Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘wild dogs’ Category

We have a fox

I’ve written many, many words about wild canids, but I’ve never lived with one.

Until now. Jenna asked me one morning if we could pick up a free fox that was being offered in Craig’s List.

And I didn’t say no…

So we got Clive, a cross phase red fox. His previous owners were feeding him cheap dog food and not the cat food he really needs to thrive. He also was being kept in a tiny dog crate. He now lives in a German shepherd-sized dog crate with lots of house time to run around.

I had no idea Ohio was so open to allowing people to keep pet foxes. You have to apply for a $25.00 permit through the Ohio DNR, and a conservation officer comes to your house and approves it. So Clive is fully legal through the state of Ohio. In Ohio, you can buy a fox from a breeder with your permit, but you cannot just catch little ones in the woods and try to make them pets.

Jenna and I have a lot of dog experience, but he’s still not fully domesticated. He likes to steal things and hide them, and if he decides an item is worth guarding from you, don’t try to take it. Also if you don’t keep his cage clean enough, it will smell like burning rubber. That’s what his glands smell like.

I wouldn’t recommend one of these to just anyone, but if you want something a little different, it’s worth looking into. 

Most states in the US are not as lax as Ohio when it comes to keeping foxes, so please consult your state’s wildlife agencies before trying to get one of your own.

This is the most interesting animal I’ve ever lived with. He wags his tail at you just like a dog, and he loves to have his ears rubbed. He gets those zoomie things that dogs get, which he does all over the house.

We don’t let him interact with the dogs, because he’s a bit stroppy, they are bit leery of him, and he’s pretty fragile. He’s really not much more than an Italian greyhound with lots of fluff.

He’s not a Belyaev domestic fox, but whoever bred him was definitely concerned with producing a fox that is fairly docile and friendly.

You may judge me for keeping such an animal, but I think we can provide him a far better home than just about anyone else who’d pick up a fox on Craig’s List.

I’ll be writing about him a lot more, and there will be Youtube video. I am looking into buying a gray fox from a breeder this next spring, which is sort of my dream animal.

So yes, we are crazy, Crazy to like foxes!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

When I was a kid, Nature on PBS had a documentary about Simien jackals in the Ethiopian Highland. I remember being so fascinated by these jackals, particularly how they lived in extended family groups centered around a breeding pair. Even then, I marveled at how these animals had such a similar social structure to wolves, and my childish speculations made me wonder if these jackals could have told us how pack behavior in wolves first evolved.

But I grew up in an era before the internet, and I didn’t spend time looking at Simien jackals until I was in undergrad. I was at an old Borders bookstore, which don’t exist anymore, and I picked up a guide to African mammals. I perused my way to the canid section, hoping to find the section on bat-eared foxes. I had just read a book that documented the touching paternal behavior of this species, and I wanted to see if the guide mentioned this behavior. As I flipped through the pages, I came across the photo of the Simien jackal, but the caption under it said “Ethiopian wolf.”

I was somewhat confused by this new designation, so I read through entry on this new “wolf.”  The entry elucidated that some new DNA studies had found that the Simien jackal was found to be much more closely related to wolves than to other jackals in Africa, and the new name reflected this genetic discovery.

At the time, I was much more science illiterate than I am now, and I began to wonder if wolves had truly lived throughout Africa during the Pleistocene. Maybe these wolves were the source of the domestic dog, because we humans were a truly African species.

Later on, more studies came out.  Lots of papers suggested that some North African golden jackals were some kind of relict form of wolf in Africa, but most strongly suggested that there still were golden jackals in Africa. It was only 2015, that more in depth analysis of golden jackal, wolf, and coyote DNA revealed that all golden jackals in Africa were actually derived from a gray wolf-like ancestor. The current move it to call these animals African wolves or golden wolves, but a huge debate exists on what the exact scientific name should be: Canis lupus lupaster? Canis lupaster? Canis anthus?

I remain agnostic on what the exact scientific name for the golden wolf should be. I need more evidence, more data, before I’m going to latch  onto something. All of these problems are greatly complicated by the discovery that coyotes and gray wolves are much more closely related to each other than we thought, and the proposed million-year split between the two species was often used to gauge when the rest of the genus diverged.  These animals might all be much more closely related to each other than we imagined. 

