Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

Canis rufus

It should be noted that the bulk of the genomic data show that the creature called a “red wolf” is actually a hybrid between some now extinct population of wolves and coyotes. Indeed, the most in depth genome comparison study performed on wolves and coyotes not only revealed that “red” and “Eastern” wolves are hybrids, it also revealed that coyotes were recent derivatives from Eurasian wolves and not ancient North American jackals.  Thus, the whole population of wild Canis in North America is much more closely related than we assumed.

Most of the data supporting the red wolf’s validity as a species are based upon fossil and subfossil evidence, which tended to show that the creatures being bred for introduction in the wild look an awful lot like ancient North American wolves.

But it now seems that the animals running loose in North Carolina are actually wolves with lots of coyote ancestry.

That’s what the science is telling us, and as I noted back in 2011, when this evidence from genome-wide analyses was being published, that it wouldn’t be long before politicians noticed a problem and began to use red wolves to chip away at the ESA.

I support the ESA, but I’ve long thought that adhering to red and Eastern wolf paradigms could cause real problems with the act’s long-term viability.

I recently had the pleasure of reading Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf, which is a biography of a Yellowstone wolf named “O-Six.”  O-Six was the breeding female of the Lamar Valley pack, a wolf widely photographed in the park. She was a great elk hunter and mother, and because she was so well-known in the park, she became a sort of celebrity.

O-Six died from a hunter’s bullet, and her death never would have happened had the Democratic-controlled Senate not allowed a provision in a government funding bill to pass, which overturned a federal judge’s ruling that stopped a proposal that would have allowed Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to regulate wolves as a state matter.  It was allowed to pass in order to provide immunity to Montana’s incumbent Democratic Senator, Jon Tester, who was facing a tough re-election.

This political drama is carefully described in Blakeslee’s work, and although little was made of it at the time, this provision was the first time congress had intervened on ESA listing in this manner.

Flash forward to 2017, and it looks like the Republican-controlled congress is about to do the something similar to red wolves. Senator Lisa Murkowski has introduced a provision the bill funding the interior department that declares the red wolf extinct in the wild and cuts all funding for its recovery.

This is problematic on many fronts.

First of all, the Endangered Species Act was designed to use scientific evidence for listing and recovery efforts. For most of its existence, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has been left to use science for these efforts, but now congress has begun to intervene to affect endangered species policy citing political concerns only.

Part of the reason why congress is doing such a thing is that the US Fish and Wildlife service has pretty much been impervious to the growing data on what red wolves actually are. The bureaucracy still maintains Canis rufus as a species, but the evidence that it is a recently derived hybrid between the wolf and the coyote is pretty hard to ignore.

Whenever I’ve pointed out these problems, I’ve been called a wolf-hater and a right-winger and a Republican. I’m none of the three.

The problem is that wolves are political symbols.  Every wildlife conservation organization in the country uses wolves for fundraising. Wolves have two things going for them: they are the wild ancestors of dogs and they tend to recovery fairly quickly when not persecuted.  It is easy to turn the wolf into sort of the canine equivalent of the noble savage, a dog that lives in nature, wild and free, and with greater wisdom and intelligence than any mere cur of the street.

To others, the wolf is the federal government coming for your hunting rights, your farming enterprises, and your guns.

So we now have this dynamic in which our political issues with each other are being meted out over an animal.

This says much more about us than it does the actual biology of wolves and coyotes. We are fractious. We are at war with each other.

The romantic notions of a unique Southern wolf species has been racked convincing in depth genomic data that show it is hybrid have come to pass just at the same time that a resurgent right wing has taken over the US government at all three branches. This is a perfect storm for disaster for the Endangered Species Act.

Until the Republican majorities in congress are reduced significantly, the red wolf will ultimately be used to undermine the act.

It is a very sad state of affairs, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service clearly did a lot to anger sportsmen in Eastern North Carolina, as this thread clearly shows, and the Endangered Species Act will not last if this sort of implementation is ever repeated again.

No real solution for this problem exists. I would put money on the red wolf being delisted. I should be glad that the ESA has gone onto preserve other predators, like the Mexican wolf and Florida panther, but because it is happening in this fashion, it could be a real disaster.

And all because of this wolf, not a real species at all, but one in which many lines of nonsense on both sides have been written.







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gordon buchanan wolf

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

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

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

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

What does this have to do with dogs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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A Yellowstone wolf sounding hauntingly familiar:

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I’m so glad these taxonomy issues are being raised on a popular science Youtube series:

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This is “Mr. Ethiopian wolf,” pretty much the world’s leading expert on the species:

There is a very interesting discussion in the Q and A portion about the introgression of dog genes into Ethiopian wolves and why that’s not necessarily always a bad thing.

