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Archive for the ‘wolves’ Category

brush wolf

It cannot be overstated how much the discovery that coyotes are not as distantly related to wolves as we believed ultimately questions our entire understanding of the evolution of the Canis species.

The traditional understanding Canis species evolved from some form of Eucyon dog some six million years ago. Wang and Tedford, who wrote the most important book on the paleontology of the dog family, believe this was Eucyon davisi, which was the first of its genus to enter Eurasia. The genus Eucyon is where the common ancestor of the Canis dogs (including Lycaon and Cuon) and the South American wild dogs would be located. Eucyon dogs were small. Imagine them as being something like a black-backed jackal or a Hoary fox rather than a coyote.

Then, 5 million years later in the Southwestern US and northern Mexico, a coyote-like Canis evolved, which was called Canis lepophagus. This animal is sometimes considered the common ancestor of wolves and coyotes. It may be, but considering how close we now know wolves and coyotes are now, it’s not the most recent common ancestor. Canis lepophagus did migrate into Eurasia, where it either founded or is identical to Canis arnensis.

In Eurasia, several smaller jackal-to-coyote forms evolved. One of these was Canis estruscus,  which then evolved into Canis mosbachensis (which is called Canis variabilis in China).

Ron Nowak believed the red wolf was an offshoot of this wolf that wound up colonizing North America and then becoming isolated from the rest of Canis mobachensis when the ice sheets expanded. There was also a competing view that the red wolf was actually a remnant version of Canis edwardii or Canis priscolatrans (which were probably the same animal). This animal was roughly the size of a red wolf, but Nowak rejected it as a red wolf ancestor because it lived too early for what he thought were red wolf fossils.

The Eurasian wolf species evolved mosbachensis-variabilis, but the two forms of wolf shared habitat and likely exchanged genes, making it very difficult

The coyote’s evolution was never clear. It was thought to have evolved out of Canis lepophagus. It was thought that lepophagus evolved into edwardii, and then it began to become more gracile and smaller, eventually becoming the now coyote.  It’s now pretty clear that it evolved out of the Eurasian Canis lupus and not these endemic North American “wolves.”

It either evolved from the modern wolf, which evolved into roughly its current form 800,000 years ago, or it came from a late surviving mosbachensis-type wolves that were regularly crossing with modern wolves before they came into this continent. Maybe the remains that Nowak had been considering “red wolves,” were actually these ancestral wolves that were evolving into the modern coyote.

Maybe when this wave of wolves came back across from Eurasia, perhaps 50,000-100,000 years ago, it came into a world already dominated by a dire wolves, which already occupied the niche for large, pack hunting canids and this wave of Canis lupus evolved as the American jackal.  After all, the bobcat is just a diminutive Eurasian lynx that found itself in a very similar position when it came into this continent, and it evolved to be a smaller animal that generally hunts smaller quarry than its larger ancestor. Of course, the modern bobcat didn’t reach its current form until about 20,000 years ago, but it still was forced to adapt to a slightly different niche than its Eurasian ancestor.

In literature on the paleontology of Canis, there is a heated debate as to how these animals all fit. The conventional view is that the wolf evolved from Canis mosbachensis/variabilis through Canis etruscus, which may be the same thing as Canis edwardii/ Canis priscolatrans. Wang and Tedford contend that the coyote and wolf split from Eucyon.  The modern wolf evolved from Canis chihliensis, which was a large wolf-like canid. It spread into North America to found Canis armbrusteri, which then evolved into the dire wolf (Canis dirus) in North America and Canis gezi and Canis nehringi in South America.  In the Old World, another offshoot of chihliensis gave rise to Canis falconeri, which the supposedly gave rise to the Xencyon, which is supposed ancestor of the dhole and African wild dog. Another view holds that the Armbruster’s wolf (C armbrusteri) is descended from edwardii/priscolatrans (which may be the same as etruscus). This lineage then gave rise to the dire wolf and the two sister species in South America, thus descending solely from North America wolves.

All of these ideas come from paleontology, and they pretty much are done without looking very deeply into the studies that are examining the DNA of these species. It is pretty obvious from that literature that the notion that coyotes and wolves split at the time of the Eucyon ancestor is quite wrong. For that hypothesis to work, African of  wild dogs and dholes would have to be genetically closer to wolves than coyotes and golden jackals are. They aren’t.