But an even more surprising discovery just came out.  A recent genome comparison study revealed that hybridization was a major part of the evolution of wolf-like canids, but it also revealed that the golden wolf was itself a hybrid between Ethiopian wolf and the gray wolf. The authors did not estimate when this hybridization happened, but it clearly did.

This discovery points to this possible story about the Ethiopian wolf. Ethiopian wolves and gray wolves are not in any way sympatric. When the Ethiopian wolf was thought to be the only wolf in Africa, it was marveled at how a wolf managed to hold on in Africa, holding onto the last remaining cold parts of East Africa in the Ethiopian Highlands.

But if the golden wolf is really a hybrid between the gray wolf and the Ethiopian wolf, the Ethiopian wolf must have had a wider range. I bet it was even more generalist in its predation habits to have had such a wide range than the current rodent-filled diet of its surviving population. 

And then at some point, gray wolves began to wander down into Africa. These were probably primitive forms of the species, perhaps explaining why Himalayan wolves, a supposed basal form of gray wolf, share an x-chromosome with the golden wolf.

These gray wolves swamped the Ethiopian wolf range in North and East Africa, mating with the Ethiopian wolf.  This African gray wolf evolved to become smaller and more generalist, much like a jackal, but in the main, it retained a hybrid genome that is 72 percent gray wolf and 28 percent Ethiopian wolf.

For whatever reason, the gray wolf and the hybrid golden wolf never spread into the Ethiopian Highlands, where the Ethiopian wolf remained as relatively pure species.  These Ethiopian Highlands wolves had adapted to a rodent-rich diet in some of the harshest terrain in Africa, and there, they live on a relics from a time that has since passed.

They are like the last woolly mammoths of Wrangel and St. Paul Islands. The woolly mammoth of North America and Eurasia went extinct 10,000, but the ones on these two islands held on for much longer. The one on St. Paul went extinct 5,600 years ago, while the Wrangel Island population went extinct around 4,000 years ago. The St. Paul population went extinct as the lake on the island failed to provide them enough water, while the Wrangel population suffered a damaging blow when a deleterious mutation, which caused the mammoths to develop coats much like “satin” rabbits in which the coat grew shiny but less dense and useful for protection against the element, spread throughout the very inbred population.

By the time those mammoths went extinct, human civilizations were already well-advanced. We were already moving well into the agrarian epoch of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and we ceasing to be creatures of nature and becoming what we think we now are.

If the mammoths of Wrangel had never developed that deleterious mutation, we might be able to see them today, just as we can with the Ethiopian wolf.

Ethiopia today promotes the Ethiopian wolf as a major attraction in ecotourism. The country is doing all it can to preserve the species, and it very well be saved, so long as diseases from domestic dogs are held at bay and inbreeding issues don’t result the gene pool becoming swamped with a deleterious mutation or just general inbreeding depression.

No Ethiopian wolf will ever be on display at a Western zoo. You have to go to Ethiopia to see one. They hold onto this precious relic and treasure it as a vital natural resource and national treasure.

And that is how an endangered species should be treated. 

Read Full Post »

dholes

We know that hybridization is a big thing in the genus Canis.  Indeed, scientists are still debating about the validity of certain species because some of the extant forms of wolf could very well be hybrids between gray wolves and closely related species. Everyone thinks that the large coyotes we see in the East are all coywolves, even though they don’t have that much wolf ancestry. but then we have very good genomic data that shows that coyotes and gray wolves really aren’t that different genetically.  We know that Ethiopian wolves were threatened with and still could be threatened with hybridization from domestic dogs, but we also know that getting dog genes into a wild canid isn’t always a bad thing. Wild gray wolves in North America got their black color variant from a single Pre-Columbian black dog that crossed into the population between 1,500 and 7,250 years ago in the Yukon or the Northwest Territories.

I have often wondered if we could detect hybridization that went on long before all these wolf-like canids truly diverged, and a recent paper in The Journal Cell reveals that hybridization has always been a feature of these wolf-like canids. Gopalakrishnan et al. compared the genomes of gray wolves, coyotes, domestic dogs, golden jackals, the African golden wolf, the Ethiopian wolf, the dhole, and the African wild dog to see if there was any evidence of hybridization in the lineages.

