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4,000 year old dog

The skull of a 4,000 year-old dog has been used to reconstruct what its head may have looked like.

The dog was quite wolf-like and described by the BBC as being about “the size of a large collie.” In the UK, “collie” almost always refers to border collies, so this dog probably would have been on the large side of a medium-sized dog.

The dog’s skull was found at Cuween Hill Chambered Cairn on on Mainland, Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. 3D images of the skull were use to make the reconstruction, which was created in clay. The artist then made the fur look like that of a European wolf, which is not entirely unreasonable given the morphology of the skull itself.

The dog may have been used to tend sheep or guard settlements. It was clearly a respected creature in the society that interred in the tomb. Maybe it was a valued working animal or simply a totem of its people.

Whatever it was, it was clearly more wolf-like that one might have expected from a dog from this late a date. The Ancient Egyptians, who were contemporaries of these Orkney cairn tomb builders, were already breeding dogs that were quite distinct from wolves.

But the truth of the matter is that this dog was significantly smaller than most modern and contemporary European wolves, and the mainland of Scotland was full of wolves that were probably still interbreeding with domestic dogs on occasion at this time.

So the Orkney Islanders from 4,000 years ago clearly had dogs, but I imagine this dog as being something like a Norwegian elkhound, a laika, or one of the old German herding dogs, like the Thuringian sheepdog.

I would love to see more reconstructions from ancient dogs skulls.  I would love to see the Goyet Cave canid and the Razboinichya Cave “dog” undergo a similar reconstruction.

Yes, this is art, but it is art that is informed through science.

 

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coyote killing cat

An analysis of coyote feces from various parts of Southern California has revealed something rather shocking.  Yes, coyotes are coming into people’s lawns and cultivated gardens and eating lots of fruit, but the analysis revealed that cats comprise 20 percent of their diet in urban areas.

This is in direct contradiction of Dan Flores’s contention that coyotes usually just kill cats because they are competitors and leave their carcasses to rot in the sun.  He makes this claim in both Coyote America and made it again on Joe Rogan’s podcast.   If cats comprise 20 percent of their diet, coyotes clearly are targeting them as a prey species.

If one thinks about it carefully, cats are about the best meat a coyote can get in most urban environments.  Where there is civilization, there are many cats. and when you’re  a 25-30 pound coyote, an 8-10 pound cat would sustain you for some time. Most indoor-outdoor cats somewhat fat and usually lack any skills for living in anything like “the wild,” so of course, coyotes are going to target cats.

One of the authors of the new study is Justin Brown, who also appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast after Dan Flores. I much preferred the discussion with Justin Brown, who was polite and knowledgeable about urban carnivorans, but it was obvious that he disagreed with some Flores’s airy-fairy ideas about coyotes.

Indeed, I think the reason why Flores’s book about coyotes gets so much attention is that it does present the coyote in a way that sanitizes it from what it really is. Coyotes are predators. They do kill sheep. They do kill dogs. They do take cats. They have killed people, including fully adult Taylor Mitchell in Nova Scotia.

These facts should not make us want to exterminate coyotes. Indeed, when someone says they want to do such a thing, I wonder if they might have come up with a more realistic goal in life like blowing up the sun or draining the ocean.

We err when we turn coyotes into terrible predators that deserve only death, but we also err when we turn them into the prick-eared Labradors of nature.

We should admire the coyote as the one of those Anthropocene wolves, a sort of North American super wolf that has thrived in spite of our attempts to eradicate it from the landscape. We have to adjust our behavior to live with them. Not letting cats go outside is probably a good idea, not just for their own welfare but for the welfare of lots of native species that cats target in their hunting forays.

We also need to understand that livestock producers must deal with coyote depredations.  Yes, we can encourage them to use nonlethal methods.  However, we shouldn’t be as judgmental of someone killing the odd one to protect livestock.

So yes, we now have evidence that coyotes are targeting cats in urban environments. If we love our cats, we’ll keep them inside. Cats don’t need to be outside to be happy, and they will never become a coyote’s breakfast if they stay where the Old Song Dog won’t be able to catch them.

This shouldn’t have been much of a shock. A similar study in 2009 in Tucson, revealed that 42 percent of an urban coyote’s diet consisted of cat meat.

The discrepancy in these two studies probably comes from the fact that coyote predation upon cats has become much better known by the public in the past decade, and Californians probably have at least heard of the studies that show how many birds, small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians cats kill every year.

