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Archive for the ‘wildlife’ Category

This is a remarkable bit of trail camera footage from Putnam County, Florida.

Here we have two gray foxes coordinating an attack on a flock of Osceola turkeys. They are engaging in behavior I’d expect more from wolves or coyotes.  One fox harries the birds, while the other sneaks around from behind.

Although the foxes don’t catch a turkey that day, they might sometimes succeed if they keep doing this behavior.

I’ve read old accounts of gray foxes working together to hunt rabbits, but I put them away as hearsay.

After seeing this footage, I am convinced they do sometimes engage in cooperative hunting.

Gray foxes, especially in Florida, aren’t that big, and a turkey is a fighting dinosaur of a chicken. My guess is they aren’t regularly preying on mature turkeys, but they do engage in this sort of behavior to test them in much the same way wolves test elk or caribou.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this footage, but it is pretty remarkable.

I’ve always admired the gray fox. It’s a truly unique American canid, for it has no Old World congeners.

They and turkeys have been interacting for millions of years in the Southeast and Southwest, a dance far more ancient than wolf and bison in Yellowstone. And certainly far more ancient than man versus beast on this continent.

And this drama happened in the third most populous state in the union, not in some far wilderness of the West. Indeed, just a stone’s throw from the first permanent European settlement in North America.

 

 

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Dead Blue Crayfish

One of the mysteries of the day is why there was a dead blue crayfish on top of my garbage bin this morning. I don’t know the species or how it got there.  Still vexed.

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Dead Polyphemus

One of the weird things about living in this part of North America is that we have big moths. This is a dead Polyphemus moth. It is named for the cyclopes in Odyssey. Those big eye spots sort of remind one of a cyclopes, but they also scare off predatory birds that don’t want to attack something that is looking at them.

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The Alien World

I went on a long hike yesterday in the back country at Beaver Creek State Park.  I had many encounters with aliens.

The most amazing encounter I had was with a leafhopper and an inchworm that both landed on my wrist. They seemed to be confused about the substance on which they landed, and they were equally vexed about each other.

leafhopper and inchworm

The leafhopper soon grew tired of the scene and hopped onto more satisfying greenery, but the inchworm stayed for a bit longer.

inchworm

I let the inchworm loose a leaf of green foliage, and I continued on my way.

As I marched along, I came across several iridescent green damselflies.

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They were quite hard to photograph. It was as if they saw my camera as a predator staring hard at them with one unblinking hard-staring eye.

Later on, I came across a scene of predation. Some ants had caught a hapless inchworm and were carrying it to their lair.

ants kill inchworm

This is a world that is not mine. I am profoundly ignorant about entomology. I was into insects as a boy, but I grew out of that fascination.

My essential mammalness means that I feel a stronger comradeship with other vertebrates. Indeed, I feel that I can glimpse some knowledge the tetrapod world, but the insect and spider and crab world is beyond me– profoundly so.

No being on earth has a society as tightly organized as ants do. Not even our own species has a society that is so well-checked, but maybe someday we well will.

Their worlds are not ours, but theirs is more holistic, more complete. It exists without our profound intellect. It exists with their violence, their dramas, their instincts and drives.

It is beyond the reason of my supposedly reasoning species. It shall remain so, forever untouched.

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tibetan fox vs. marmot

The 2019 winner of the London Museum of Natural History’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” is Bao Yongqing, who took this amazing predator-prey action shot on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. It shows a Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata) trying to catch a Himalayan marmot (Marmota himalayana).

In an interview with the photographer, it was revealed that the fox was a vixen with young that needed meat. Even after a long stalk on the marmot, the prey was not easily subdued. Other marmots came to its defense, which is something that our groundhogs would never do. The fox had do dive around the defensive marmot to get at its prey, but eventually, the targeted individual collapsed and fell to the fox’s jaws.

Tibetan foxes have only recently become well-known. The initial descriptions of them were based upon pelts, and it is only now that we have a popular concept of these foxes with their oddly-shaped, squared-off heads.

I was surprised that this species of marmot would engage in altruistic behavior. The marmot species I know best, the groundhog (Marmota monax) does not do this. They are way more solitary than those marmot species of Central Asia, though, and this social behavior can be of great benefit for life on the exposed ground.

This is a pretty cool photograph that reminds me of another winner. In 2015, a photograph of a red fox killing and eating an arctic fox in Canada won earned the photographer this same award.

So foxes killing things– well, that’s an award winner these days.

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elise pilarski

France has a long tradition of hound packs.  Indeed, France is a country where hounds are such a tradition that more breeds of scenthound originate there than any other.

For those of you who aren’t aware of these traditions, the French hound packs are quite similar to those of foxhounds or beagles in the US or the UK.  Yes, there are plenty of small-time houndsmen who run a few dogs, but these big packs are connected to mounted hunting.

Throughout France, these packs run deer. They used to run wolves, which are now a protected species.

A few days ago, Elise Pilarski was out walking her dogs in the Forest of Retz, when she encountered a pack of deer hounds*.  She phoned her partner that she was afraid the pack might attack her, and not long after, she was found dead. She had been attacked by dogs.

It is not clear if she had been attacked by the hounds or by her own dogs.  DNA tests are being conducted on the dogs in the pack and her own dogs. The pack apparently consisted of over 60 dogs, which is in keeping with the tradition of pack hunting.

Pilarski was pregnant, and she may have given off some sign of weakness towards the dogs, which could have elicited the attack response.  Her own dogs, at least one of which appears to be a bull-breed of some sort, might have caused problems with the pack as well.

When you have that many dogs in super prey drive and a competing group of dogs that could potentially become amped, there could be issues with predatory drift.

Once that many dogs enter that zone, it can be a dangerous situation.

This death was a tragedy, and we await DNA tests to see exactly what happened.

However, it is clear that new protocols are going to be necessary around pack hunts to ensure public safety.

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*Not to be confused with the Scottish deerhound, which is a sighthound.

 

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The Enduring One

 

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Ruminant ungulates are among the most amazing species that evolution has produced. Their multi-chambered stomachs give them an ability to turn what is essentially indigestible into energy. They are specialists in their diet, though most eat multiple species of plant, they are bound to eat plant matter. Their fortunes are dictated by the sun, the soil, and the rain. In abundant lands, all they must do is eat, eat and keep an eye or an ear open for the predators.

Their place in nature is meat on the hoof and pervasive predators of plants.  The white-tailed deer predates most of its predators in its ecosystems. The dire wolf,  the Armbruster’s wolf, the Edward’s wolf, the coyote,  and the gray wolf all were new on the land when the white-tails first blew their warning calls at them.  Same with the bobcat and the cougar and the Smilodon and the American lion.   In most of their range, a white-tail will never smell the faintest scent of a wolf or cougar.  The coyote and the bobcat and the odd predatory black bear take their toll, as does the human nimrod.

Humankind knew this continent only in the very recent past. Paleolithic Siberian hunters were the first to take their toll upon the deer. They were later replaced with Europeans and then the whole Anglo-American civilization came to the fore. It hunted the white-tailed deer nearly to extinction. Hides and meat, all of which could be sold the the highest bidder.

But this civilization, the one that almost did the species in, turned out to be its greatest benefactor. Hunting peoples were cleared off.  The age of plastics made leather from hides mostly irrelevant for most household use. Leisure hunters with money began to push for deer conservation and deer reintroduction.

And so the land was turned into this great deer thicket. The oak woods dropped the acorns, and acorns are fine tack for the deer, though their palate evolved in woods dominated with the great American chestnut.  It was felled by an invasive blight, so the deer know the acorn from the white and red oak as its primary food to fatten in the autumn and to corn them through the frigid days of winter.

Sportsmen plant food plots for them. They buy food at the feed store to feed them, which comes in many different brands and innovations.

Farms are being abandoned left and right. And the native lands are returning to thickets. These thickets are cut with the highways of deer. Vast herds of bison and elk are not making their cut upon the same land, so the thickets grow in thick and heavy. The tunnel trails through the jungles cannot accommodate a fully-grown human without the overgrowing branches holding back your wanderings.

The white-tailed deer is the enduring one, relishing the ruins of its North American kingdom, which has, for the moment,  been perfected for its existence. So they go with ruminant stomachs, turning the sunlight and carbon dioxide into muscle and fat.

They endure. And I suspect they will outlast us when it all comes crashing down as ecology’s laws catch up to us.

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guatemala black howler

Hybridization between species is aspect of evolution that is only just now becoming recognized as a force in evolution. It is sort of taking a biological app from one species and adapting it another, and most studies on this phenomenon look at the app adaptation aspect of hybridization.

However, hybridization is more often than not less advantageous from a natural selection standpoint. Although these “new apps” and heterosis might be good for hybrids, many hybrids are sterile. Or if they aren’t sterile, one sex will either be absent or sterile.

Species generally have mechanisms that prevent hybridization. Many of these are behavioral.   For example, related bird species often won’t exchange genes because the female are simply not attracted to the males’ songs.  But there are molecular responses against hybridization as well.

One of the most contentious hypotheses about hybridization between species is that of reinforcement. What this hypothesis contend is that when two species begin to hybridize readily, there will be a strong selection for greater genetic distance between the two hybridizing species. With greater genetic variation, it will be less likely that the two species will be able to produce viable offspring, and over time, there will be fewer hybrids in the population.

This hypothesis has not been tested much. However, a study of two species of howler monkey in the Mexican state of Tabasco revealed that, yes, reinforcement is a thing.

Mantled and Guatemalan black howler monkeys diverged from a common ancestor about 3 million years ago. The two species have only a narrow contact zone, which is thought to have formed only 10,000 years ago in this tiny part of Mexico.

The researchers examined loci of the genomes of specimens of both species, including those in the hybrid zone. They found that the genetic difference between the two species was greater at the hybrid zone than from monkeys that lived in other regions. This discovery supports the hypothesis of reinforcement.  The greater genetic difference between the two species at the hybrid zone means that this greater genetic difference likely has evolved as a way of keeping the two species from producing lots of hybrids, which might not be as fit or  as good at reproducing in the wild as pure ones.

This discovery of reinforcement means that we have another tool in sorting out whether two species make sense. If we discover that there is greater genetic difference at a hybrid zone between the two species, then we know that they really are quite taxonomically distinct.  If we find the opposite, it means that hybrids aren’t deleterious in the population, and hybridization is either advantageous or neutral for the populations.

Yes, I would like to see this hypothesis tested on the various hybridizing canid populations in the gray wolf species complex. My guess is that it doesn’t exist in these animals, because hybridization isn’t that deleterious. And the genetic divergence isn’t that great to start out with.

But this study gives us a good idea of how hybridization operates in populations, and how some populations evolve to restrict gene flow.

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cheetah

India’s supreme court is now seeing an interesting case in which taxonomy and endangered species politics converge to have real world consequences. The question is whether African cheetahs can replace Asiatic cheetahs on India’s plains.

Yes, for there were once cheetahs in India. Their traditional quarry was the blackbuck antelope, and many nobles in India kept cheetahs or “hunting leopards,” as the British colonizers called them, for coursing blackbuck.

Cheetahs were not just found in India.  They ranged throughout the Middle East up into the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the wild, this lineage of cheetah is found only in Iran, where they exist in only relict numbers.  In Iran, the situation is made even more complicated with an international human rights scandal in which several cheetah researchers were imprisoned.  Cheetahs have since been extirpated from all of Asia, except for that tiny Iranian population.

So India, a nation with growing wealth and a growing conservation ethic, cannot turn to Iran to reintroduce its former cheetahs.  With Iran out of the question, some experts have suggested that African cheetahs be used as stand-ins.

And this is where things get interesting. African cheetahs are not exactly like the ones in India. There is a bit of a debate about when the two lineages of cheetah split, with one set of papers and researchers suggesting a very recent split (5,000 years ago) and another suggesting a more ancient one (44,000-47,000 years ago).

40,000 years suggests way too much evolutionary distance between the two cheetah populations for African cheetahs to be equivalent of the Asiatic ones.

But even if we accept this later date, it is still not that much of a divergence. Currently, most experts recognize only a single species of red fox, but Old World and North American red foxes diverged 400,000 years ago.

African cheetahs have evolved to hunt on open plains. Various small antelopes comprise the majority of their diet. They are not ecologically that different from cheetahs that lived on the plains of India.

So they aren’t that genetically distinct from each other, and they aren’t ecologically that different either.

It would make sense to bring African cheetahs to India. Of course, the legal system and the interpretation of statutes often goes against sound conservation policy.

But if cheetahs are ever to return to India, the question is now in the hands of India’s supreme court.

I hope they decide that those from Africa can stand in. They are far from exact, but they are far from ersatz.

 

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black squrrel

As long-time readers of this blog know, the black coloration seen in North America and Italian wolves and in coyotes originated in domestic dogs. Indeed, the black coloration in North American wolves originated from a single introgression of a black domestic dog in the Northwest Territories or the Yukon between 1,598 and 7,248 years ago.  Of course, we now know that there is significant gene flow between dogs and certain populations of gray wolf and that this gene flow has been going on for some time.

I have often wondered about color genetics and gene flow between species. One species that is particularly beguiling for speculation for me was always the origin of melanism in Eastern gray squirrels. Melanistic Eastern gray squirrels are more common in Ontario, Quebec, and Michigan, but there are isolated populations south of these locations.

A new paper just published in BMC Biology revealed that melanism in Eastern gray squirrels most likely had its origins from hybridization with the fox squirrel.

Melanism has evolved twice in fox squirrels. The melanistic ones in the Southeast have a mutation called ASIP A3.  Melanistic Western fox squirrels have a mutation that causes a deletion in the MC1R. This allele is called MC1R∆24.

What is interesting is that melanistic Eastern gray squirrel have the same mutation.

The authors contend that the most likely explanation for this shared mutation is hybridization between fox and Eastern gray squirrels, although ancestral polymorphisms and earlier hybridization between gray squirrels and fox squirrels cannot be ruled out as possible origins either. However, The authors think it originated in fox squirrels because it resembles other fox squirrel MC1R haplotypes.

This finding is pretty interesting because I live where both species are common, and I use to live where there were lots of black gray squirrels.  I had read accounts of fox squirrels mating with gray ones, but the accounts I read said that no offspring resulted from the mating.

I assumed that the two species could not hybridize, and I still have not seen any literature that even suggests hybridization could occur until I read this paper.

More work is going to be needed to see exactly how this mutation originated and if there are other traits that originated in one species that now are found in the other.

And yes, there is that old wives’ tail that says that gray squirrels castrate fox squirrels to reduce the competition. What actually happens is that when squirrels are hunted in the early part of the season, the testicles shrink in size, so that they appear to have been castrated.

But I have never heard of these two species hybridizing. Indeed, it may be that the hybridization that transferred that particular mutation onto Eastern gray squirrels happened far back in the evolutionary history of both species, when they were still chemically interfertile.

However, they might still be able to hybridize. It is just that no one has ever documented a true hybrid between the two species.

But I am certainly open to the possibility.

So it is likely that black gray squirrels resulted from introgression, just as black wolves and coyotes do.

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