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Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

Any time someone from the Lower 48 goes to Alaska, the instant question that comes up on return is the traveler encountered a wolf.

The answer for me is simply no, and I knew fully well there were very low odds of me seeing a wolf. I live where there are tons of coyotes, and I see one about every six months. They are very good at keeping themselves hidden from people, and from what I’ve read about wild wolves, it is even more true about wolves.

Some members of my family went to the Kroschel Wildlife Center and saw a tame wolf named Isis. (I was told that she would not stop howling during their entire visit!).

My best chance at seeing a wild wolf was at Denali, but there is a catch to that story.

Denali National Park is roughly the size of Massachusetts. It’s full of moose, Dall sheep, caribou, beaver, and porcupines.

You’d think that place would be full of wolves, but it’s not.

In fact, a place that size really can’t hold as many wolves as it does wolf prey. Because wolves are top predators, they just can’t exist in such large numbers, and that fact is true regardless if you’re talking about wolves in Denali, cheetahs in Namibia, or lions in the Gir Forest.

So even in the best of times, there would always be just a few wolves roaming the park. They would be laid on pretty thinly on the land.

But these are not the best of times for wolves in Denali.

The traditional “buffers” that have been set up near the park that prevented legal wolf hunting and trapping near the park were lifted in 2010, and the wolf population went from 147 wolves in 2007 to 49 wolves in 2015.

49 wolves over a land the size of Massachusetts.

49 is still more than the number of wolves living in actual Massachusetts, which may be 0 wolves. It may not be, though. One was killed in Massachusetts in 2008, and one or two  could be lurking somewhere in the Berkshires, where they may mistaken for big coyotes.

But 49 is roughly a third of what the population was nearly a decade ago. My chances of seeing a wolf in Denali were 45 percent in 2010. They were 5 percent in 2015.

One of the best things I did at the park was take a hiking nature tour. My tour guide was very well-informed about wolf issues, and she told us about a wolf following one of her tour groups. There was no fear involved, but when someone in the party pointed out that a wolf was following them, she was certain it was a dog. She was very surprised to see that it was a wolf, and it was close.

The wolf ran off, of course.

But she also told the story of what happened to the East Fork wolf pack. This is the famous wolf pack that Adolph Murie studied. They were the wolves that were featured prominently in The Wolves of Mt. McKinley. This was the pack to which Wags, Murie’s tame wolf belonged.

Right now, the pack exists as only a single female. Her mate was killed on state land near the park entrance. She also had a litter, but I’ve not been able to find out what exactly happened to them. (I was there just a few days after this story came out on Alaska NPR).

I understand that Alaska has to balance interests between outfitters, who want predator control and liberal predator hunting allowances, and the desire of the American people to have relatively intact ecosystems in our national parks.

I get it.

I get that Canis lupus isn’t an endangered species worldwide, and it certainly isn’t an endangered species in Alaska, where the species is still going strong.

But it seems just a little perverse that we cannot maintain those buffers once again. I came thousands of miles to see wilderness where wolves might be.

I am okay with knowing they might be. I don’t have to see them. I just need to know they are there.

We had a small enough tour group that the guide and I got to talk about wolves a bit. She talked about her cocker spaniel and how that dog was far more rugged than she looked. The dog had been on many back country trips, and she wondered how closely related her spaniel was to those wolves.

Pretty close.

But still far enough away.

 

 

 

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One of the pleasures of my Alaska trip was meeting Nick Jans. Nick Jans is the author of A Wolf Called Romeo, which is the story of the black wolf that came out to play with free-running dogs at Juneau’s Mendenhall Glacier.

I may have written a few things on Romeo on this blog before. He was just that fascinating an animal. Most wolves want to off the dogs they encounter. This one decided to become friends with them and even tolerate the humans who came with them.

The book is a wonderful discussion of wolves and dogs and people and what they truly mean to us and what we mean to them. It also tells the story of an odd wolf, who lived out six incredible years running and playing with the local domestic dog contingent.