But if the genome-wide analysis shows that coyotes are so much more closely related to wolves is true, then all these fossil and subfossil canids that are said to be the most recent common ancestor of wolves and coyotes simply aren’t.  Instead, all of these species that are classified in Canis are likely a mix of evolutionary dead ends, like the dire and Armbruster’s wolf, or could be hidden ancestors of extant canids that aren’t wolves or coyotes.

For example, black-backed and side-striped jackals diverged from the rest of Canis and its allies at about the same time that Eucyon was diverging from Canis. It is possible that there are many relatives of these particular dogs that are hidden in this vast sea of Canis fossils.

The new discovery about the coyote’s split from the wolf also means that any remains of North American canid that are listed as coyote that date to 1 million years before present are not coyotes. What they actually were is a very good question.

We’ve spent a lot of time assuming that coyotes and wolves were quite divergent. We know now that they really aren’t, but when we look into the past at all the “wolves” and “coyotes” that came before, we see how this genus became so successful. It can easily evolve into big game-hunting forms, but the real success is in its ability to assume the size and shape of the generalist predator. Phenotypic plasticity is a wonderful thing for a lineage to possess.

But the real message of the new discovery about wolves and coyotes should be is a cautionary tale about paleontology. Paleontology is a wonderful science, and it makes amazing discoveries every day, but when its faced with a lineage of animals where phenotypic plasticity and tendencies toward parallel and convergent evolution are commonplace, it is bound to make errors. Paleontologists aren’t examining flesh and blood that can have its molecules tested for relationships. They are measuring anatomical characters and determining phylogenetic relationships based upon the similarities of these characters.

Which works well.

Until you get something like wolves and coyotes, where there are many ancient fossil and subfossil remains that look like they could be ancestors of either.

But the DNA says they aren’t.

And paleontology would have problem catching the inverse. There are many species that we’ve discovered only through DNA testing. African butterfly fish in the Congo and Niger basins look identical to each other, but they have been isolated from each other for 57 million years. I have yet to see this species split into two, but if they were mammals, you could bet they would be placed in distinct species in heartbeat.

Paleontology is missing some really important things we’ve since found out through molecular analyses.

And paleontologists know this.

They are working with the data they have, and by definition, it’s going to be more incomplete than genetic studies.

Science is provisional. Different disciplines and methodologies are going to come up with different answers. It’s pretty amazing that one genome-wide assay study can wipe out so much literature in paleontology.

These debates have been raging for years.

And it turns out that everyone was actually wrong.

Update 21 August 2016:  It turns out that I missed a paper that actually did some limited DNA analysis and found that Canis nehringi was pretty much a South American dire wolf, as in it was likely the same species as the North American dire wolf. Canis gezi, however, was  more closely related to the modern maned wolf and had been incorrectly identified as a wolf. So let this stand as a correction to the error above.

 

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Ethiopian wolf hunting strategies

From the BBC’s The Hunt:

 

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Canis cedazoensis

Canis cedazoensis was an early species of the wolf-coyote-jackal tribe. It lived what is now the American Southwest and Northern Mexico until 300,000 years ago. It probably scavenged kills of bigger predators and lifted off the fawns of the various species of pronghorn.

Conventionally, we believed that the lineage from which this jackal-like canid gave rise to the wolf, the coyote, and the golden jackal. We based these assessments on comparative morphology from fossil and subfossil remains, and it all made sense.

These jackal-like forms entered Eurasia and Africa. They gave rise to the Xenocyon, the first wolf-like canid to evolve of this lineage.  The Xenocyon gave rise to the dhole and the African wild dog. Then the actual wolves evolved in Eurasia, and they walked back into North America to found the Armbruster’s wolf and the Dire wolf. They spread to South America, and endemic North American wolves, Canis edwardii and the putative red wolf evolved out of an unrelated jackal-like line.

The coyote descended from some sort of jackal-like canid in North America and a least a million years of evolution separates the coyote from the modern gray wolf.

The most recent study that examined full genomes of various wolves, dogs, and coyotes revealed that the separation between coyotes and gray wolves happened only 50,000 years ago. This finding pretty much destroys all this thinking.

We’ve conventionally thought of the lineage starting out with jackal-like forms that evolve into wolf-like forms, but the truth is we have a lineage that started out with jackal-like forms. Wolf-like forms evolved at least twice from this lineage, and jackal-like forms have evolved from wolf-like forms as well.

