolf could also displace the fruit-eating wolf with a mane and the short-legged convergent dhole.

Those problems are a way off, but they are worth thinking about, as the coyote completes its conquest of one continent and reaches for another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Corrections: arctic foxes are born in brown or bluish black summer pelts and arctic wolves are born gray.

These are of the Cape species or subspecies (depending upon how you accept the most recent genetic studies on them), and yellow ones have also been spotted in the Kalahari.

 

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Meadow fox finds a mate

gray fox winter

It is the “dead of winter” or so the sobriquet for that time of the year goes.  It is the time when the trees stand as gray skeletons and the piercing winds come questing down from the arctic and the snow comes in storms to blanket the land. It is a time of darkness, a time when the sun seems to rise only for the purpose of setting once again with the ancillary effect of torturing sun-worshiping humanity with its sallow winter rays.

And so our kind curses the winter. Much of our natural history occurred in the tropics, so this relatively recent remove to the middle and higher latitudes means that we spent the winter yearning for the sun upon our skins.

Most of the herbivores don’t like it much either. The deer had better have built up a nice layer of fat for this time of starvation. If oaks don’t drop tons of acorns in the autumn, then the deer don’t built their fat, and the hunger sweeps through them. The does reabsorb their fetus, and the old ones die in agony.

But not all things suffer through the long winter darkness and cold.  A gray fox vixen, which we last saw mousing in the July swelter, has come to run the logging roads in search of cottontails that might be trying to graze a bit of sustenance from the dead winter forage.  They are not the dumb bunnies of high summer but predator-tested quarry that can give a fox a good course. But as winter’s famine takes its toll, they become weaker and weaker, and the coursing runs more often end with a squealing rabbit in the vixen’s jaws than a white tail diving for the impenetrable thickets.

She is a lone vixen still, but she is a master of the cottontail hunt.  She has come to know where the rabbits hang during the long winter twilight and when they likely will run when she puts pressure to them.

What’s more, she has found a good winter supplement of corn, which gets shot of out of a deer feeder every night.  Omnivory is another of her tricks.  Corn shot from deer feeders and sand pears from an ancient tree at the edge of the old meadow have been welcome additions to her diet.

But a lone vixen can only be alone for so long. By winter’s end, the estrus clouds will rise from her genitals, and the male foxes will want her.

Unlike a domestic dog, which will typically come in heat and mate with the first male she encounters, the gray fox is a bit more choosy.  She will pair up with a mate before the estrus time hits, and he will breed her and then stay with her through her pregnancy and help raise the young.

Now is the time for the pair up, but every night, the vixen goes on her hunts. She smells where people and dogs have crossed the road.  She smells where a sow raccoon and her two nearly grown kits have moseyed along the ditches in hopes of catching a hibernating frog. She smells the skunks and the deer and the wandering opossums.

But not once does she catch wind of another of her kind.

However, as she sniffs a bit of grass that she likes to mark with a few drops of urine,  the pungent odor of a dog fox’s urine rises into her nostrils.  She lifts her nose and casts it into the wind as if hoping to catch scent of his body.

Gray foxes are so territorial that the scent of a stranger would have her a raging war dog by now, but this time, she’s not in the least aggressive. Instinct and hormones are telling her to be curious and flirty.

Air scenting doesn’t reveal the stranger’s location, so she casts about, trying to pick up his trail in the leaf litter.

A great rabbit tracker like her soon finds his scent and begins trailing him along the logging road. Her receptors tell her that this dog fox is one of this year’s kits, one that has spent the autumn months trying to catch voles and chipmunks.  He will be long and lean from those days of running long and hard for such little food.

She tracks him along the edge of the multiflora rose thickets. He’s been trying his luck as a rabbit courser, but he’s had no luck at all.  He’s just been running like a fool, and the rabbits have been scared off.

If this were a normal time of the year, she would be ready to fight. But not now.  Right now, she is intrigued by this stranger.

She sniffs to inspect his urine marks, which he leaves every hundred yards or so, and she becomes almost intoxicated by them.  The smell is so good, so pure, so perfect.

She soldiers on through her long track. As she makes her way along the logging road and visits each thicket, she becomes lost in the scent.  She begins to prance with an air of cockiness, the way only truly confident animals can.  This is her domain, and this dog has her fancy.