The authors found that the African golden wolf was actually a hybrid species that developed from gene flow between the gray wolf and the Ethiopian wolf, which likely had a much more extensive range in Africa than it does now.  The authors also found that the clade (which I think is actually a single species) that includes the dog, wolf, and coyote received genes from an unknown species of canid. The dhole and African wild dog have also hybridized in the past, probably because both the dhole and African wild dog once had ranges that overlapped in the Middle East or in North Africa.

The discovery of this unknown species is perhaps the most intriguing. The authors speculate that it might have been the dire wolf or the extinct North American dhole, but seeing that this species fairly close to the division between the dhole and African wild dog, I think a more likely candidate is Xenocyon lycaonoides.  This animal has been posited as an ancestor the dhole and the African wild dog, but a more convincing argument is that the African wild dog derived from Lycaon sekowei.  It is not clear yet what the dhole derives from, but it could have derived from Xenocyon or shared a common ancestor with it.

Xenocyon was the dominant wolf-like canid in Eurasia and Africa during the early part of the Pleistocene, but by the mid-Pleistocene, it began to become less common, and as its numbers dwindled, the diminutive wolf, Canis mosbachensis, began to fill its niche, eventually evolving into the modern gray wolf, which also led to the coyote and domestic dog lineages, as well as the hybrid African golden wolf.

Maybe, as the Xenocyon’s numbers dwindled, a few remaining ones hybridized with C. mosbachensis, perhaps introducing some genes from better pack cooperation and larger size that helped the smaller wolf fill the bigger canid’s niche.

The authors are clear that we need lots of ancient DNA from these extinct canids before we can engage in flights of speculative fancy, but seeing that this unknown canid was so close to the dhole, I think that this animal is a better place to look. Xenocyon might be a bit too old to find viable DNA in fossil remains, but it is certainly possible that we could find some.

So yes, hybridization has greatly affected the evolution of wolf-like canids in the modern era, but hybridization always has. Similar findings have been discovered in bears and various members of the cat family.  My guess is that virtually every clade will have had some of this going on, even if the current species do not hybridize.  Speciation happens, but chemical interfertility isn’t lost for quite some time after speciation. Gene flow continues on with related species, which continues to affect their evolution.

Yeah, evolution is a tangled bush that also has vines that reach out and grab adjacent and not so adjacent twigs.

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

red fox at night

Our motor vehicles speed away on ribbons of asphalt. We run along them as they cut along the cities and suburbs but also as they wind their way through the pastures and cornfields and the stands of forest that somewhat resemble wilderness.

Our roads intersect their trails. The wild beasts scurry across them when they cannot hear the whirring of tires and the humming of the internal combustion engines. They race across hoping almost as an act of instinctual faith that that vehicles won’t slam into them and take the great toll of impersonal and unintentional predation that we call roadkill.

And so one night this week, I found myself winding along desolate roads in Western Pennsylvania. The darkness of night enveloped all around me. Only the lights on my vehicle pierced this veil.

And as a rounded a bend in the road, my headlights scanned down upon what I instantly recognized as a deer. But as I motored in closer, the lights revealed a massive buck with a great crown of white rapiers. The rut is nigh, and this is the time of thick necks and grunting and long solitary perambulations through the darkness. Soon, the sensual scents of the does will cast into the wind, and the ancient rites of courtship and copulation will commence.

And the bucks that once wandered around as comrades in the oak woods with velvet headdresses as the deerflies tore at their ears in the July swselter are now turning into the worst rivals.

But by mid-December, the does will stop their sweet waftings, and the testosterone levels will drop in the bodies of the bucks. By January, the antlers will fall, and the rivals will bunch up as comrades again, ready for the long freezing time where the mast of autumn better be bountiful enough to see the deer until first green grass of March.

I shouted with elation from my driver’s seat:

“Look at that buck!”

The buck looked alarmed at my stopping then moseyed into the woods along the road. I motored on.

Jenna asked,  “Would you have shot that one?”

And all I could say is, “Yes.”

That same night, on another desolate road in Western Pennsylvania, I made a turn onto a crooked course that skirted along the edge of a uncut cornfield.

As I approached the edge of the cornfield, a red fox charged out of a hidden covert, and then darted into the tall corn.

He was a beautiful specimen, probably looking at a nice night of mousing where no one could lay eyes upon him, especially not someone with a nice little predator rifle.