The story does not have a happy ending, but the story of a wolf coming to trust people and dogs is something so amazing that you would have to look into the fiction of Jack London to find something even remotely similar.

But this is a true story.

If you would like to know more about Romeo, Jans gave a talk on the ship about the book that was an abbreviated version of this one:

My friend Bronwen Dickey wrote a review of the book in the New York Times I just happened to have been the one who mentioned the book to her over two years ago, and I guess I played a tiny role in getting this book the wonderful review it received.

I received a copy of The Giant’s Hand, which is Jans’s new collection of short stories about life in the Inupiaq Village of Ambler  and his experiences in Alaska’s far north.

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The prose in each of these stories is so beautiful. He really can capture the essence of a place with words in a way that very few modern writers are able to match.

I particularly love the stories that include the exploits of Clarence Wood, an Inupiaq hunter and wolf trapper. He is a man of particular genius about the land and its wild inhabitants, but his way of phrasing things is just so perfect if a bit eccentric.

My favorite is: “Too much think about bullshit. That’s what makes you nervous.”

I think I may have to put this on a rock somewhere.

My favorite story in the book thus far is “Crossing Paths.” It is a kind of future warning about Romeo. In the story, Jans meets a red fox near his home, and wanting to get to know it better, he starts leaving out bits of food for it. Things go well until a neighbor shoots it for fear it might be rabid.

Jans has a philosophical discussion in the story about how much wild even Alaskans are willing to tolerate. The truth is that everyone has some limit.

Romeo was not fed to bring him near to humans. He merely came by to socialize with dogs and a few select people.

But Romeo wound up like that poor red fox in the arctic. He wasn’t taken because there was a fear he might be rabid. He was killed by two poachers who just wanted to cause trouble.

As a species, we have a very odd relationship with the wild. We admire it. We want to be part of it. But we also want it to be on our terms.

Like it or not, we’ve long since left the garden. We can only be visitors here, but some of us can truly be at home for a while.

And that’s the best we can do. Unfortunately.

It goes without saying that this book is the best souvenir I’ve ever brought home. I mean I do have a t-shirt from the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, but nothing can compare to this book.

This was the trip of a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

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wolf eats sea otter

Full story.

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Source.

One dead moose sure can feed a lot of creatures!

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Warning: Pretty graphic footage.

Source.

Klara, the Swedish elkhound/Jämthund, managed to survive the attack, but she was pretty severely injured.

The way moose (“elk” in every other part of the world but North America) are hunting parts of Scandinavia is that a barking elkhound encounters the quarry and then it spends as much time yapping at the moose to keep it from running off. This give hunters an opportunity to locate the moose and then kill it.

There are often brags about these dogs barking at moose for days on end, but with the growing population of wolves in Sweden, all this barking does arouse their territorial instincts. The fact that these barking elkhounds are often some distance from human hunters furthers the risk.

This is precisely the problem that bear hunters are encountering in the Great Lakes States, where there is long tradition of letting hounds run black blears. Baying hounds arouse territorial wolves and even the stoutest bear hounds have been massacred in these encounters.

So with wolves expanding their range, it’s very likely that conflicts with owners of hunting dogs are going to increase.

Which makes conservation issues that much more complicated.

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Wolves come in many colors. The black ones, as we know, have their origin in domestic dogs, which crossed with wild wolves. The revelation intrigued me when it came out in early 2009, and I am always thinking of what color might mean when it comes to the evolution of wolves and dogs.

I have noticed that there are many photos of wolves from Finland that have an unusual color. Most European wolves (Canis lupus lupus) are dark gray sable, the classic “wolf color,” but in Finland, there seem to be more than a few wolves that appear to be golden in color. The wolves have varying amounts of sabling on their pelts, and some are what we would call “clear sables” if they were domestic dogs, as we can see the photos of “Susi,” the famous Swedish wolf that came from Finland or Russia.