As she sniffs along another stand of multiflora rose, a raspy gray fox bark rises from a boulder some 50 feet away. The dog fox knows the vixen is about, and he has his defenses up.

She lets loose some whines and whimpers and soft little fox chuckles. She is calling to him, telling that she comes in friendship.

The little dog fox rises from the boulder. and he is gaunt and rangy from running so much and catching so little.  He left his mother and father’s land back in August, and he has spent most of his time chasing quarry or running from coyotes or dogs or resident gray foxes that don’t want him around.

A big dog gray fox took the tip of his right ear in September when when decided to go grasshopper hunting a little too close to that mated pair’s den.

His life has been that of an urchin, a vagabond, and now when he hears the approach of another gray fox, he becomes flighty.

But it hasn’t been since those warm spring days when he suckled his mother’s teats that he’s heard another fox make those noises. He wonders if his mother is calling him, and so he runs down to the thicket to the vixen.

She hears his approach and runs toward him. They touch noses and lick faces. He instantly knows he’s not looking at his mother, but the softness of her eyes and the gentleness of her face tell him that she is all right. She is more than all right.  She is good.

They whimper and whine in the darkness. Young dog fox and wise mature vixen, now begin the process of pair bonding in the night. They lick each other’s muzzles and ears,

They are fully smitten.

That morning, they den up in the great boulder pile where the vixen has made her home. These are ancient rocks of Permian sandstone, more ancient than even the old lineage of canids from which gray foxes are derived.

The flinty wisps of snow flurries fill the air.  Bigger snow coming tomorrow.  The rabbits will be lying low in the thickets, easily caught by the fox who knows where to sniff.

The two foxes sleep near each other. They haven’t quite bonded yet, but they will soon be curled up together, a truly mated pair.

And the estrus clouds will rise in the frosty air, and they will be together.

The meadow fox has found a mate once again.

She doesn’t need one to survive.

But now, she can thrive.

 

 

 

 

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gordon buchanan wolf

Gordon Buchanan with a wild arctic wolf on Ellsmere. Photo by the BBC.

For really long time, the mystery of human bipedalism vexed us. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and the bonobos, are all knuckle-walking apes, and there was an assumption that the common ancestor of all three species was a knuckle-walker. At some point, the lineage that led to our species rose up on its hind legs, perhaps to make it easier to gaze over tall grass, and we became bipedal.

The current thinking, though, is that humans never derived from any knuckle-walking ape. Instead, the common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos was likely a brachiator.  The modern brachiators are the gibbons and siamangs, the so-called “lesser apes.” These animals are highly arboreal, and because they lack tails, they rely upon their long limbs to move swiftly through the trees. When on the ground, brachiators walk bipedally, swinging their long arms to the side for balance.

Humans evolved bipedalism from these brachiators, while the chimps and bonobos became knuckle-walkers. In this scenario, humans never were knuckle-walkers, and it is misleading to think that humans rose up on our hind-legs from creatures that moved like chimpanzees.

What does this have to do with dogs?

Well, there have been quite a few studies that have compared dogs and wolves that have been imprinted on humans from an early age in hopes that we might figure out the domestication process from studying how tamed wolves behave when compared to domestic dogs.

These are interesting studies, but I think they oversell what they can answer.

It should be of no secret that I am very much a skeptic of the Raymond Coppinger model of dog domestication. His model contends that dogs necessarily evolved from scavenging wolves that gradually evolved not to fear people and then became village dogs. Our specialized breeds are thus derived from village dogs that were later selectively bred.

Coppinger thought that wolves were just too hard to domestic without this scavenger-to-village dog step that lies between truly wild wolves and their evolution to domestic dogs.

Modern wolves are hard to tame. They must be bottle-raised from an insanely early age.  Coppinger thought that it would be impossible for people living during the Pleistocene to provide that kind of care for young wolf pups.

Like the people who assumed that humans evolved from knuckle-walkers, Coppinger assumed that wolves that exist today are good models for what wolves were like during the Pleistocene. These wolves are reactive and nervous to the point of being paranoid. It is well-known that many wolves won’t even attempt to den near human settlements, and if they catch wind of humans, they soon leave.

These animals would not be easily tamed by anyone, much less people living with Stone Age hunter-gatherer technology.

I generally accepted his arguments, and in the early days of this site, I largely parroted them.