We are not long before the days of the foothold traps set in for the red fox and all the other little fur-bearers of the forest and field. Those traps won’t fool many of the old veterans, the ones that have run that gauntlet for a winter or two or five or six,  but the young rangers of the year will surely fall.

But in the next spring, the vixens will whelp in their dens, and the fields will fill with young rangers again.

We watched the fox slink into the corn.

“That was the first red fox I ever saw!” Jenna shouted at me. I guess Florida is pretty depauperate of wild canids, for she told me that there are no red foxes in the lower parts of the peninsula. They are so common here outside of the subtropics. They appear as eternal as the hills and the rocks and the streams, but the truth is they were absent in this part of the continent until the Europeans came. Then, they wandered down out Canada and New England into the newly cleared lands. The legend goes that they were stocked here from England or Germany, a legend that goes in nicely with the repeopling of this land with people mostly of that ancestry after having driven off and subjugated the descendants of that first colonization from Siberia.

As we motored along back into Ohio, the deer stood along the road, almost daring themselves to jump in front of our vehicle. One stupid little button buck staggered out in front of us. He stared up at the headlights in the cliched expression and then turned his head to stagger around to the opposite side of the road.

And we motored on in the darkness. My mind was on the road, but I thought of the paradox of the blacktop. The road and the motor car have given us what appears to be unlimited freedom.  We can cross the continent in a matter of days, if we just get in our vehicle and go on the road.

But in that freedom, we are limited. We must follow that road, as does everyone else who travels.

But the deer and the foxes and all the wild beasts of the fields roam their trails. These paths might be ancient, but they are made through the inertia of instinct, always seeking the path of least resistance to get from the bedding areas to the grazing or hunting grounds.

The beast that thrive here now thrive mostly because of us. We have killed off the wolves and the cougars, and then modern agriculture has made Appalachian hill farming mostly unprofitable.  Farm families are rarer and rarer upon the land, and the thickets and coverts grow to hide the wild creatures more completely.

And so we’ve let these parallel worlds grow up in our wastegrounds.  Most of us never pay much attention to these worlds, but when we go upon our ribbons of blacktop at night, our paths meet. Sometimes, we slam into deer and crush foxes and raccoons. But more often, we just meet. Our headlights illuminate the denizens of that other world.

Perhaps we allow ourselves the chance to marvel at them, and maybe we can consider their plight as beings more deeply tied to the ecosystem. We can maybe consider them a bit, and then realize that we are also tied to it. We’ve built walls around us to insulate ourselves from the realities of the cold, heat, parasites, and hunger.

But these walls are but edifices of delusion. Nature’s laws still abide with us, and that our dominance is only temporary and maybe only illusory.

And when we consider their plight, their existence, we must ultimately fully consider our own.

At least, that is what I’d hope we’d do as the night draws in darker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

P1050079

Man originated in Africa. The whole lineage of apes from which we and all the other human species descended was in Africa, a sister lineage to the apes that gave us the chimpanzee and the bonobo.

But man’s first domestic animal was not of Africa at all. The large pack-hunting wolf roamed the great expanses of Eurasia, and it was only when certain Eurasian hunters began to incorporate wolves into their societies that we began the process of domestication.

For nearly two million years, human ancestors and the ancestors of the wild dog lived throughout Africa.  There was never an attempt to bring these dogs to heel, and there was never attempt to reach out to that species.

The question remains of why African wild dogs were never domesticated, and part of the answer lies in their nervous nature. I am reminded of Martin Clunes’s A Man and His Dogs.  Clunes ended his two part documentary with a visit to Tony Fitzjohn’s African wild dog project, and at one point, Clunes is asked to pick up a tranquilized African wild dog, while making certain that the jaws are positioned well away from his body.  These dogs react and react quickly.

These dogs live as quite persecuted mesopredators in an intact African ecosystem that includes lions and spotted hyenas.  Yes, this animal that kills large game with a greater success rate than any other African predator is totally the underdog in a land so dominated by the great maned cat and the spotted bone-crusher.

Their lives must be spent hunting down quarry and then bolting down meat as fast as they can before the big predators show up to steal it.