The current research is working toward a full genome sequence of the Ethiopian wolf, and if they are like coyotes and “Holarctic” wolves, I bet there will be some surprises in store.


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I have to admit that I am bit of a Joe Rogan Experience fan. I generally watch the podcasts that are about politics, hunting, and animals. I’m not really into pugilism stuff.

I actually came to Steven Rinella’s work through Joe Rogan’s program, and a few years ago, he mentioned something about Dan Flores and his work on the “American Serengeti,” which is actually a book by Flores that I have not read.  It is about the megafauna of the North American Great Plains, and it is a topic I’m somewhat interested in.

But as you know from reading this blog, I am a big coyote fan. I have had an experience with a male coyote in the woods, which I blogged about right after it happened I blogged about right after it happened, and I’ve written some more literary accounts of this encounter (but not for public consumption yet).

I then heard that Flores had a book about coyotes that came out, and I decided to read it.

And I didn’t like it.

I found that he adhered way too much to the paleontology of canids and pretty much ignored all the latest molecular data. At one point in the book, he makes the comparison that the genetic difference between a coyote and wolf is like the genetic difference between a human and an orangutan.  I think that assertion comes from an mtDNA study from 1993, which was the first to say that dogs were wolves and that “red wolves” had no unique mtDNA haplotypes.  It posited a 4% difference in the mtDNA sequence from wolves and coyotes, which is pretty accurate.  (Ironically, this study comes from Robert Wayne of UCLA, whom Flores largely discounts in his interview with Rogan at about 22 minutes.)

But mtDNA studies are notorious for leading people astray when we’re dealing with closely related species that can and do hybridize. For example, initial studies on mtDNA in European wolves found no evidence of dog hybridization, but because virtually all matings between dogs and wolves in the wild involve a male dog mating with a female wolf, the influence of dog genes in European wolves never could be accurately measured. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, and thus, it misses a lot of genetic information.

More recent full-genome analyses have revealed a greater than 99 percent genetic relationship among wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs. That’s not at all equivalent to the genetic distance between humans and orangutans. In fact, we know that domestic dogs, coyotes, and wolves readily hybridize and produce fertile offspring, and no hybrids between a human and orangutan has ever been documented.

Flores pretty much rejects off-hand the more recent genome-wide studies that have found red and Eastern wolves to be hybrids with wolves and coyotes because Robert Wayne and his colleagues do not use morphological studies or pay much attention to the fossil record of canids in North America.  And the Fish and Wildlife Service adheres to the red and Eastern wolf paradigm.

I’m going to defend Wayne and his colleagues here.  You really need to be careful about morphological studies in canids.  That’s because canids can evolve quite rapidly, and there is a great tendency toward parallel evolution in the family.  I can remember when it was seriously discussed that the bush dogs of South America were a potential close relative of the dhole, based solely upon their “trenchant heel dentition.”  We now know that the bush dog is very much in the South American canid clade, probably a close relative to the maned wolf.  Until very recently, it was believed that the diminutive coyote-like golden jackals of Africa were the same species as the golden jackal of Eurasia, but a recent mtDNA study suggests a much great variance– enough to consider them separate species.  The similarities between the two forms of golden jackal likely resulted from parallel evolution.  The African “golden jackals” are actually much more closely related to wolves and coyotes, and the name “golden wolf” has been suggested for them.

This tendency to evolve rapidly is something we see in the domestic dog. Every single kennel club critic blog posts photos of dog breeds from different periods to show how much breeds change through selective breeding.  Nature selectively breeds, too, and dogs in the wild can rapidly change to fit new niches.

These issues are going to confound virtually every study on canid evolution.  This is one reason why we have nothing resembling a consensus on dog domestication. It is very hard to figure out when a sub-fossil wolf is a dog or is too much like a wolf to be a dog.

This is why I trust molecular studies far more than paleontology, and it is why I think the Fish and Wildlife Service is largely misguided in trying to hold onto the red wolf paradigm. It is possible that a recent wolf and coyote hybrid is going to look a lot like an ancient wolf-like canid, and the amount of convergence between the two can be enough to fit character-based analysis that paleontologists and anatomists use.

Also, the Fish and Wildlife Service is government, and in the US, government moves quite slowly.  I think it is going to take some time before the molecular data finally corrects these errors, but it doesn’t stop them from being errors.

The comparison of full genomes of wolves and coyotes that came out last summer pretty much ended this debate. Unless you’re going to argue over fossils, which is a dubious undertaking, I don’t think we can say that red wolves, Eastern wolves, or coyotes are what we thought they were.