A few years ago, I was watching a documentary about the tigers of the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest that straddles the border between India and Bangladesh. These tigers are notorious for their man-eating behavior, and there have been many theories posited about why these tigers so readily hunt man. Among these is the argument that the Sundarbans tigers drink so much salt in their water intake that it destroys their kidneys, which disables them and makes them more likely to hunt man.

But the documentary contended that the real reason these tigers are more likely to hunt man is that all other tigers descend from populations where humans have hunted them heavily. In British India, tiger hunting was a popular activity among the colonial administrators, and this intensive hunting cause tiger populations to drop.  This hunting left behind only tigers that had some genetic basis to fear man more, and thus, man-eating tigers are exceedinlg rare now.

The Sundarbans never received this hunting pressure, so the tigers left behind had the same innate tendencies to hunt humans that the ancestral tiger population possessed.

I found this argument utterly intriguing, and I began to weigh it against what I knew about wolves. Wolves across their range have experienced even more persecution than tigers have.  In North America, we have four hundred years of humans coming up with more and more creative ways to kill them. In Eurasia, this persecution has gone on for thousands of years.

The persecution of wolves surely has had some effect in how wolves behave, including their innate tendency to accept humans and other novel stimuli in their environment.

Wolves are often so fearful that they won’t cross roads.  They just avoid people at all costs, and it just seems that this is an animal that we couldn’t possibly domesticate or even habituate to our presence.

This has led some people to suggest that dogs aren’t derived from wolves, but some Canis x creature that is related to dogs and wolves, but it is ancestral to the former but not the latter.

Genome comparisons have shown that such claims really don’t work. Dogs are derived from an archaic wolf population, and in this way, they are sort of genetic living fossils, holding the genomes of a Pleistocene wolves that no longer exist. But these wolves that became dogs were still part of Canis lupus, and thus, we have to maintain dogs as part of Canis lupus as well in order to retain the monophyly of the species.

Except for dogs that have modern wolf ancestry, no dog is actually derived from a wolf population that exists today.

And the wolf populations that exist today just seem so hard to tame and work with that it makes sense then to consider the need for Coppinger’s scavenging wolf-to-village dog stage between wild wolves and modern dogs.

The thing is, these studies using modern wolves are only using wolves that are derived from these heavily persecuted populations, and it is very unlikely that these animals are representative of the wolves that lived during the Pleistocene.

We know that when wild dogs have never experienced human hunting, they are intensely curious about us. Timothy Treadwell had a pack of tame red foxes that followed him around like dogs while he was off communing with the brown bears. Darwin killed the fox that was named after him by sneaking up on one and hitting it with a geological hammer.

Lewis and Clark came onto the American prairies where there were vast hordes of wolves lying about.  The wolves had no fear of people, and one wolf was actually killed when it was enticed in with meat and speared in the head with a spontoon.

After these wolves experienced the persecution of Western man, the only wolves left in the populations were those that were extremely wary and nervous.

In fact, the only wolves that exist now that have never experienced widespread persecution by man are the white wolves that live in the Canadian High Arctic.

I’ve had the pleasure of watching two documentaries about these wolves. The first was by Jim Brandenburg.  Brandenburg and L. David Mech spent a summer living with and filming wolves on Ellesmere.  These wolves showed no fear of them, and they allowed them to observe their natural behavior in the wild, including allowing them near their den sites.

Virtually the same documentary was recently made by Gordon Buchanan of the BBC. Buchanan came to Ellesmere and became accepted by a wolf pack, which eventually trusted him enough to allow him to babysit their pups while the adults hunted.

These wolves hunt arctic hare and muskox. They live hard lives, but because they have no real history with man, they are oddly curious and trusting of people.

It seems to me that these wolves are much more like those described by Lewis and Clark, and they are likely to have behaved much like the ancient Pleistocene wolves did. They had never undergone extensive persecution by man, and thus, they were probably quite curious about man.

If these ancient wolves were more like the Ellesmere wolves, then it seems domestication would have been a pretty easy process. In fact, it appears to me that it is so easy to have happened that the struggle would have been preventing it from happening in the first place.

So if these High Arctic wolves are a better model for the ancient wolves that led to dogs, why aren’t they included in the studies?

Well, these wolves are hard to access, and what is more, because they represent such a special population, it might not be wise to remove any of these wolves from the wild.