The current thinking is the first African wild dog ancestor to appear in Africa was Lycaon sekowei. This species lived in Africa from 1.9 to 1 million years ago, which is roughly the same time frame in which the first human ancestors began to consume meat readily.  It was very likely that a major source of meat consumed by these ancestors came from scavenging.  Homo habilis has been des cribed as a very serious scavenger, as was Homo erectus.

Both Homo habilis and erectus were contemporaries of Lycaon sekowei, and one really thinks about it, these early humans would have been very interested in the comings and goings of the great predators. Of all the predators to drive off kills, it is obvious that a pack of wild dogs would be easier to drive off than just about any other predators that were evident in Africa at the time.

So for at least 1.9 million years, African wild dogs evolved knowing that humans of any sort were bad news.  They may have inherited an instinct towards antipathy toward humans, and thus, there never was any chance for us to develop relationships such as those that have been observed with wolves and hunter-gatherer people.

I think this played a a much bigger role in reason why man never tried to domesticate African wild dogs. One should also keep in mind that wolves in Eurasia were also mesopredators in that ecosystem. Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger point out that Pleistocene wolves functioned as mesopredators in which their numbers were likely limited by cave lions, archaic spotted  hyenas, and various forms of machariodont. They were probably under as much competition from these predators as the ancestral African wild dogs were under from the guild of super predators on their continent.

What was different, though, is the ancestral wolves never evolved in an enviroment which scavenging from various human species was a constant threat, so they could develop behaviors towards humans that were not always characterized by extreme caution and fear.

We were just novel enough for wolves to consider us something other than nasty scavengers, and thus, we could have the ability to develop a hunting symbiosis as is described in Mark Derr’s book and also Pierotti and Fogg’s.

It should also be noted that African wild dogs do not have flexible societies. In wolf societies, there are wolves that manage to reproduce without forming a pair bond, simply because when prey is abundant, it is possible for wolves other than the main breeding female to whelp and rear puppies. These females have no established mates, and they breed with male wolves that have left their natal packs and live on the edges of the territories of established packs. In the early years of the Yellowstone reintroduction, many packs let these females raise their pups that were sired by the wanderers, and one famous wolf (302M) wound up doing this most of his life, siring many, many puppies.  I think that what humans did in their initial relationships with wolves was to allow more wolves to reproduce in this fashion, which opens up the door for more selective breeding than one would get from wolves that are more pair-bonded.

In African wild dogs, one female has the pups. If another female has puppies, hers are confiscated by the main breeding female and usually starve to death.

The wolf had the right social flexibility and the right natural history for humans form relationships with them, which the African wild dog was lacking.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

img_2012

Every hare, every day, evades predators. Hares have evolved in different directions than humans– one of the most pernicious fallacies of animal rights is that animals feel and in some ways think that they are just deformed humans….Hares are splendid at being hares, and likely don’t dwell for a moment on the horrors of the chase. If a human were chased every day, he would become neurotic, fearful, crazy. Hares, if chased every day, still enjoy life. How could they not, and still be around, be hares?

–Stephen Bodio, The Hounds of Heaven: Living and Hunting with an Ancient Breed.

Night fell upon the newly mowed hay field.  It was the last cutting of the year and final tall stalks of grass were now lying out flat upon the ground. The dry September sun would dry out the stalks for a few days. Then the baling machines would arrive, and the grass would be bound as stored forage for the hoofed stock on the coming days little sunlight and hard freezes and driving snow squalls.

On hot summer evenings, cottontail rabbits like to see along the tram roads that lead in and out of the hay field. The roads make for easy running and the clover grows thick in the tracks, and clover is the best thing for the lactating rabbit does to munch down. The tall grass obscures their body forms from the piercing eyes of hawks and owls, and so the tram roads become their little restaurants, where the clover nourishes their bodies but the killers from the sky cannot spy them.

But the mowing has changed this dynamic. The tall grass is down, and the refuge it provided was gone.  The hawks and the owls would surely see the rabbits on the road now, but the rabbits are creatures of habit and territory. So they came to the tram road to graze uneasily among the clover.

The predator that came did not come from the sky that evening. The mowing machine cuts up quite a few mice and voles and bog lemmings as tears through the grass, and their blood and offal and decaying forms cast scents into the air. The local turkey vultures spent much of the late afternoon sifting through the downed grass stalks for a bit of sweet, juicy carnage. A pair of ravens joined them in their sifting, for ravens don’t have the keen sense of smell of the turkey vulture. But they have keener brains and can easily figure out that where the turkey vultures are congregating, there will be carrion to scavenge.