What we’ve missed that just as the Xenocyon and the dhole and African wild dog have evolved into wolf-like forms in parallel to actual wolves, the real story of Canis is that there has been a constant tension between selection for wolf-like traits and jackal-like traits. The coyote is a wolf that has re-adapted itself to the jackal-like form. To become a jackal is to become a generalist again. To evolve towards the wolf is become an apex predator and be forced to hunt for large game to survive.

What we know from the fossil record is the story of wolves and dogs and coyotes and their kin is that it began with “jackals.”  Paleontology says that North America is where this story got started, but the oldest species in this lineage of dogs lives in Africa.

I would love to know the full story.

Canis cedazoensis is a creature lost to time. If we could see one, maybe we know some answers. Maybe we would see something very much like a black-backed jackal. Maybe it would answer some questions.

And it would probably raise more.

Yet more of the mystery to which we should humble ourselves.

It began with jackals, and in the Anthropocene, it may end with them as well. The coyote and Eurasian jackal have continued to spread their range. The coyote is from from Alaska and Newfoundland to Panama– on its way to Colombia. The Eurasian jackal (the “golden jackal,” as it is normally called) spreads north and west through Europe. Both are generalists of the jackal type.

Phenotypic plasticity and convergent evolution have played quite a game with this part of the dog family.

Science is always provisional, and often takes just one profound discovery to turn over the apple cart.

And oh, has it been turned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The other evening, I was at an sporting goods store in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. At the checkout line, the attendant noticed that I was purchasing some coyote attractant and began to bash them.

“Somebody set ’em out.”

This is not dissimilar to the reaction I would get in virtually any place in West Virginia.

Coyotes are reviled virtually anywhere they are found. If they aren’t being blamed for killing calves and sheep, then they are being blamed for killing all the fawns or trophy bucks or are implicated in disappearances of beloved outdoor cats.

Coyotes were once found only the prairies and mountains of the West. Their old name was “prairie wolf,” but now it is often called the “brush wolf.”  In my part of the world, you pretty much see coyotes when they burst out of some thicket or dive down a logging road into roughest, brushiest terrain they can find.

This is an animal that fears our kind. We have long since killed off any that were less than paranoid about people.Their lives are harrowing. Death stalks at every corner.

But the thing which brings the death is also the thing that allows them to thrive. That thing is us. Modern man has made the world so much nicer for coyotes. We’ve killed off the larger wolves and most of the cougars, and we’ve allowed white-tailed deer to overpopulate our forests.  We leave out garbage and pet food for them. We let feral and outdoor cats wander about, and they are pretty easy prey for a coyote.

That brings us to the human element of the story. South Carolina natural and author John Lane spent a year traveling the South in search of the real coyote story. The Southeastern states were among the first settled by Europeans, and they were among the first to wipe out wolves.

Now, this part of the country has to deal with a new predator, one that is far more resolute and durable than the wolves that existed at the time of colonization and settlement.

And for a part of the country that has long been settled into a kind of subtropical England, this animal represents a sort of invasion, like a noxious weed in a rose garden.

Lane travels across the region, interviewing a coyote trapper in Alabama and wandering as far s the Allegheny foothills of West Virginia to track down the taxidermy of a legendary sheep-killing coyote. He listens to the sounds of the foxhounds turned into coyote dogs that now bay hard after the new quarry.

He compiles his findings into a fine piece of nature writing called Coyote Settles the SouthThe title alone is worth consideration. Americans think of ourselves as the descendants of a settler state. But in our settling, we have unsettled much. In the region Lane explores, the woods no longer hold vast flocks of passenger pigeons or Carolina parakeets (which were actually conures).  The cougar is gone, but I think that virtually everyone knows someone who has claimed to see one. Whatever wolf lived in the East or the South is long since gone, and virtually all of the indigenous people who lived in these forests have been driven off or put on reservations or intermarried into the populations of settlers and slave that inundated the land with their quests for gold, timber, indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton.

Just as Western civilization’s settling was actually a great unsettling, the coyote’s arrival has been an unsettling. Although Lane is a defender of the coyote, he is conflicted with the coyote depredations on loggerhead sea turtle nests on South Carolina barrier islands:

I’d spent most of my life with my environmentalist sympathies building constantly for sea turtles. After all, they’ve been in the big-budget ad campaigns that come with being cute in a reptilian sort of way. Protecting their nests had become a vacation activity on southern barrier islands. There were even children’s books about them nesting. All that was good, and it has helped raise the awareness of the plight of this ancient and powerful creature, but it had not stopped the carnage. Was it really the coyotes that were keeping the sea turtles on the worldwide list of most concern? Isn’t it really industrial fishing and coastal real estate agents who should be taking the blame and leading the charge to stop the killing?  If we regulated these industries as they should be, would there be plenty of protein to go around?