It is possible that this coloration also has its origin in domestic dogs. There are rumors that the Russians turned out wolfdogs on the Finnish border, but there are always rumors about Russians and their deeds.

Of course, the Finns have always owned dogs of this color, and it is now known that some of these hunting and herding spitz breeds are derived from wolf and dog crosses. It is possible that the gene flow has worked both ways between these spitzes and Finnish wolves. Indeed, it is probably quite likely.

However, there is another possibility that is also worth considering.  In late 2013, Olaf Thalmann and Robert Wayne published a paper that compared samples of ancient mitochondrial DNA from the remains wolves, dogs, and possible transitional forms between wolves and dogs from Europe were compared to modern dogs and wolves. In this analysis, samples from dingoes and basenjis were included in order to get samples from dog populations that had long been isolated from the main dog population.  All modern dogs, including dingoes, are very close to these ancient European wolves in terms of their mitochondrial ancestry. Mitochondrial DNA alone can lead people astray when tracing evolution and ancestry, but the fact that dingoes were closest to these European canids really does point to a strong possibility that dogs were domesticated by European hunter-gatherers at some point between 18,800–32,100  years ago.

It is also interesting to me that almost all dingoes and many, many pariah and primitive dogs are red or yellow sables like these wolves. I wonder if these yellow Finnish wolves represent a sort of throwback to the ancestral European wolf population that gave rise to domestic dogs. Perhaps the majority of the ancient European wolves were golden in color.

Yellow wolves do occur in the Middle East, China, and South Asia,  and China and the Middle East have been suggested to be places where dog domestication first happened.  However, none of these wolves have been linked to dogs through ancient DNA samples in the same way the ancient wolves of Europe have been.

Of course, the questions about the yellow wolves of Finland could be answered in much the same way the questions about the origins of the black wolves of North America were.

But there is something to these golden wolves that does need some exploration.

Maybe they are the result of dog and wolf gene flow. Maybe they are just a local unique mutation.

Or maybe they are a flash of gold that tells us a bit about the past.

DNA nalysis on ancient remains has already revealed that dappled and black horses were in the wild Pleistocene horse populations, but no similar studies have been performed on the remains of ancient wolves or dogs.

Maybe there really is something to these yellow Finnish wolves that just a pretty coat.

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Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features.

Egyptian jackal or African wolf with golden jackal and wolf-like features. From “Roosevelt in Africa” (1910).

One the strange ironies about dogs is that we have set up a system in which populations are maintained without regular influxes of new blood. However, at no point in the evolutionary history was this ever the case.

Some dog fanciers maintain breeds as if they were distinct species, and in some breeds, one can find lore that they are derived from sort of wild canid that has nothing to do with wolves or the rest of dogdom. Chihuahuas are supposedly domestic variants of the fennec fox. The Japanese chin was said to be distinct species that belonged to its own genus.

But no matter how you slice it, domestic dogs are all one species, and what is even more important, the more we have found out about the genome and that of their closest relatives, the harder it becomes to think of them as a distinct species from the wolf.

And if that weren’t such a revelation, it really gets more bizarre when we have no learned that wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes are not the cut-and-dry species we assumed them to be. In Eastern Canada and the Northeastern US and Midwestern US, we have discovered that wolves and coyotes have hybridized a whole lot more than we realized. We have also found evidence that golden jackals and wolves have hybridized in Bulgaria. Both coyotes and golden jackals can cross with wolves or domestic dogs and produce fertile offspring.

To make things more complicated, it turns out that wolves and golden jackals have continued to exchange genes since the two species separated. A recent genome-wide study of modern dogs, wolves, and golden jackals revealed that Eurasian wolves and golden jackals continued to mate with each other after their initial separation. The authors found substantial gene flow between golden jackals and Israeli wolves, as well as the ancestral population to all wolves and domestic dogs.