But now that night was falling, the birds of the day had taken to the roost. The sifting for rodent bodies would have to wait until the sun rose again, so the hay field was empty of all beings but rabbits and stridulating katydids and crickets.

The scent of dead rodents brought in the meat-eaters of the night, and the first to arrive was a big male gray fox. He lived out his entire life in the brier thickets in the hollow below the hay field. No one knew of his existence or really seemed to care, for he lived a life of a sort of cat dog in the brush, stalking songbirds in the forest and occasionally raiding a cottontail’s nest the early spring grass. He also plucked fresh raspberries from their bushes, but he was skilled at his hiding from humans of his very presence. He was a poacher in the night who slipped in and slipped out, and no one was the wiser.

But now he sensed a chance to get a little easy food among the fallen grass stalks, and he began a slinking approach into the hay field. The wind was in his face so that he could smell if any hunters or nasty dogs were about, and the wind kept telling him that carrion was around for him to pick through and devour at his foxy leisure.

It was as eased upon the tram road that another scent caught his nose. It was a big cottontail doe, in fine fettle and all spry for a good run. His years working this tram road after mowing days told him that he probably shouldn’t waste any energy running such a big healthy doe, but the cool September night air had given him a bit of a sporty itch.

And so the big gray fox crouched into stalking position and eased his way closer to the big doe. She grazed the clover, and he stalked in a little closer. She would hear the faint sound of fox steps upon the grass, and she would rise up and hold still. The fox would hold his stalk, and no sound would cross her ears. And she would eat at the clover again.

And so the stalk went on for about five minutes, and by that time, the fox was 15 feet from the rabbit. At that point, though, the fox’s impetuous side got to him. The scent of rabbit was that close to him. His black nostrils just quivered each inhaling breath. Rabbit scent, so sweet, and so close.

And when the rabbit sat still with her ears up again, the fox charged, and the chase began. Cottontail rabbits run in great, wide circles, and in those circles,there are several brush piles, groundhog holes, hidden culverts, and misplaced pipe. The rabbits know that when they run they can run out long and hard in those circles, and if they are healthy, they can hit one of those hiding places before the predator is upon them. And if the predator still comes, they will have more than few minutes to catch their breaths and let their heart rates return to normal in case they would have to run again.

So the big cottontail doe fled the charging fox. Early in the chase the fox’s flying gallop, a mixture of a sighthound’s run and the feline’s bound, gave him some edge. For thirty yards, the fox’s jaws were within near striking distance of the fleeing rabbit.

But her leporid running anatomy is built for a good flight, and very soon, she was well ahead of the gray fox when she saw her chance to dive into a bit of cast-off gas-line pipe that had been stored at the edge of the hayfield for so long that the multiflora rose grew thick and thorny all around it.

The fox saw her dive into the pipe, and he sailed upon the pipe’s entrance. It was too small to afford him even the hope of entry, and for five minutes he pawed at the pipe and stuck his nose down the entrance, trying in vain to see the rabbit had foolishly languished near enough to the opening for him to grab her.

But then, his fox-like caution set in. He cast his nose into the wind and twitched his ears around to catch the sign of any fox killer, and when he found that none was about, he slipped along the edge of the hayfield, casting his way around to where he could approach the tram road again with the wind in his face.

He would have a good night’s repast of vole, mouse, and bog lemming meat and offal, but in the cooling September night, he’d had a bit of fun, a bit of sport, and now he could get back to the real business of survival.

The big doe rabbit emerged from the pipe about an hour after the fox left. She stayed in the multifora rose thicket a for a little while. The rose had some nice little hips for her to browse upon, and then, as the morning sun began to cast red into the sky, she eased her way out of the thicket and wandered into a grove of newly apple trees that had just been planted the March before. She gnawed on the apple trees a bit, until a car passed the apple grove and made her take flight into a distant brush pile.

And so the rabbit was not traumatized in the least from having a good course by a fox. She would have to run every day of her fleeting of life, just as all her ancestors have had to since the beginning of the rabbit and hare clade some 40 million years ago.