I was glad that everyone was doing everything possible to give turtles a fighting chance, including “knocking back” the coyotes that had learned how to purchase a quick raw omelet on the beachfront. What I didn’t want, though, was for folks to lose sight of the beauty of the mating predators dancing on the beach. I wanted folks to stop hating the coyotes, and instead to see them as part and parcel now of this new scene (pg. 103).

There is a tendency to think of coyotes as an “invasive species.” I spent many happy weeks in the heat of summer on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been fascinated by loggerhead sea turtles. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores was my favorite spot to visit on a beach holiday, and my grandparents allegedly took me there several times a day during these vacations. That aquarium was heavily concerned with educating the public about loggerheads, which nest on the same beaches where we sunbathed and swam. I was fascinated that the newly hatched turtles knew their way to the sea, and then the females who survive the gauntlet of predators on the beach and in the depths of the sea return to those same beaches to lay their eggs.

Such a primitive animal, yet so excellent at survival.

And to see its numbers reduced, no matter how trivially in the grand scheme of things, appears at once to be an affront to all that is decent. If this were hogs or feral cats or red foxes doing the deed, there wouldn’t be such a conflict. They simply don’t belong here, and there is no good reason for them to be there.

Lane thinks the red wolf’s historic presence on the islands might give the coyotes some license to eat turtle eggs. I think it goes beyond the red wolf. Turtles have been nesting on these islands for millions of years. If they were using not those very islands, then they were using the ones that were there before. Canids first evolved in North America some 40 million years ago, so it’s very likely that there was some kind of dog eating those sea turtle eggs long before our kind began to walk upright. As wolves evolved, there were always jackal-like and wolf-like forms in both Eurasia and North America. Paleontology has suggested that we can somehow trace the evolution of what have become wolves and coyote through examining those fossils of those canids. Genetic studies strongly suggest that we be careful of such analyses. The story of canids shows that there were many “coyotes” and “wolves” roaming this continent, even if their genetic legacy likely doesn’t exist in any extant species.

In this way, a coyote has more right to eat the eggs of loggerhead in South Carolina than an introduced red fox has a right to eat the eggs of flatbacks in Queensland.

But the line we draw in this regard as some subjectivity. After all, I’m upset at what feral cats do to songbirds, but I know that the bigger problem is what we’re doing to Neotropical forests. If these forests are felled, many of these birds have no place to go in the winter.

That doesn’t mean that we ignore that the cats are taking the birds. It just means that it’s one of the problems that so many songbirds have to face, and the socially responsible thing to do is keep cats inside.

The truth about coyotes is that even their admirers have concerns. Lane wonders if an enterprising coyote might decide to take out his beloved beagle, Murphy, a creature bred to be so docile that he wouldn’t even stand a chance.

Whether coyotes have a place in the South or not is pretty much immaterial. Their populations are so resilient that once they arrive, they pretty much can’t be removed.

Lane wonders whether coyotes would have come into the South if it hadn’t been for the controversial practice of fox-penning. With the rise of the modern highway system and the growth of the white-tailed deer population that might lead a hunting pack into oncoming cars, many blue collar foxhunting clubs have fenced off vast acreages and stocked them with red and gray foxes that can be purchased from trappers or, at one time, ordered from out-of-state companies. Sometimes, the companies would send an order of red foxes with a coyote thrown in for free.

Perhaps that is how the coyote spread through the South so quickly. In West Virginia, I pretty much have my doubts. West Virginia has a climate and forest landscape like the Northeast, and Northeastern coyotes are bigger and more wolf-like. The ones I’ve seen have had broader heads and relatively stout bodies than the coyotes I’ve seen in Arizona. Ours likely came from that great Northeastern swarm that came into Ontario, bred with with wolves, and then wandered into New York State and down the Alleghenies. The High Alleghenies towards the Pennsylvania line were the first place where coyotes became established, and just as black bears did as the forested lands spread out into the abandoned farmland to the west, coyotes did the same. I’m sure that a few coyotes came from fox pens, but I don’t think they are the main reason they came into West Virginia.