So yes, if you let your cat outside, you are taking risks. Some people think it’s worth it.  That’s okay, but don’t blame the coyotes for doing what comes naturally. They are trying to survive in an human dominated world, and you’re providing them with an easy, nutritious prey source.

Egyptians saluki

A big part of what a dog breed is can be defined culturally.  A breed is often defined by what its fanciers believe its defining characteristics, and they set what the essential traits and bloodlines of that breed can be. We currently have breeds with rather open registries, like Carolina dogs, a breed of which I’m sure includes a few dogs that are just Down South chow mixes. And we have all those closed registry breeds in the various established kennel clubs and societies throughout the world.

I currently live with two dog breeds that have quite divergent cultural definitions of their breed.

The saluki-tazi or “salukimorph” type of dog has been in existence since at least the Bronze Age.  These dogs appear on lots of Ancient Egyptian artifacts, including a mummy from the 18th Dynasty.  Lots of debate exists on what is a true saluki here in the West, and because we do not have a true breed foundation date or complete pedigrees going back thousands of years, this debate can be quite subjective.

The German shepherd dog, by contrast, developed in its current form after the foundation of the SV on April 22, 1899. The breed is based off a breeding program that inbred quite tightly off a single Thuringian sheepdog that was bred to dogs with a similar “wolfy” phenotype from southern Germany. This organization was the second one founded in Germany to standardize a sheepdog breed from the various landrace herders that could be found throughout the nation. In 1891, an organization called the Phylax Society was created with that purpose in mind, but this organization was prone to infighting about whether working characteristics or conformation were most important in breeding a standardized German pastoral dog.  This organization was gone by 1894, and Max von Stephanitz and Artur Meyer revived the idea based upon breeding a standardized form of wolf-like shepherd dog.

German shepherds, unlike salukis, have a defined date for their formation, and although Stephanitz speculated about the ancient origins of these dogs, the dogs that we call German shepherd dogs today are clearly defined by phenotype and bloodline. Yes, a debate exists about their conformation, particularly the amount of angulation in the rear, but there is also a debate about whether white ones should be a distinct breed (and there are actually now two white German shepherd breeds in existence now). There are Shiloh shepherds, king shepherds, American Alsatians, Saarloos wolfhonden, Czechoslovakian vlcak, and the volkosoby. The first three are based upon breeding an oversized, less rear-angulated GSD, and the American Alsatian is supposed to resemble a dire wolf (somehow).  The final three are GSD crosses with wolf. An assumption exists that there is bit of wolf in GSD, and adding a bit more wolf will somehow improve them. The vlcak and volkosoby are mostly GSD in ancestry and have successfully been used as working dogs, while the Saarloos wolfhond remains a bit of novelty.

And then we have the Blue Bay shepherds, which have a little wolf in them, but they are based upon dilute GSDs, which are considered faulty by the breed standard.

But these breed exist only because there is a clearly defined breed with a culture and fancy that have clearly defined its traits and characteristics. The spin-off breeds exist because people want dogs with those traits, which will never be recognized as acceptable by the mainstream of the breed.

German shepherds do not have a lot of genetic diversity as a breed.  Even dogs that don’t really look like each other or share common ancestors all derived from Horand von Grafrath and three of his grandsons out of Hektor von Schwben.  The GSDs we have tested on Embark have had relatively high genetic COIs. The breed average is around 30 percent, while golden retriever breed averages are close to 20 percent.

This is not to say that German shepherds are a genetic mess. The breed founders must have purged a lot of weakness and genetic anomalies out of the foundation stock, which can be a way of establishing a relatively inbred strain that strong and viable.

Our saluki’s parents have come out as purebred salukis, but their genetic inbreeding coefficients have been less than 3 percent. I have seen crosses between Western breeds that have higher genetic COIs than purebred salukis.

The saluki breed must have developed over the millennia with selection for coursing traits out of a diverse set of dogs. My guess is that gene flow existed between what became salukis and the local pariah dog populations. Then they just selected which puppies could run, and then they bred back into the general saluki bloodline.

So we have one breed founded by late nineteenth and early twentieth century “scientific breeding” methods, and another breed that just developed over a vast territory over the long annals of history.

I’ve had people tell me that Streamer is not a saluki because he is brindle and because his father is a Central Asian tazi.  That’s because Western saluki fanciers have decided that salukis can be only from Middle Eastern countries, and brindle salukis in the UK, usually from caravan people, were often crossed with brindle greyhounds but still registered as salukis.

