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Archive for the ‘wild dogs’ Category

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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coyote profile pic

I am a coyote lover. No two ways about it.  I have always been interested in wolves and dogs, but in the past couple of years, I’ve had encounters with Eastern coyotes.  And they are every bit as fascinating. Western man has thrown every single weapon he could contrive at them, and all they have done is spread all over the continent.

So it was with great joy when I got a chance to read Dan Flores’s  Coyote America. I had heard the author interviewed on Steven Rinella’s podcast a while back, and I was really fascinated about what he had to say about Pleistocene megafauna on the North American Great Plains.

I also knew he was writing a book on coyotes, and I wanted get his take on them.

I’ve just started reading the book. I really enjoy his discussion about Native American traditions with coyotes. I am a damned, no-good Easterner, so I know very little about those traditions.

But I do have a quibble. It’s a friendly quibble. In one part of the book he describes coyotes as being as genetically distinct from wolves as humans are from orangutans and that the two species split from a common ancestor some 3.2 million years ago. He uses a lot of the paleontological data from Xiaoming Wang, who is a great canid paleontologist, who posits that coyotes evolved from directly from Canis lepophagus and that they are wholly a North American lineage.

Now, this is paleontology, and it’s not exactly the best way to determine evolution relationships between very closely related canid species. The reason why is that canids have a tendency toward parallel evolution. For example, the bush dog of South America has dentition that is very much like the African wild dog and the dhole, and at one time, it was suggested that the bush dog was actually a species of dwarf dhole. We now know from genetic studies that it is actually a close relative the of the maned wolf, and it is well-nested in the South American canid clade.

It is definitely true that coyotes resemble African golden jackals, but similarities in appearance have led to error here.  Molecular geneticist have recently found that African golden jackal is actually much more closely related to coyotes and wolves than it is to the Eurasian golden jackal. That means that two animals we thought were the same species actually turned out to be two.

And when it comes to the relationship between coyotes and wolves, molecular geneticists had long assumed that the two species split around 1 million years ago.  In countless dog domestication articles, the molecular clock has been calibrated around a 1-million-year-old split between wolves and coyotes. I have always thought that was weird, because the paleontology studies suggested a much older divergence.

Well, a recent comparison of wolf and coyote genomes from across North America revealed that the actual separation time was something more like 50,000 years ago. That means the animals we’re calling coyotes now aren’t the same thing as those million-year-old fossils.  Those animals are of evolutionary dead-ends that just happened to have a very similar morphology to a coyote in much the same way that African and Eurasian jackals do. Of course, we cannot get genetic data from such old fossils, but it could be that some of these dead-end canids might be more closely related to black-backed and side-striped jackals, which really did diverge from the rest of Canis a really long time ago. They are more divergent from the rest of Canis than the African wild dog and dhole are, and the dhole and African wild dog have their own genera.

If coyotes and wolves diverged only 50,000 years ago, then this raises an interesting taxonomic question. All extant wolf lineages diverged in the past 44,400-45,900 years, as a recent study comparing wolf genomes revealed.  These means the genetic difference between a wolf and a coyote is not much more than the greatest genetic variance between wolves. (Generation time are roughly similar in both wolves and coyotes).

This means that the creatures we’re calling coyotes now actually derived from the Eurasian wolf. The reason this animal looks so much like a jackal isn’t because it represents a primitive North American Canis lineage, but because the larger, pack hunting wolf from Eurasia couldn’t live very well at middle latitudes in North America. At the time, dire wolves were occupying this niche. There were also dholes coming into North America, which means that the pack-hunting wolf of Eurasia really had some strong competition. That means that these wolves evolved more toward the generalist jackal body-type and ecological niche. They did so in parallel to the Eurasian and African jackals.

This is very similar to what happened to the first radiation of Eurasian lynx into North America. Eurasian lynx are pretty large, weighing as much as 70 pounds, but they found the mid-sized cat niche already locked up in North America. So they evolved into the smaller bobcat. It just happened millions of years before the wolves that became coyotes came into the continent.

The fact that wolves and coyotes are this closely related and have exchanged genes so much across the continent raises some important questions about what a coyote is. The comparative genome study on wolves and coyotes showed that the animals called the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, which Flores considers valid species in the book, are actually hybrids between wolves and coyotes. I’ve long been a skeptic of the red and Eastern wolf paradigm, but this study actually makes me question coyotes.

One could actually argue that coyotes are a subspecies of wolf. This is a controversial thing to say, but it was once controversial to say that dogs and wolves were the same species– and now there is growing acceptance (at least among scientists) of this fact.

It is certainly true that all wolves, jackals, African wild dogs, and dholes do descend from a coyote-like North American ancestor.  But to assume that coyotes are directly derived from this ancestor is a major error, and one that has been falsified in the molecular studies.

If my interpretation of the genetic studies is correct, the coyote should be called the “thriving wolf.” Unlike the bigger ones, it was able to survive all that we threw at it. The more we persecuted it, the greater its numbers became, as did the vastness of its range. It is an adaptable, resourceful survivor, and that makes it the perfect “American avatar” to use Flores’s construction.

So that is what a coyote is.  It is the wolf that thrives.

 

 

 

 

 

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They aren’t the most genetically distant canids from wolves. That would be the Urocyon species.

Reproductive technologies in domestic dogs will lead the way.

I have this bizarre fantasy of someone setting up a ranch in the Southwest for the purpose of rewilding maned wolves. The oldest fossil remains of maned wolves actually do come from the Southwestern US,but the species is now confined to South America.