We can think of the rabbit as the terrorized victim of vicious foxes, or we can consider them as they actually are. They are prey. They evolved as prey. Their brains and their bodies are all evolved perfectly as prey species. Their essence to be vary and make good run and a hard dive from predator’s jaws.

They live lives in terrific bliss. Many things want to eat them, but they simply live as long as they can without obliging this desire.

Their psyches do not become traumatized as they live with such terror every day. Their psyches, such that they are, are perfectly wired for this existence. This is their existence and not ours.

And if we truly love animals, we must respect their different existence and avoid simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism that only makes sense in a society devoid any real contact with nature.

But these simplistic appeals are harder and harder to avoid, and so the fox might not be deemed the enemy in this story, but the beagler or rabbit courser certainly would be.

And this is the reality that true animal lovers, who see animals in all their naturalistic animalness, must work hard to combat.

And hope to all powers that be that we will not lose. But the odds just aren’t in our favor.

Ignorant anthropomorphism is the scourge of carefully considered human-animal relations, and the danger is that it is an ignorance that revels in its own self-righteousness.

So the fox chases the rabbit on a September night, and the rabbit lives on in that terrific bliss of having evolved as quarry.

And we can only hope that we humans respect that bliss. For only then can we understand what a rabbit truly is and appreciate its essential majesty.

 

Read Full Post »

dire wolf skeleton

I am not big on popular culture these days. I have not watched one second of Game of Thrones, but I do know that dire wolves have something to do with that series.  I am not into that genre of television. Give me an actual documentary about dire wolves, and I’ll be happy.

But I know that dire wolves are thing from that series only because I do sometimes get asked about them. I don’t know how they are portrayed in that series, but most people think of them as just super large gray wolves that went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.

The funny thing is that there actually was a super large gray wolf that specialized in hunting large game that also went extinct at the end of the Pleistocene. This animal has been called the Beringian wolf, and although no one has dared to give it a subspecies status, it was essentially a form of gray wolf that hunted megafauna in much the same way that the dire wolf did. The two species were contemporaries, but the Beringian gray wolf did not live in the same parts of North America as the dire wolf, which was found through most of the Lower 48 of the United States and ranged down into northern South America.  This Beringian wolf apparently ranged from Alaska to Wyoming, while the dire wolf was found in mid-latitude North America and ranged south from there.

No one really pays that much attention the Beringian wolf, but it is very likely that everything we know about modern wolves would have applied to that animal. The only difference would be that this wolf was much more specialized in hunting large prey such as bison than modern big-game hunting wolves are.

The same cannot be said for dire wolves.  Dire wolves evolved solely in North America. The general consensus is that it evolved from Armbruster’s wolf, but the exact origin of Armbruster’s wolf is a bit of debate. One well-known hypothesis is that the common ancestor of the modern gray wolf and the Armbruster’s wolf-dire wolf lineage is Canis chihliensis, a Pliocene wolf-like canid. This is the hypothesis suggested by Tedford and Wang, who are leading authorities on North American canid evolution.

However, there is a whole host literature in Eurasian wolves that posits Canis mosbachsensis as the ancestor the modern wolf. This literature, I think, is a bit more robust, for the large numbers of samples of both archaic Canis lupus and Canis mosbachensis show how the wolves of Eurasia went from being small and gracile to larger and more robust over time.

It is possible that this Armbruster’s wolf/dire wolf lineage evolved from an entirely different grouping of the wolf-like canids. It also would place the common ancestor of the dire wolf and modern Canis lupus back millions of years, even to the point where dire wolves were at least as genetically divergent from modern wolves as modern wolves are from African wild dogs.

If that is true, then we cannot make many wild assumptions about dire wolf behavior by comparing them to modern wolves at.  We don’t have any preserved dire wolves in permafrost. They never lived where there are currently big stands of permafrost, so we will never have dire wolf pelts.

Attempts have been made to get DNA from the many Rancho La Brea tarpit dire wolf remains, but they have not been successful. It was found that it was just too difficult to separate the bone from the tar.

So we really don’t know exactly how closely related dire wolves are to modern wolves, but I would be surprised if they turned out to be as closely related to modern wolves as modern wolves are to coyotes.