Granted, Flores probably had the book at the publisher’s by the time this study came out, but the fact that he adheres to the old paradigm because Wayne and Wayne’s colleagues didn’t look at the fossils is pretty troubling.

If I were to rewrite Flores’s taxonomy, I would argue that coyotes have nothing to do with Canis edwardii.  That species was an early North American wolf that went extinct, and it could have been related to virtually any species in the genus Canis, including really divergent things like black-backed jackals.

The comparative genome study found that the most recent common ancestor of the wolf and coyote didn’t live 3.2 million years ago, as Flores asserts. Instead, it lived around 50,000 years ago, and it probably was living in Eurasia at the time. This animal was probably an archaic form of Canis lupus or maybe Canis mosbachensis.

When this animal crossed in North America, ancient North American wolves already dominated the landscape. There were also coyote-like forms of wolf, which likely weren’t coyotes at all.  The packing hunting wolf niche was already occupied by dire wolves and ancient North American dholes, so this radiation of the Eurasian wolf had to become more of a generalist to survive. The larger wolves, like the dire wolf, and the various forms of large predatory cat killed this ancestral coyote, and over time, it evolved into a smaller jackal-like canid.  This is how the coyote likely evolved the fission-fusion strategy of existence that Flores writes about. When the numbers are high, coyotes form stable packs and have relatively few young. They hunt mid-sized prey. When numbers are lower, they hunt rodents and lagomorphs, and female coyotes actually have a hormone change when the numbers are low and produce more ova during their estrus cycles. The females mate at 10 months instead of 22 months, and with more ova produced and more bitches breeding, the population can easily recover from a dire wolf or Smilodon attack. This is also why killing coyotes can actually force their numbers up, and it is one reason our intense persecution of coyotes has resulted in them spreading North, South, and to the East,

This is something that would have evolved in a mid-sized canid in the presence of many other large predators.  The fission-fusion strategy has just recently been confirmed in the Cape subspecies of black-backed jackal, which is another smaller canid that has evolved around large predators.

The Cape black-backed jackal is sort of the coyote of Southern Africa.  It is  generalist predator and scavenger, and it actually does cooperatively hunt small antelope species. It also kills sheep and goats.

It is not, however, closely related to wolves or coyotes. It is a very divergent form of Canis, which may actually be given its own genus (Lupelella) in the near future.  It has evolved coyote-like strategies for survival entirely in parallel with the coyote of North America.

This tendency toward parallel and convergent evolution in wild dog species is something that really messes up paleontology and morphological studies, and that is why the genome-wide studies are such compelling evidence. I’m dead-certain that many dinosaur specialists would love to have genomes from descendants of T. rex or the triceratops.

But those animals, like the ancient wolf- and coyote-like canids of North America, have left no descendants.

And what we likely have is a very diverse Holarctic wolf species that includes mid-size convergent jackals, massive megafauna-hunting wolves in taiga of Canada, the desert wolves of South Asia, and the all the weird domestic dogs that we have now.

That’s every bit as amazing as the older paradigm. Of course, I’m a bit of a rogue for suggesting that we include coyotes in the wolf species, but it seems to be right if we hare to adhere to cladistic classification.

This poor understanding of genetic studies actually ruined what could have been a great book on coyotes.

If you’ve ever looked into a coyote’s eyes, it is like looking into the eyes of a very bright dog.  They have so many dog-like mannerism that is hard not to see the similarity.

But you’re actually looking into the eyes of a super wolf.  This is the wolf that took all we could throw it at, and it thrived beyond our wildest expectations.

In Anthropocene, the meek do inherit the earth.

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dire wolf mesomelas

Yep. This was an April Fools’ prank.

That’s okay. I had one pulled on me last night at the cabin where we were fishing. About 10 o’clock last night, my dad shouts “Oh my God! There is a bear in the trash!”

By the time everyone had rushed to the windows to see– and I had just been roused from slumber– it was soon revealed there was no bear.

Yes, and just as there was no bear, all that was in the post about the dire wolf’s genome being closely allied to black-backed jackals is utter nonsense.

But I have always imagined that this was a possibility, because I think our assumption that dire wolves were very closely related to modern wolves really hasn’t been tested out empirically.  We have some phylogenetic trees drawn from paleontological analysis, but one must be very careful of these studies. Parallel evolution is a very common occurrence in canids, and I’ve come to the conclusion that everything one reads about paleontology and canids needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

So yes, it’s an April Fool, but it is a definite possibility.

Oh, and please don’t hate on my dodgy “photoshop.”

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