Most people are unaware that Iran borders on Turkmenistan, a place where tazis exist. The border between Turkmenistan and Iran was clearly defined during the Great Game period of competition between the Russian and British Empires in the nineteenth century.

But those dogs have been traded through Persia and Central Asia for thousands of years. The political demarcation by two European great powers in the past 150ish years is but a blip on a map. However, that political demarcation is seen as a breed barrier in much of the saluki fancy, and thus, my dog cannot be a saluki. He’s a cross between a desert-bred saluki and Central Asian tazi.

What I have found interesting, though, is that I have developed a certain cognitive dissonance about these two different types of dog. I am totally fine with the German shepherd dog as defined by the established breed clubs, but I do think the saluki people are being just a bit short-sighted.

It may be that I see the German shepherd as something recently created. The characteristics and bloodline are clearly defined in the breed. I don’t see salukis the same way. I see salukis as a more natural, more organic sort of breed, one that exists almost as a distinct subspecies of dog, one that even has its own ecomorphs that have been adapted for colder and hotter climates.

This dissonance and my acceptance of cultural norms are issues that I will continue to wrestle with in my head. We all have some level of cognitive dissonance as we learn to live in a complex world, but it is still worth exploring and ferreting out our contradictions to understand what we truly believe.

And belief is a big part of what a dog breed essentially is.  It is not an act of faith necessarily, but it is the acceptance of the society and strictures that allow that essentialism to accept what a particular dog is.

When we start thinking about dog breeds, we need to explore the cultures that define them as such, as well as how that culture developed over the years. This can lead to some uncomfortable conversations and some uncomfortable self-realization, but it can help our understanding of why we think the way we do.

And that self-awareness is useful if we wish to continue breeding and working with dogs.

 

 

 

Snowshoe paws

Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) have really big feet. They are snowshoe hare specialists, and these big paws help them move over the snow, just like snowshoes.

They are not just boreal bobcats. They are derived from a much latter migration of Eurasian lynx into North America, while the bobcat likely evolved from endemic North American lynx. They adapted to living in snowy climates, and because snowshoe hares are often abundant, they became specialists at hunting them. Their numbers follow the boom and bust cycle of snowshoe hares throughout their range.

 

drake black duck

So if you thought the gray wolf species complex is controversial, it mirrored in another charismatic, widespread species.

I used to be quite into domestic ducks. My preferred variants were all domesticated Eurasian mallards, and I regularly encountered wild mallards at the various parks I would frequent in Morgantown, West Virginia.

I have no problem considering Pekins, Cayugas, Khaki Campbell’s, and Rouens just domestic variants of mallard. Most domestic mallard varieties cannot fly, and many lack proper brooding instincts and could never really exist in the wild. However, domestic duck genes do get into the wild mallard population every so often. So in this way, domestic ducks are to mallards what domestic dogs are to gray wolves.

But the analogy gets even more interesting.  There are endemic mallards in North America that are often regarded as distinct species, and most experts would regard them as distinct species. However, they could easily be thought of as regional variants of what is really a mallard complex.

The most common endemic North American mallard is the black duck. The black duck is a large mallard that behaves almost exactly like the more common form. However, the drakes never develop the green heads or chestnut breasts. They never get that ornate gray penciling on their plumage. They are heavily mottled, rather dark large mallards.

Most authorities regard this creature as a distinct species, but a good case can be made that American black ducks are a regional form of mallard. They live over Northeastern and Midwestern states. They breed extensively in Eastern Canada and the Northern Great Lakes.

One hypothesis is that these ducks are descended from an early radiation of the ancestral mallard that adapted to living in bodies of water surrounded by extensive forests. Because there was so much predation in those areas, the ducks had a strong selection pressure never to evolve the ornate plumage of the more typical mallard.

These ducks evolved into a distinct population from Northeastern Mexico to Florida, which is called the mottled duck. The mottled duck is usually considered a distinct species as well.

And in deeper into Mexico, there is the Mexican duck, which is probably derived from black duck population.

One weird thing, though, is that mallards and black ducks really do not recognize much of a species barrier. Indeed, the genetic difference between black ducks and mallards appears to be decreasing.

Maybe a better reading of black duck taxonomy is that black ducks just represent a form of mallard that adapted to living in high predator density forests, and now that the forests have been opened, the more open country forms of mallard in which the drakes have ostentatious plumage have invaded their range.

And they have started to hybridize significantly.

Most waterfowl experts would disagree with me on this question, but the truth is the molecular work on mallards and their relatives is far behind canids. And yes, we do know that lots of Anas ducks hybridize. Hybridization itself is not a very good species indicator within these species, but if it is as significant as it is between black ducks and mallards, then we have to reconsider our classification.