 

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Canis enigmaticus

short-eared-dog

The word “dog” connotes familiarity.  The domestic creature that we know so well is Canis lupus familiaris. We know it as well as family.

But the truth of the matter there is a whole world of dogs we don’t know at all. When we look beyond the domestic into wild, there is a world that so utterly alien to us that we rely upon scientists and nature documentaries to tell us about it.

And the scientists know wild dogs. That is not to say that they know everything about them, but if we look at what science knows about wolves, red foxes, and coyotes, then we see that many of the questions have already been answered.

Red foxes are known because of their ubiquity. North America and Eurasia are full of them, and they’ve been introduced to Australia, where they are a pretty nasty invasive species. Wolves are known because they have become avatars for the conservation movement. It was this species that came to symbolize the wild in both North America and Europe, and its restoration is seen as a sort of redemption for all the other massacres and mismanagement that have so stained our relationship with the wild creatures. And so long as coyotes live in the canyons, brush-thickets, and suburban lawns of most of North America, they will be studied as much as they are both reviled and revered in their new kingdom.

Wild dogs have their die-hard enthusiasts. Researchers follow the African wild dog throughout the lion ranges, trying to find out more about them, and other researchers go to Chiloe to find out the deepest secrets of the Darwin’s fox.

But the truth of the matter is there one wild dog that we will never get to know. It is one that haunts the jungles and never reveals to us what it truly is.

Atelocynus microtis is how the scientists know it. English-speakers call it a “short-eared dog, and it is truly a bizarre creature. Weighing roughly 20 pounds, it slinks through the rainforests of the Amazonian interior on webbed cat feet. It has a long, pointed muzzle, almost like a coyote’s, but its resemblance to the North American little wolf is instantly shatter when one looks at its ears. They are are short and rounded where the coyote’s are often freakishly large and sharply pointed.

Unlike the coyote, which can live in the urban world quite well, the short-eared dog lives by totally shunning mankind. If humans can easily live in an area, you won’t find a short-eared dog.

Many theories about its rarity near human settlements exist, but the most intriguing is that it really is deeply impacted by the presence of domestic dogs.  Domestic dogs, which derive from Eurasian wolves, carry a whole host of diseases to which the short-eared dog has no immunity. Perhaps canine disease swept through the short-eared dog population, leaving behind only those individuals with a genetic tendency to avoid people.

They wander the jungles–lowland forest, Amazonian forest, and even cloud forest–but reveal their secrets to us only in glints and glares, in quick camera trap captures and occasion run-ins along forest trails.

They materialize as mysteriously as coyotes do in the white-tail woods, yet they reveal almost nothing as they pass. They appear and are gone like phantoms in the mist.

A few years ago, one was kept captive. He was found as an abandoned puppy in the Peruvian Amazon. A veterinarian named Renata Leite Pitman kept him, and her time of this creatures, which she named “Oso,” came to be the most intensive relationships anyone has ever had with a short-eared dog.  She took Oso on long walks in the forest, and Oso revealed his secrets to her.

She used him to connect with the wild ones. The approached him while he was on leash, seeming to ignore that he was attached to a human. A female offer to mate with him. A male stalked him from a distance.

She came to know that Oso had an innate fear of jaguars. If she showed him jaguar scat or played jaguar sounds, he would run in terror.  He was so young when captured that there is no way he could have learned this from his mother.

From Oso, we learned that the short-eared dog is a major seed disperser, but they still prefer meat to all other foods.

We also learned that male short-eared dogs aren’t sexually mature until they are three years old. Their testicles simply don’t descend until then. For a dog of that size, that is  remarkably long time before sexual maturity.

Leite Pitman studied others of Oso’s kind. She set up camera traps and put radio collars them.

But we still know next to nothing about them.

Their exact range is still hotly debated. They have been spotted as far north as Panama’s Darien Province, and it is suggested that the mysterious mitla the Percy Fawcett encountered in Bolivia was likely a short-eared dog or something very much like one.

Compared with what L. David Mech and Doug Smith know about wolves or what Stanley Gehrt and Simon Gadbois know about coyotes or David MacDdnald knows about red foxes, Renata Leite Pitman has only scratch the tiniest layer of the surface when it comes the short-eared dog.

This will be the enigma dog, the one we simply cannot know. The jungle will hide it well, and it will live without us knowing.

There is nearly a pop culture following for the thylacine, that extinct marsupial carnivore from Tasmania that looked like a wild dog with a pouch. It’s probably extinct, but it is still an enigma. It was an enigma when it was alive, and it is an even more so now that it is gone.  We want it to be alive so we can have it reveal its secrets, but these secrets have passed with the last of the striped false canine.

But the short-eared dog is still here. Its mysteries are still looming long in the mist.  Maybe we can find out.  Maybe we can know.

But this creature seeks to avoid our kind, enemies who bring not just violence of predations as the jaguar does but also the pestilences that waft from the lop-eared village wolves through the jungle air.

Atelocynus mictrotis is canis enigmaticus. The enigma protects it, shrouds it, veils it in mystery.

And without us, it moves long the jungle paths, sniffing the air for jaguars and rotting fruit.  Free but harried. Unmastered but unknown.

This is the dog we will not know as it wanders the Lost World away from us into the densest thicket.

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Foxcicle

foxcicle

This poor fox fell through the ice on the Danube near the town Fridingen in southern Germany.

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Corndogs

Gray foxes will actually come to eat corn set out for other animals. Their dentition is actually much more aligned for an omnivorous diet than other canids.

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Trained black-backed jackal

I might sound weird, but if I ever go to Africa, this is the first species I want to see:

 

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