So the socialized and imprinted wolf pup studies really can’t be performed on them.

But we could still get DNA samples from them and compare their behavior-linked genes to those of dogs and wolves from persecuted populations.

All these other studies are ever going to do is tell you the difference between dogs and certain wolves from persecuted populations. They aren’t really going to tell you the full story of why dogs came to behave differently from wolves.

So for the sake of science, we need to understand that evolution through artificial selection has affected wolves as well as dogs. Dogs have been bred to be close to man. Wolves have been selected through our persecution to be extremely fearful and reactive.

So as interesting as these studies are, they have a big limitation, and the assumption that these wolves represent what ancient wolves were like is major methodological problem.

 

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audubon's cross fox

There is a famous myth in North American wildlife. It has been repeated so many times and by people of such impeccable authority over the years that it really hasn’t been questioned.

The story goes as follows:  Red foxes were not found south of the boreal regions of New York and New England, and in order to get red fox-hunting established in the English colonies south of those regions, red foxes were imported from England.  Therefore, all red foxes living the Eastern and Midwestern US, except those in the aforementioned northern regions of the North east, are derived from English imports. Thus, the red fox is a fully invasive species in the most of the East, most of the Midwest, and the entire South.

Stories about when the red fox first arrived in a region are written as a sort of passage.  For example, in William Henry Bishop’s history of Roane County, West Virginia, the author makes a rather pointed discussion about the extinction of the gray fox in that county around the year 1882 and the triumph of the red fox in agricultural areas.  The history of the modern running Walker foxhound is intimately tied to the arrival of the red fox in Kentucky in the 1850s.  Had the red fox not colonized Kentucky, it is very unlikely that this hound would have ever been bred.

It was always assumed that the red fox derived from those English imports that were brought over in the late 1600s and early 1700s, but the documentation on these arrivals is rather dubious at best.

The origins of this myth come from Pehr Kalm, the Swedish naturalist who traveled extensively in the English colonies in the 1700s. He claimed that a wealthy person in New England brought the foxes over from England and that all the red foxes of New England were thus derived from his imports. The other story goes that tobacco merchants in Maryland brought red foxes to the Eastern Shore in the early 1700s in attempt to introduce this fox to their part of North America.  They did well in that region, even spreading into Delaware and Pennsylvania, but it took a hard freeze of Chesapeake Bay in the winter of 1789-90 to give the foxes passage into the main part of Virginia, where they thrived. Some stories say the foxes came from Germany or France rather than England, but in all cases, the story goes that the red fox is an import.

A recent evaluation of these stories by Jennifer Frey of New Mexico State University shows that none of these stories is particularly well-documented.  Both of these stories were derived from second-hand sources, pretty much the historical equivalent of stories you might hear at the barber shop or the local cafe.

This analysis came at about the same time that several genetic studies were being performed on red foxes in North America. The first mitochondrial DNA study of North American red foxes revealed the existence of no Old World red fox lineages in the Eastern or Southeastern US.  The authors found that the Southeastern red foxes were very closely related to foxes in Eastern Canada and that their likely origin came about through natural range expansion.

The second study examined large amounts of nuclear DNA and the y-chromosomes of red foxes from throughout the world.  It found that red foxes in North America, including those that live in the Southeast and Eastern US have been genetically isolated from Old World red foxes for 400,000 years.  The only Old World red foxes that have contributed to North American red fox genetics since that isolation are those found in Alaska, which have a mitochondrial DNA lineage that was introduced from Russia some 50,000 years ago.

The red fox of the Eastern US came south from Canada in much the same way that the coyote came East:  by its own feet. Clearing off the land to establish settlements made it harder and harder for Eastern gray foxes to live in an area, and it is actually well-established in the literature that the Eastern gray fox, which is roughly the same size as a red fox in terms of body mass, will tend to dominate the red when the two occur in the same region.

Further, more open agricultural land is very good habitat for mice and rabbits, and the red fox prefers to hunt those species, while the gray fox is much more omnivorous.

So the cleared forests are much better for the red than for the gray, and the gray

The coming of the red fox was almost always associated with European settlement, and thus, it became an assumption that the foxes came from England or from somewhere in Europe.

And perhaps subconsciously, it came to be accepted as the absolute truth that red foxes are an invasive species brought over by man.