I would love to see full genome comparisons of the various ducks in the genus Anas. We need to get a better idea of when all these various ducks diverged from a common ancestor and get a full handle on how much hybridization has happened.

Gadwalls are also somewhere in this mess. They might be an early offshoot of mallards that adapted to truly open environments, but I would not be surprised if their hybridization was at a level comparable to that of black ducks and mallards.

So we need more molecular work on these ducks. Their evolutionary history has quite strong parallels in the gray wolf complex, including their wide distribution, lots of hybridization between populations, and domestic form that casts a few genes into the wild population every once in a while.

The only way to resolve these issues is to have comparisons of full genomes. My guess is that we will someday, but until now, we’re still basing species on mtDNA samples and very limited genetic markers.

 

 

shock collar

Starting in July 2020, electronic collars will be banned in the Netherlands (that’s the country a lot of Americans call “Holland”).

My views on electronic collars have shifted. I have never been in favor of an electronic collar ban, but I have questioned why so many people in dog sports were eager to use one.

Reasonable people can disagree on training devices.  I have used a prong or pinch collar with very driven dog, but after she learned that she could release the pressure from the collar by walking closely, I switched to a fur-saver. Both of these tools are targeted for banning as well.

The thing about bans is that it takes away the right to disagree, and it places the law above experience and judgment, and I have to confess my own ignorance about modern e-collars. It wasn’t until I began looking at the work of competent e-collar trainers, especially Larry Krohn, who has a wonderful Youtube channel that teaches you how to use one these devices humanely.   The way he uses these devices is like having a lead on the dog while it’s off-leash, and using quite low level stimulation, he can get the same results as if the dog were wearing slip lead or a fur-saver.

The modern e-collar is an aversive.  It is used for positive punishment and negative reinforcement, but it can be used humanely and safely.

In a country like the Netherlands, there is a very strong tradition of walking dogs off-lead in the countryside.  The same goes for most of Western Europe. Most of Western Europe has banned e-collars, but it seems to me that this is setting up a real conflict between dog owners and wildlife and between dog owners and farmers.

Dogs will chase ungulates. It’s sort of what they evolved to do. If you let dogs go walking in the countryside off-leash, they stand a real risk of getting after deer or worrying sheep.

It is possible to train a dog a recall or a leave-it when it sees a sheep or deer without an e-collar. However, these tasks require quite a bit of skill, and with some dogs, it can be impossible to break their prey drive. Prey drive is intrinsically rewarding to cursorial predators like dogs, and it is often hard to find a reward that can exceed the internal reward a dog gets while chasing ungulates.

Yes, you can use the Premack’s principle to teach a dog very reliable recall.  There are many skilled trainers who can teach a dog a solid recall without an e-collar.

But that’s not what I am here to debate. What I am here to discuss is that we are allowing one side of the argument, often fueled by animal rights extremist logic and rhetoric, to ban a tool that others contend is essential in their trainer program.

And some dogs need a very strong aversive to proof their recalls and to punish bad behavior. E-collars, used properly, seem to be the aversive that would cause the least amount of harm and still do the job.

These dogs are not going to have good lives in much of Western Europe, where they can never be allowed off-lead. In most Western European countries, allowing the dog some off-leash running is considered vital for all dogs, so these dogs will have to be kept in a way that many would consider cruel.

And when it comes to breaking dogs off of chasing livestock and game, the aversive really doesn’t have to be used that often.  So the dog gets to feel a shock on its neck, but it gets a lifetime of running off-leash and coming when called.  The dog gets to engage in its innate running instincts, but it gets to do so with the highest levels of its safety and that of any potential quarry.

So whether you like e-collars or not, banning devices should cause quite a bit of alarm. Many people don’t like e-collars, but lots of people use choke chains and pinch and prong collars. Those can just as easily banned as well.

And while we’re in the business of banning things, we often aren’t thinking of the greater good or by nuance.  Bans do not do nuance. They are the end of a discussion, a discussion where people on both sides might have learned something.

These devices are getting more humane, not less. They have many lower level and even vibrate-only settings on them.

And yes, they can be abused. You can abuse a dog by feeding it too much, but no one seems to want to legislate how much one should feed a dog each day. You can abuse a dog with flat collar if you leave it on a pup and never take it off. The collar for a young pup can become embedded in the maturing dog, but no one wants to ban putting collars on growing pups.