Indeed, the real problem with all of this is much of Canis taxonomy and systematics is not entirely resolved. The real issue I have now is we have good genome comparison literature that shows a much closer relationship between wolves and coyotes than we previously believed. Much of our understanding of Canis evolution is that we have tended to think of a linear evolution from jackal-like forms to wolf-like form, when the truth of the matter is we have had jackal and wolf-like forms evolve independently of each other within different lineages of the wolf-like canids.

So we are taken aback with the findings that the two endemic African jackals, the black-backed and side-striped jackal, are the two most basal and divergent forms of the wolf-like canid clade, and we are even more taken aback that the dhole and African wild dog are not as distinct from the rest of the clade as these two African jackals. This finding has led to the rise of the genus Lupullela for these two jackals.

In addition, the creatures formerly known as African golden jackals were revealed to be much closer to wolves and coyotes than to the Eurasian golden jackal, which has led to a bit of a taxonomy war on what exactly to call these creatures, though the popular press likes to use the term “African golden wolf,” which was the name suggested in one of the papers documenting their discovery.

None of these discoveries would have been indicated through morphological analysis alone. One would think that black-backed jackals and coyotes were particularly close relatives, for they look and behave pretty similarly to each other. At one time, we would have classified both as primitive or basal Canis.  Today, I think the best description is that the black-backed jackal is a basal Canis, but that the coyote is actually a very derived but diminutive one.

So we have these problems with extant Canis species, and it is very likely that we’re missing the full picture on how dire wolves relate and compare to modern ones.

One thing that should be noted is that dire wolves had very odd bacula.  The baculum is the penis bone that exists in all but a few mammals, and you, if you are a male human being, are among these few mammals without one.

Dire wolves had longer bacula than gray wolves of the same size and they were kinked upward at an odd angle. This bone is probably indicative of a larger penis in a dire wolf than the modern one, and it also might give us some interesting clues about how dire wolves might have behaved.

I have suggested that having this male anatomy might have meant that dire wolves had more competition with sperm penetration than actual male on male conflict during the mating season. We know that within primates, those species that are better endowed tend to be less aggressive with other males of the same species. Those with smaller genitals tend to be more aggressive, and the reason posited for this difference is those with larger genitalia have given up on intermale aggression and the real competition is how far and how much sperm the male can produce.

Maybe something like this was going on with dire wolves. Maybe mating season with dire wolves was just a big ol’ wolf orgy, and the male that could penetrate the female deepest and with the most sperm wound up siring the offspring.

Even calling Canis dirus a “wolf” may not be accurate at all. If it truly is a more distant relative to the gray wolf than we currently assume, then we really need to be careful what we assumptions we are making.

A few years ago, there was a bit of fun speculation on the internet that the dire wolf was actually of South American wild dog clade. A few scholars had toyed with the idea, because there was these two odd species wolfish like canids that were known from the fossil record in South America, called Canis nehringi and Canis gezi. The former was always thought of as being very similar to the dire wolf, and the latter appeared to be somewhat similar to both.

This speculation led to this wonderful image, a depiction of the dire wolf as being an overgrown bush dog.  (The one on the right speculates a South American origin, while the one on the left just turns it into a wolf).

dire wolf bush dog

Of course, serious scholarship performed a phylogenetic analysis of these canids and revealed that Canis nehringi was actually a dire wolf offshoot. Canis gezi was found to be a South American clade wild dog.

So yes, this was a fun bit of speculation, but it’s not much more absurd than assuming that the dire wolf was that fundamentally similar to the modern gray wolf.

We just don’t know. I’m sure that we’ll get a good ancient DNA sample from a dire wolf soon, and we’ll be able to answer some of these questions.

But right now, we need to be very careful in assuming that the dire wolf was just an odd Pleistocene gray wolf.

We’re missing a lot of information, and a lot of the research on dire wolves was performed before we had all these “molecular surprises” with extant Canis species.

There is just so much we don’t know, and it might be a good idea to be careful about making assumptions about dire wolves by comparing them to their supposed modern equivalents.

Those equivalents might not be any more equivalent than those equivalents are to modern African wild dogs and dholes. Yes, there are some similarities, but African wild dogs and dholes are very different from wolves in terms of the exact dynamics of their pack behavior and hunting styles.

So we’re assuming a lot now about dire wolves, but it’s best to wait for me evidence before we play around with speculation. Hollywood will never take this cue, but maybe we should hold back a bit.

We just don’t know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: