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Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

A black Italian wolf. The black trait originated in dogs and was transferred to Italian and North American wolves through introgression.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I consider dogs to be a form of gray wolf.  I do not consider Canis familiaris to be a valid taxon, because of cladistics and because of the gene flow between domestic dogs and wolves.

The extent of this gene flow was largely denied in much of the literature on wolves.  But last year, it was discovered that the majority of Eurasian wolves have recent dog ancestry. This gene flow has been going on for a while, and although people do get a bit worked up about domestic animal genes filtering into a wild species, it has been shown that the melanism in wolves that is conferred by a dominant allele originated in a Native American dog that was living in the Yukon or the Northwest Terrtories thousands of years before Columbus. Further, this melanistic allele is associated with higher immune responses, and there is evidence for natural selection favoring black individuals following a distemper outbreak.

In a paper released this week in the European Journal of Wildlife Research found extensive crossbreeding between dogs and wolves in agricultural landscapes in Central Italy.  The authors estimate that about half of all wolves in this region have recent dog ancestry, and they think it is because humans have disturbed wolf habitat to have agriculture.

Of course, humans, wolves, and dogs have been living in Italy alongside agriculture for thousands of years. Dogs and wolves have been mating ever since there was a population of somewhat domesticated wolves.

Further, European wolves are much better adapted than North American wolves to living in agricultural areas.  It may simply be that North Americans are much more likely to kill wolves that appear in agricultural areas and that this is what has created this asymmetry. But North American wolves tend to be in remote areas, where they rarely encounter dogs. Thus, there is not as much gene flow between dogs and North American wolves as there is between dogs and Eurasian wolves.

There is a lot of gene flow between dogs and coyotes in North America, and this finding does make sense. Coyotes do live in agricultural and urban areas much more easily than large wolves do.

I don’t think it worth becoming alarmed that dogs and wolves are mating in the wild.  Dogs have lots of interesting mutations that could be of great use to wolves as they adapt to more and more human-dominated planet. If the dog alleles are deleterious, nature will select against them, but if they are advantageous, they will help wolves thrive into the future.

So it is quite short-sighted to think of wolves as being a some sort of pure entity that must be kept free of “foreign” alleles.  If it were more widely accepted that dogs were just a domestic form of gray wolf, we would have a much easier time accepting a more holistic understanding to how these populations can continue exchange genes and adapt to new challenges.

 

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yakutian megafaunal wolf

The Siberian Times reports that the head of a massive wolf was discovered in the permafrost in Yakutia (Sakha Republic of Russia).  The head includes much of the soft tissue, as well as its golden-colored fur. The head is 40 cm (15. 7 inches long), which is pretty large when compared to modern wolf specimens.

Researchers in Russia and Japan will be examining the DNA from the soft tissue to see where it fits in modern wolf and dog phylogeny of which there are still many questions.

This wolf is a good example of what have been termed “megafaunal wolves,” very large gray wolves that lived during the Pleistocene. Robert Wayne of UCLA, a leading canid molecular geneticists, thinks that some form of Pleistocene megafaunal wolf is the progenitor of the domestic dog.  These wolves would have been expert hunters of large bison, reindeer, and horses, and they may have been semi-nomadic, following large herds of ungulates across the steppes and taiga. These semi-nomadic wolves would have been quite easily attached to humans, who were hunting and traveling in much the same way.

Also of note, this wolf has golden colored fur.  In 2015, I postulated a speculative hypothesis that the original Pleistocene wolves were more often golden in color, rather than gray.  When humans started hunting wolves extensively during the Neolithic and into modern times, wolves that were gray were selected for because they could more easily hide from human hunters. Gray color in the dead of winter in many European and Western Asian forests would have been great camouflage against the winter tree trunks and undergrowth of the forest.

Some wolves, especially tundra wolves from northern Russia and Finland, are still often golden in color, as are those in Central Asia.

Golden sable color is quite widespread in domestic dogs, but it is far less common in wolves. So it is quite possible that this coloration is so dominant in domestic dogs because the wolves that gave rise to them were this color.

This massive wolf with golden fur certainly adds some credence to my speculations, but only time will tell what this ancient, massive wolf’s head has in store for us.

But is an amazing find. No doubt about it!

Update: Researchers in Sweden, not Japan or Russia, will be examining its DNA. 

 

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isle royale wolf

This year, several wolves were relocated from Minnesota and Ontario’s Michipicoten Island to Isle Royale.  These wolves were brought to the island to restore a moribund wolf population that had dwindled down to two individuals in the autumn 2018. These wolves had been suffering from a severe inbreeding depression, and because ice bridges almost never form in Lake Superior to connect the island to mainland Minnesota, it has become virtually impossible for wolves to walk to the island and add new genes to the population.

Climate change is, of course, to blame for this problem, but it also means that the island’s wolf and moose population dynamics that have been studied for decades are now going to be managed through occasional introductions of wolves that are not related to those living on the island.

Over the next few years, as many as 30 wolves will be released upon the island. This will create diverse founding population from which several packs can form.

But it now means that the biology of Isle Royale’s wolves will be managed by people.  People will be bringing new wolves to the island, not the ice bridges.

And we will be doing it for the rest of time.

This situation leads to certain questions about Isle Royale as a truly natural system. It is not. It is sort of a wildlife reservation in which two relatively rare species in the Upper Midwest are given a sort of illusory freedom to live in a way in which humans will mostly leave them alone.

But it’s not at all a Pre-Columbian ecosystem. Indeed, the main species that inhabited Isle Royale were Canada lynx and woodland caribou, both of which aren’t found there at all.  A population of coyotes also lived there, but the wolves made short work of them when they came over in the middle part of the twentieth century.

I do support the restoration of wolves to Isle Royale, but it is like everything else to do with wolves in this era. Some wolves in Alaska, far northern Canada, and Russia might still have lives that are true wilderness areas. Many of those wolves may never see a person in their entire lives.

But the wolves that live Western and Eastern Europe and Southern Canada and the Lower 48 live is worlds that are still dominated in by humans. Even if humans do leave behind some wild areas, the human footprint upon their lives is not inconsequential.

Humans have changed the climate, which has made ice bridges far less common in the Great Lakes.

Humans have also destroyed woodland caribou populations. Only a single herd of woodland caribou can be found in the Lower 48, and it dwindled down to a single individual, which was captured this winter.

Humans have pushed the Canada lynx into a range that essentially is just Canada and the Northern Rocky Mountain states.

Humans have made it so that wolves do very well in three Great Lakes states, but they don’t really exist anywhere else in the Midwest. They are absent from New England and Appalachians.

But they have Isle Royale and lots of moose to hunt.

We will give them that. It is the least we can do. And we will continue to learn from them in the deepest hopes that we can save some of them and the habitat they need to thrive. And if we can save a bit for them, maybe we can save ourselves, as the planet warms and politicians either do little to nothing or deny the looming threat as a hoax from some malevolent body.

So we will manage the wolf population now. This management will come from addition, while in the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest, the management will come from subtraction. In a few years, the rest of the wolves in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin will be managed with the minus sign.

And it will have to do. Because that’s what our civilization will tolerate.

 

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In most of the US, coyotes, people, and domestic dogs live quite close to each other, and there are certainly conflicts. Coyotes can behave as predators toward small dogs and cats, and when someone loses a pet to a coyote, it is a truly sad event.

One idea that seems to be out there is that coyotes lure dogs to their death. This is an old cowboy story, but it goes this way. A coyote runs up to a dog that you’re walking. They coyote tries to play with the dog, and most dogs will play with the coyote. The coyote runs away the dog, taking it back into the cover where its pack then leaps upon the dog and kills and eats it.

These events may happen, but I doubt they are as common as people assume.  What is actually going when something like this happens isn’t anything planned out by the coyotes. Coyotes generally don’t regard dogs that are their size or larger as being distinct species.

Coyotes are socially monogamous. Only one female per territory has a litter every year, but very often, offspring from the previous year will remain with their parents. They will often be on a look out for a potential mate, and if one these young, unpaired coyotes discovers a dog, it might try to flirt with the dog.

The problem happens when the flirting coyote, usually a young female, takes the dog back to meet the parents. Coyotes generally hate when dogs get near their dens and rendezvous sites, and the parents may attack their daughter’s new boyfriend.  These encounters almost always occur during mating and denning seasons.

They may kill the dog, if the dog is of the right size and the coyote pack is large enough. However, they never planned out that they were going to kill a dog in this fashion. That is attributing far higher reasoning powers upon an animal than the animal possesses.

Large and mid-sized dogs are not easy prey for coyotes. They have jaws and sharp teeth, and even if a pack were to swarm a large dog, the risks of injury are quite high.  Coyotes are generally smart enough to avoid taking unnecessary risks with their prey sources.

So the idea that coyotes have a predation strategy that involves luring dogs into their deaths is based upon a faulty understanding of coyote behavior.

And it is a textbook example of projection. Why do I say this?

Well, one well-known method for hunting coyotes involves using decoys dogs.  During the denning and mating season, a coyote hunter will play coyote howls or prey in distress sounds.  These sounds, when played in a sequence, will tell a resident coyote pair that a poacher is upon their land.

When the coyotes come in to investigate, a well-trained, mid-sized dog is sent out. This dog, called the “decoy dog,” plays the role of the poaching coyote that was howling and killing prey on their territory. The coyotes rush the dog. The dog annoys them, and when the coyotes decide to come in strong, the dog runs back toward the hunter who then shoots the coyotes.

This way of coyote hunt is essentially the same as the behavior ascribed to coyotes when they are alleged to lure dogs away.

Indeed, I bet if we actually knew the real numbers, dogs are responsible for killing more coyotes than coyotes are for killing dogs. Not only are dogs used to hunt coyotes in the way that I just described. but there are plenty of scenthounds, curs, HPRs, and coursing dogs that are maestros at taking out coyotes.

Because coyotes are so controversial and often so reviled,  very few people have questioned the behavioral sequences that lie behind that old cowboy story.

I am not denying that coyotes can and do kill dogs. I know that conflicts between humans and coyotes are very real, and they often can only be addressed through lethal means. I am also not opposed to coyote hunting, because hunting them can be a way of keeping the peace between coyotes and farming and hunting interests.

But we do animals a disservice when we attribute human characteristics upon them, whether it is to confer positive or negative intent. We need to accept that animals are animals and appreciate what they really are.

 

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This video shows coyotes hunting very much like larger wolves, but it also shows you an odd thing about mule deer.

Mule deer stick together. Mule deer that are not related to a fawn will come in to defend it, while white-tail does defend only their fawns. This makes some sense. White-tails evolved in dense forests where it was pretty easy to hide fawns, while mule deer evolved in open country. Kin selection would favor the genes of mule deer that were willing to come in and defend fawns of related does.

So this is really amazing footage, which shows can cooperatively hunt very much like wolves. These are Western coyotes, which typically aren’t thought of as pack-hunters, but under certain conditions, they absolutely can work as a pack.

I like the way this elk hunter clearly stated that we shouldn’t kill every coyote we see and definitely sees a place for them in the ecosystem.

Mule deer aren’t as numerous as they once were. They have definite habitat requirements, unlike white-tails, which live in virtually every town in the East. Since wolves have been extirpated from most of the West, is it possible that increased coyote numbers could be affecting mule deer populations (even at the margins)?

We know that when wolves came to Yellowstone, they cut the coyote population by half.  Wolves are not major predators of pronghorn, but coyotes take many of their fawns.  When wolves kicked the coyote numbers down a bit, the pronghorn population began to recover significantly.

Wolves certainly do hunt mule deer, but in the West, they have options to go after elk and moose.  Coyotes might take elk and moose calves, but they aren’t likely to be a problem for most mature individuals.

Maybe something similar is going here, but I should caution that the real problem facing mule deer in the West is habitat loss, and although predator control can fix the problem at the margins, it won’t solve the habitat problem.

 

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When you’re super-generalist, like a coyote:

99 problems coyote

This works best if you pronounce “niche” the American way.  I know. I don’t like the way it sounds either.

 

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Something to admire about a coyote

coyote

Whenever this civilization met coyotes, be at Jamestown, the Indiana frontier, or along the Missouri River, our relations with them were not cordial. We came out of Europe. Europe had waged war on wolves, where wolf attacks on people and livestock were certainly a problem, but in the lands that became the United States, predators were cleared off.  The bigger forms of wolf held on in northern Minnesota and in the Texas and Louisiana pine woods.

The lead flew at the wolfy kind. So did the steel trap and poison. The coursing dog did its work, as did the tracking hound and the big grappling hunting bulldog or mastiff.

And the coyote, instead of becoming reduced to a mere relict range, wound up colonizing a whole continent. Coyotes are in Newfoundland and Alaska. They have expanded to the south as well, and now coyotes rest at the edge of the swamps of Darien in Panama. Beyond those swamps lies Colombia and a whole new continent to wander through.

This little wolf, which once picked at the dire wolf and Smilodon’s kills, thrives because of our persecution. We have killed countless numbers of coyotes over the years, and they now live nicely in virtually every city in the country. Everyone lives near coyotes now. They don’t have to worry about larger predators driving them or killing them. They can live nicely on garbage and cats and the fruit from our ornamental trees.

There is something to admire about an animal that thrives in part because we’ve changed the ecosystems so much. The coyote is the biggest and most charismatic (and the most problematic) of these species, but the raccoon, the red fox, the skunk, the barred owl, and the opossum have all had their fortunes rise as we have “settled” this continent.

They are these barbarous dogs, unchained, uncollared, and untrained, that come slipping in.  We hate their liberty in the same way we hate a free-roaming dog, but we hate them more because they are the wolf we just couldn’t kill off.

We tried. Their biology just laughed at our vain attempts. And they are here, there, and everywhere to stay as the Anthropocene trundles on.

They got their start running the jackrabbits, which is one reason they can run with the swiftness and agility of a sighthound, and now, in their current hybrid “Eastern” form, they moved from lifting fawns from the coverts and have grown bigger and more wolfy to run down the adults.

This is a thriving beast, a utilitarian model that can live as a mousing fox, a scavenging jackal, or pack up and hunt like a proper wolf.

And you have to admire that versatility, that cunning, even if you hate them with every fiber of your being.

They got us buffaloed. And we didn’t see it coming.  It got our goat, because it watched where we tied it up.

 

 

 

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