So instead of accepting that different people will use different tools, we like to assume the worst of the corrections-based dog trainers. In Western European countries, those assumptions are leading to real folly.

I do plan on getting a decent e-collar, and I will be using it as humanely as possible. I see a use for them, and they can help me give my dogs a better quality of life.

But that choice has been taken out of the hands of Dutch dog owners, starting next year. I’m sure they will manage, but I think there are quite a few dogs in that country that will miss out on having a chance to run loose, simply because they cannot be trained to leave game or livestock alone without a clear aversive.

 

 

coyotes

Humans and the various canids belonging to gray wolf species complex possess the most complex relationship of any two beings currently living on this earth.  At one point, they are our cherished companions, often closer to us than we ever could be with other people, and on another point, they are the reviled predators that might take a child in the night.

We have clearly defined relationships with other predators. Leopards and cougars, well, we might hunt them for sport or photograph them in the wild. But we never become closely aligned with them, except for those eccentrics who dare to keep such dangerous predators as pets.

People living in the Eurasian Pleistocene brought some wolves into their societies.  Wolves and humans should have been competitors. We should have had the same relationship with each other as spotted hyenas and lions do in Africa now.  But at some point, humans allowed wolves in.

Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg demonstrate that many humans throughout the world have had some kind of relationship with wolves. In some cases, it is or was a hunting symbiosis. In others, they were totemic animals.

In their work, Pierotti and Fogg contend that the relationship between humans and wolves broke down with the rise of Christianity in the West. I don’t think that’s when it broke down. It started to become complex when humans began to herd sheep and goats.

In Kazakhstan, wolves are hunted and revered at the same time. The Kazakh people herd  livestock, so they must always worry about wolf predation. Stephen Bodio documents this complex understanding of wolves in his The Hounds of Heaven.

“They hunt them, kill them, chase them with hounds and even eagles, take puppies and rear them live, identify with them, make war on them, and claim descent from them,” writes Bodio. This description sort of fits modern humanity’s entire relationship with this gray wolf complex. We pretty much have done and continue do almost all of these things.

Wolves, coyotes, and dingoes have killed people. So have domestic dogs. In the French countryside, wolf hunts were considered a necessity to protect human life, largely because has the longest and best documented history of wolves hunting people. The dispossession of rural peasants and the depletion of game in the forests created conditions where wolves would consider humans easy prey.  Lots of European countries have similar stories. And when Europeans came to North America, they knew about the dangerous nature of wolves, even if they had never even seen one themselves.

Humans have declared war on wolves in Eurasia and in North America. The wolf is extirpated from much of its former range in Europe. They live only over a limited range in the lower 48 of the United States.

Man fought the coyote with the same venom and lead he threw at the wolf. The coyote’s flexible biology and social behavior meant that all that effort would come for naught.  The coyotes got slaughtered, but they rebounded. And then some. And the excess coyote pups found new habitat opened up with big ol’ wolves gone, and they have conquered a continent, while we continue our flinging of lead and setting of traps.

In Victorian times, Western man elevated the domestic dog to levels not seen for a domestic animals. They became sentient servants, beloved friends, animals that deserve humanity’s best treatment.

And in the modern era, where fewer and fewer Westerners are having children, the dog has come to replace the child in the household. Billions of dollars are spent on dog accessories and food in the West.  Large sectors of our agriculture are ultimately being used to feed our sacred creatures.

A vast cultural divide has come to the fore as humans realize that wolves and coyotes are the dog’s wild kin. Wolves have become avatars for wilderness and conservation, and coyotes have become the wolves you might see out your front window.

Millions of Americans want to see the wolf and the coyote protected in some way. Dogs of nature, that’s the way they see them.

The rancher and the big game hunter see both as robbers taking away a bit of their livelihood. Humans are lions. The canids are the spotted hyenas. And their only natural state is at enmity.

Mankind’s relationship to these beings is so strangely complex. It greatly mirrors our relationship towards each other. We can be loving and generous with members of our own species. We can also be racist and bigoted and hateful. We can make death camps as easily as we can make functioning welfare states.

And these animals relationships with each other are just as complex. Wolves usually kill dogs and coyotes they find roaming their territories. But sometimes, they don’t. Sometimes, they become friends, even mates.  Hounds can be trained to run down a coyote, but sometimes, the coyote and the dog become lovers in the forest.

Social, opportunistic predators that exist at this level of success are going to be a series of contradictions. Dogs, wolves, and coyotes certainly are. And so are we.

It is what we both do. And always will.

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