It has only been in recent years that these fanciful notions have been tested as hypotheses, and they have been found to be wanting when examined through careful historical research and analysis of genetic material.

So this myth has been put to bed. I really wish people would stop promoting these erroneous romantic stories about red foxes and start to respect them as native wildlife.

Of course, this problem is a lot more complicated in California, where there is a native red fox subspecies and the Eastern red fox has also been introduced– and the Eastern red fox does behave as an invasive species.

But for my part of the world, the red fox came here on its own volition, and as the forests return, habitat conditions greatly favor the gray fox, making life much harder for these Canadian wanderers once again.

Wildlife distributions are not static.

Red foxes are known from the Pleistocene in Virginia, and though they were absent through much of the Holocene, they are now thriving in much of the East and South because of anthropogenic factors.

I should note that one reason I became skeptical of the claims of the English origins of the Eastern red fox is that the Eastern red fox has always been a widely trapped animal. Even the ones trapped in relatively temperate states have been well-known for having good pelts, but it is widely known that red fox pelts from England are not valuable at all. Red foxes are heavily hunted as vermin in England, and I always wondered why no one ever tried to do anything with their pelts. It turns out that the reason is that their pelts are of inferior quality to North American red foxes.

The reason why is that England is a much more temperate place than Eastern Canada, and the foxes that roam the East have their origins in that cold country and not the gentle green country off the northwest of Europe.

So red foxes came from Canad, not England. I think we can at least say this is true, and their supposed European origins are simply a myth.

 

 

 

 

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My totem animal

gray fox portrait

The totem animal of my Westphalian people is the white horse, a symbol of the white steed that the Saxon Widukind rode when he finally cast aside his paganism for the Christian faith of Charlemagne.

But my personal totem is far closer than some symbolism of the conversion of some long-dead Saxon warlord. My totem is a creature whose eyes have stared back at mine and stopped me silent at my approach.

This creature is the gray fox, a species with a drab, banal name, one that makes you pass it by when you read about it in some field guide or tome of natural history.  Gray foxes are almost always mentioned with the much better-known and far more studied red fox, an animal that also plays an important role in European cultures and thus provides a deep tradition in literature and art in Western Civilization.

But the truth is the gray fox is a truly uniquely American thing. Their ancestors diverged from the rest of the dog family 8-12 million years ago, and the entire evolutionary history of their lineage is in North America.

There is no Old World equivalent of gray fox.  It is wholly of this hemisphere.

Poor for the sport of foxhunting with hounds than the red fox, the gray fox always got second billing among the indigenous canids of this continent.  Less cunning, more remote and distant, and its existence in American culture has always been downplayed.

Yet they roam the wild ridges here. The thickets are their home.  They course cottontails on old logging roads, jump deer mice among the oak leaves, and eat the corn scattered down from deer feeders.

They live without our understanding but without our dominance, and in this land that man has abandoned to grow back to woods, the gray fox has found refuge to stretch its legs and sweep its tail and dig its claws into the tree bark.

We killed the big predators that would hunt the gray fox. The red fox, the migrant from Canada, gets hunted and trapped harder, and what’s more, it doesn’t thrive without some open land in which it can go a-mousing.

The gray dog likes the brush thickets of November, where the thorny brush sticks out like concertina wire along the forest floor and the approach of man, dogs, or coyotes would soon be announced in the mere traversing of such ground.

It loves the strong oaks where it can seek refuge when danger comes, but the oaks also provide it a place to bask in the sallow winter sun of January and warm its platinum silver pelt when the chill winds die down. These same oaks hold the gray squirrels, which provide some sporting good coursing and a little bit of meat should the bushy-tail mess up its escape.

In this abandoned world, the gray fox is given a piece of paradise, a place where it can exist in all its ancient foxiness.  There is no domination, only prey and predation, to set the course of day into night.

I see in this animal my ideal for myself. I imagine myself as remote and distant and free as a gray fox, but I know these ideals are flights of fancy.  I am the species I am, and I have its privileges and responsibilities and anxieties and pleasures.

But a big hole in me wishes that I could be as my totem in the gray November woods.  I wish to be in that existence, to live that sort of life in which the natural history of my line and my life were not so severely severed.

So this is my totem, the long ignored little gray dog with the long, sweeping tail and the sharp claws to grip the oak bark.

Wild beast, let me be. Let me be like you.

 

 

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