South Carolina and the Deep South might be a different story. This isn’t an easy place to be a dog. The parasite load is far, far more extreme that you’d get in the nothern or western parts of the continent. One reason why it so many descriptions of Southern wolves mention their black color is that melanism is associated with a stronger immune response, and being black in color could be a side effect of selection for stronger immune response in the wormy, wormy South. Red foxes were known in Virginia from the Pleistocene. They were unknown south of New England and New York State at the time of colonization. They only became widespread in the Deep South during the twentieth century, and a lot of their spread actually could be attributed to human introduction. So it is possible that coyotes came because of the fox pens.

But it is possible they came on their own.

The epilogue of Lane’s book is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve had the pleasure of reading. At Wofford College, where Lane is a professor, a “shack ” was built as a sort of allusion to the one Aldo Leopold built in Wisconsin. It was meant for use for the college’s environmental studies program, and it needed “study skins.”

Lane managed get a coyote pelt. Some rednecks had caught a little coyote and tried to sell it on Craigsist, and the conservation officer tracked down the illegally-owned coyote from the ad. Because South Carolina law doesn’t allow coyotes to be relocated or released, the officer shot the poor coyote and donated the specimen to the college.

The coyote’s pelt is sent to a tannery in Greenville, where a man who is called “the Russian” runs the show. Russians are people of the frontier like Southerners, and they are also people who known some of the worst horrors of humanity. Both people have lived off the land and trapped and hunted. Both know about furs.

But the South is now the New South. With advent of air conditioning and the death of Jim Crow and malaria, it has been appealing part of the country to move to. No more hard winters like in Buffalo or Cleveland. It’s become a domesticated part of America. It’s no longer the Cotton Frontier. It’s the land of air conditioning and finely manicured lawns.

The coyote’s arrival in the region belies the simple fact that the land never can be fully domesticated. Black bear numbers are on the upswing, and Lane quickly notices from reading the literature on vagrant cougars that are working their way east that they are essentially using the same migration route that coyotes used to enter this part of the continent. They are moving across the Northern Plains into the Great Lakes, and it won’t be long before they enter Upstate New York and work their way into the Appalachians.

The domesticated land of the South may soon become a land of predators.

The general population–obese, unaware, untrained in natural history, much less yard maintenance- won’t notice the chance until it’s too late and they’re trapped indoors thumbing their remote controls and adjusting their air conditioning. The coyotes and bears and cougars won’t be using remote controls. They’ll be settled in, operating on instincts and native intelligence, paws on the ground, checking out what opportunities the new neighborhood offers.  Cowered in their midcentury modern dens in aging suburbs backing up to greenways, undeveloped parkland, remnant agricultural land,  and railroad  right-of-ways, the denatured Homo sapiens will fear (and rightly so) for their poodles, their bird feeder, and maybe even their children rare instance the young wander out of the monitor’s shadow. In my vision, most southerners will be prisoners to the wild (pg. 169).

When Lane swings by Greenville to pick up the coyote pelt and the other study skins for the shack, he marvels at the red fox and beaver pelts, but he is still impressed with the coyote. He thinks it is a good skin, but when he goes to pay the Russian, he finds that the order cost $20 less than had initially been budgeted.

“No problem,” says the Russian. “I throw in coyote free.”

That’s what has happened to the New South. The land has been domesticated at a great ecological cost and social cost, but the coyote, well, it came along for free.

And it’s here to stay.

And its howls may be a harbinger of what’s to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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west virginia coyote

I’m currently reading John Lane’s excellent book, Coyote Settles the SouthIt is an excellent book, and I will be reviewing it here very soon. The whole time I’ve been reading it I thinking about my encounter with the male Eastern coyote I called in back in March.

He’s not exactly the same coyote that Lane is writing about. He’s a coyote of the gray woods, not the subtropical pine forests and river bottoms.

But in some ways, he is the same. He is the same creature that has adjusted to all that Western man can throw at him and thrived.

And he’s thrived at the expense of the wolves that once roamed over the Northeastern US and the South. He’s just the right size to live on a diet of rodents and rabbits but also has the ability to pack up and hunt deer. He can be an omnivore, enjoying wild apples and pears that fall to the ground, almost as much as he would if he came across a winter-killed deer.

The coyote is a survivor. I’ve written on this space several times that the reason he has thrived is because he has been here far longer than the wolves that once harried his kind. Until last week, it was assumed that the coyote split from the wolf some 1 million years ago. This million year split has been used for virtually every study that has examined the relationships between different populations or species in the genus Canis. It is used to set the molecular clock so that we can figure out when wolves and dogs split and perhaps give us some idea as to when dogs may have been domesticated.