Most North Americans are aware of the taxonomic controversies involving coyote and wolf hybrid populations, including the red wolf and the proposed “Eastern wolf” species, but it turns out that this problem also exists in the Old World.

There is now a debate as to whether certain sub-Saharan  and North African golden jackals are golden jackals or wolves. A few years ago, there were several studies that suggested that the mitochondrial DNA of certain African golden jackals were actually those of a primitive wolf lineage. There is still some debate as to whether these animals are wolves or jackals, and some of the proposed wolves have been found to hybridize with golden jackals in Senegal.

In utter ignorance of the natural history of wild Canis, domestic dog fanciers have spent the past century to century and half splitting up gene pools under the delusion that this somehow preserves them.  Never mind that for most of their suggested 2 or 3 million years on the planet, wild wolves have continued to exchange genes with their closest relatives. When species hybridize, it was always thought that this would be a negative, but in truth, hybridization can be source of genetic rescue. In the case of Eastern coyotes, crossing with wolves can introduce new genes for more powerful jaws and larger size, which make them better predators of deer. It can also introduce new MHC haplotypes, which can provide the animal with enhanced immunity to disease.

One way of looking at golden jackals and coyotes is they are actually themselves primitive wolves. This might sound a bit heretical, but if you were to go back into time and find the ancestor of all wolves, golden jackals, and coyotes, it would look more less like a golden jackal or coyote.  I would argue that these animals represent a sort of generalized template from which larger, more specialized forms can evolve. One of the problems in sorting out wolf, coyote, and jackal lineages from the fossil record is that at various times through their history on the planet, different lineages have evolved larger wolf-like sizes or have produced coyote or jackal-like forms to fit the niche in question.

A recent comparison of golden jackals, African golden jackals that might be wolves (Canis lupus lupaster or Canis lupaster), black-backed jackals, modern wolves, and the extinct Canis etruscus and Canis arnensis revealed that those the proposed African wolves had skull morphologies that were closer to known golden jackals and black-backed jackals. If these lupaster canids are actually wolves and not jackals, then we would have never been able to guess their identity upon morphology alone.

So while the dog fancy has been splitting hairs and arbitrarily dividing up gene pools, science has revealed that the wild dogs haven’t been doing the same.

Canis is not a closed registry.

Even the boundaries between wolves and golden jackals and between wolves and coyotes are blurry, and of course, this leaves out the rather significant gene flow that has occurred between domestic dogs and wild wolves. Black wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs are the result of dogs and wolves mating “in the wild.”

Science has found all of these wonderful things out, but the dog fancy remains stuck in another era.

Maybe someday it will move beyond the closed registry system and instead of offering up the bromide of “breed preservation,” it will adopt a system of “breed management,” which strives to maintain genetic diversity within a breed and allows regular influxes of outside blood.

That is what nature has allowed with the wild Canis.

That is the actual story of the animals of this genus. It is not one of one lineage remaining pure for millions or even thousands of years.

It is about significant hybridization.

And Canis is not the only genus with this hybridization issue. Ducks in the genus Anas hybridize quite a bit, and it is well-known that many species of whales and dolphins hybridize with their close kin as well. All of these animals are fairly mobile organisms, and their mobility is likely why they retain so much interfertility.  They simply cannot be reproductively isolated from their closest relatives long enough for them to lose chemical interfertility.

It is not something that should be thought of as an evil. Instead, it’s actually a major strength. It is one our own species utilized when we exchanged genes with the Neanderthals and Denisovan people, and if there were another human species alive today, we would likely be able to cross with it.

But because we are so alone in this world, it is difficult for us to understand the concept of a species complex. We are the only humans left.

But dogs and wolves are not the last of their kind.

The gene flow between wild and domestic and among the these three species of Canis is something we have difficulty imagining.

But it is the story of dogkind.

 

 

 

 

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