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Banned Down Under

Alsatian wolf dog

Australia is a place that has good reason to worry about invasive species. Invasive species have run amok across that continent and have done so even before European colonization.

It always makes me cringe when I hear a German shepherd dog referred to as an “Alsatian” or an “Alsatian wolfdog.”.   Yes, there is debate as to how much wolf is in this breed or if there is any wolf blood in them at all.  The only people who call them by this name live in parts of the former British Empire, which once shed blood by the millions against the German Empire in a truly senseless war.  However, the Germans did create this breed, but the jingoism of the times has led to that Alsatian name becoming fully fixed in some sectors of the English-speaking world.

And this led to a particular problem in Australia. Australia lived by sheep grazing. Anything that got in the way of sheep grazing.  In the early part of the twentieth century, Australia was quite concerned about the importation of the German shepherd into that country under the assumption that it was a high content wolf dog that would go feral and breed with dingoes. Adding that blood to the dingo would make them even more murderous on sheep, and major livestock interests pushed the Australian government into banning the importation of the breed. The state of Western Australia went even further with its Alsatian Dog Act of 1929, which require all dogs of the breed that had already been imported to be sterilized.

Robert Kaleski, Polish-Australian who wrote at length about dogs in that country in his Australian Barkers and Biters, had a definite bias against the breed. He believed the dogs were derived from German zoo wolves that were crossed with dogs. Kaleski’s parents were both from Poland, and they probably possessed a strong anti-German bias that was passed onto their son, which obviously may have tainted his views on them.  In his text, Kaleski was adamant that these dogs were wolfdogs, and they would be dangerous if allowed to mate with dingoes in the Australian bush.

We can debate about how much wolf is in a German shepherd, but one thing we cannot debate is what a German shepherd is primarily.  The German shepherd is a sheepdog, a sheepdog that was later re-fashioned into a military and police dog. But the dogs still possess strong herding instincts, and many are capable of managing stock.

Kaleski was a major chronicle of the Australian herding dog, including what became the kelpie and the Australian cattle dog. His knowledge of the practical uses of dogs was formidable.

But his erudition on dog origins left a lot to be desire. He was certain that dogs and red foxes could hybridize. He even devoted a whole section of his book to such nonsense, including a photo of a supposed dog-fox cross that looks a lot more like a border collie crossed with a terrier than anything else.  He was certain that dingoes and foxes were crossing in the wild in Australia, and that the dingo-fox was going to be a major agricultural threat as well.

Australia has since allowed the German shepherd in, and I’m absolutely certain that German shepherds have bred with dingoes in the wild. Dingoes are not unicorn creatures that maintain blood purity in the wild. They are feral primitive dogs that will cross with less feral and less primitive dogs whenever they meet them. “Pure” dingoes are almost nonexistent. I don’t think we can say that the scare-mongering lived up to reality. Dingoes and dingo-cross dogs do kill sheep, but nature has a way of selecting out those that would approach the German shepherd in size. Larger dogs require more red meat to survive in the wild, so it would be harder for them to thrive in a land mostly devoid of large prey.

And yes, classifying the dingo and how to handle dingo-domestic dog introgression are controversial topics, but even with our more nuanced understanding of taxonomy, it is difficult to see that importing the German shepherd into Australia led to massive pressures on the sheep industry.

Also, notice that the main concern of Kaleski and the various government entities of Australia was agricultural. They were not at all bothered by what such creatures might do to kangaroos or to other native animals. After all, he was writing at a time when settlers of Tasmania were wiping out the thylacine, an animal that was truly unique to the continent. I guarantee you that the idea of possibly setting up a conservation population of wild thylacines on Australia’s mainland would have as much an anathema to these people as the importation of the German shepherd.

Kaleski was living in a society that was running sheep in the British way. Once the Enclosure had cleared the land of most human inhabitants and the last wolves were finally killed off, sheep were left to graze in nearly wild conditions in parts of the British Isles. Some sheep became “hefted” to the land. The migrated over the mountains and moorland, possessing ancestral knowledge of where to go through the grazing year in much the same way wild sheep roam their mountain territories.

Australian sheep grazers did the same thing. It’s just when they did it, they had to deal with dingoes and thylacines.  They massacred the predators and built huge fences to hold them back.