This assumption has been directly challenged in a new study that was released in Science Advances last week. The paper examined full genome sequences of several different canids, and it can be argued that it pretty much ended the debate as to whether the red wolf and Eastern wolf are species. They aren’t. Instead, they are the result of hybridization between wolves and coyotes. Most of the media attention has paid attention to this discovery in the study.

It’s the most important practical implications, because the US Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray or Holarctic wolf in most of the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern states in favor of protecting the Eastern and red wolves. Red wolves are called Canis rufus, and  Eastern wolf is Canis lycaon. With them being recognized as hybrids, this greatly complicates the issue of how to conserve them under the Endangered Species Act, which, as its name suggests, is meant to conserve actual species and not hybrids between species.

The authors of the study feel that these hybrid populations are still worth conserving, largely because the red wolf contains the last reservoir of genes belonging to the now extinct wolves of the Southeast.

But in order to make this work, we’re probably going to have to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, and that is not going to happen any time soon.

However, the finding in the study that is worth discussing more is that not only showed that red and Eastern wolves were not some relict ancient species of wolf. It is the finding that coyotes and wolves split only 50,000 years ago.

Using a simple isolation model and a summary likelihood approach, we estimated a Eurasian gray wolf–coyote divergence time of T = 0.38 N generations (95% confidence interval, 0.376 to 0.386 N), where N is the effective population size. If we assume a generation time of 3 years, and an effective population size of 45,000 (24, 25), then this corresponds to a divergence time of 50.8 to 52.1 thousand years ago (ka), roughly the same as previous estimates of the divergence time of extant gray wolves.

This finding means that the studies that use that 1 million year divergence time to set the molecular clock for all those dog domestication studies need to be reworked. This is going to have some effect on how we think about dog domestication, and although the domestication dates have been moved back in recent years, the actual split between dogs and wolves is likely to be much later than when we see the first signs of domestication in subfossil canids.

That’s one important finding that comes from this discovery that wolves and coyotes are much more closely related.

The other is that yes, it did pretty much end Canis rufus and Canis lycaon as actual species, but it probably also ends the validity of Canis latrans as a valid species. Coyotes could be classified as a subspecies of wolf. Indeed, they are much more closely related to wolves than Old World red foxes are to New World red foxes, which split 4oo,ooo years ago. And there is still some debate as to whether these two foxes are distinct species, because we’ve traditionally classified them as a single species. Plus, if we start splitting them into two species, we’re likely to find the same thing exists with least weasels living in the Old and New World. And the same thing with stoats.

And then it’s not long we’re fighting over the house mouse species complex.

But if we’re going to lump red foxes, it’s pretty hard not to lump coyotes and wolves. It is true that wolves normally kill coyotes in their territory, but it also found that wolves in Alsaska and Yellowstone, wolves that were thought to be entirely free of any New World ancestry, also had some coyote genes.

So the coyote, like the extinct Honshu wolf and the current Arabian wolf, could be correctly thought of a small subspecies of wolf. We know from paleontology that in both North America and Eurasia there were various forms of canid that varied from jackal-like to wolf-like, and although we know the jackal-like form is the earliest form, these two types have ebbed and flowed across Eurasia and North America. We’ve assumed that the jackal-like forms gave became the coyote and the larger wolf-like forms have become the gray, red, and dire wolves.

But what we’re looking at now is the coyote isn’t the ancient species we thought it was. It’s very likely that some ancestral wolf population came into North America, and instead assuming the pack-hunting behavior of Eurasian wolves, it tended toward the behavior of a golden jackal. When this ancient wolf walked into North America, it would have found that the pack-hunting niche was already occupied by dire wolves. There were many other large predators around as well, and evolving to the jackal-like niche would have made a lot more sense in evolutionary terms.

This is what the coyote is.

The pack-hunting modern wolf came into the continent and took it by storm, and the coyote exchanged genes with it. They lived together as sort of species-like populations in the West, but when wolves became rare from persecution following European settlement, the coyote and wolf began to exchange genes much more.

So with one study using complete genomes, the entire taxonomy of North American Canis is truly blown asunder.

And the implications for dog domestication studies and for the practical application of the Endangered Species Act could not be any more consequential.

Very rarely do you get studies like this one.

It changes so much, and the question about what a coyote is has become unusually unsettling but also oddly amazing.

I will never think of a coyote the same way.

The mystery is even more mysterious.

 

 

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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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