However, if Kaleski had more knowledge of how Germans used sheepdogs, he would not have been as biased against the breed. German sheep grazers grazed on concessions that often lacked fences. The dogs moved the sheep and kept them in these grazing concessions. The sheep were tame, and the dogs used their large size and wolfy physiques to control the stock.

He may not have seen a use for such a dog in Australia, but he could have seen that it was a very useful herding dog in Europe and would not have joined in the fury that led to the German shepherd ban.

That Alsatian wolf-dog name has not served the breed well, and in the case of Australia, it almost led to its very extirpation from that country.

 

 

We got our first real snow of the year today.  The German shepherds loved it. dare snow nose

Dare does the border collie stalk when playing firt pole.

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creeper

Fetching her kong wubba in the driving snow.

dare fetching the snow

fetching quest and tuna

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quest on the run

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tuna in the snow

quest snow fun

Tuna is half American/half West German show lines that we have co-own with Quest’s breeder. Pending health testing, she will be bred to Quest, a breeding that could produce puppies that could definitely be shown in the AKC ring.

If you see her posted on here, she might be hard to tell apart from Dare because they are both roughly the same coloration and have similar pedigrees. But dare is significantly larger is built in that way that triggers so many keyboard warriors, while Tuna is much more moderate. The genes that make the type are different in American showlines vs German showlines, so when you cross them, you get pretty moderate puppies. The genes are still there, though, so when you breed them back, you can get the type again.

These dogs really love the snow, more so than the other breeds with which I am familiar. They aren’t even from a particularly cold country in Europe, but they have nice, thick coats that are quite functional for harsh conditions. They aren’t arctic breeds, but they are good cold country dogs.

 

 

 

The Enduring One

 

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Ruminant ungulates are among the most amazing species that evolution has produced. Their multi-chambered stomachs give them an ability to turn what is essentially indigestible into energy. They are specialists in their diet, though most eat multiple species of plant, they are bound to eat plant matter. Their fortunes are dictated by the sun, the soil, and the rain. In abundant lands, all they must do is eat, eat and keep an eye or an ear open for the predators.

Their place in nature is meat on the hoof and pervasive predators of plants.  The white-tailed deer predates most of its predators in its ecosystems. The dire wolf,  the Armbruster’s wolf, the Edward’s wolf, the coyote,  and the gray wolf all were new on the land when the white-tails first blew their warning calls at them.  Same with the bobcat and the cougar and the Smilodon and the American lion.   In most of their range, a white-tail will never smell the faintest scent of a wolf or cougar.  The coyote and the bobcat and the odd predatory black bear take their toll, as does the human nimrod.

Humankind knew this continent only in the very recent past. Paleolithic Siberian hunters were the first to take their toll upon the deer. They were later replaced with Europeans and then the whole Anglo-American civilization came to the fore. It hunted the white-tailed deer nearly to extinction. Hides and meat, all of which could be sold the the highest bidder.

But this civilization, the one that almost did the species in, turned out to be its greatest benefactor. Hunting peoples were cleared off.  The age of plastics made leather from hides mostly irrelevant for most household use. Leisure hunters with money began to push for deer conservation and deer reintroduction.

And so the land was turned into this great deer thicket. The oak woods dropped the acorns, and acorns are fine tack for the deer, though their palate evolved in woods dominated with the great American chestnut.  It was felled by an invasive blight, so the deer know the acorn from the white and red oak as its primary food to fatten in the autumn and to corn them through the frigid days of winter.

Sportsmen plant food plots for them. They buy food at the feed store to feed them, which comes in many different brands and innovations.

Farms are being abandoned left and right. And the native lands are returning to thickets. These thickets are cut with the highways of deer. Vast herds of bison and elk are not making their cut upon the same land, so the thickets grow in thick and heavy. The tunnel trails through the jungles cannot accommodate a fully-grown human without the overgrowing branches holding back your wanderings.

The white-tailed deer is the enduring one, relishing the ruins of its North American kingdom, which has, for the moment,  been perfected for its existence. So they go with ruminant stomachs, turning the sunlight and carbon dioxide into muscle and fat.

They endure. And I suspect they will outlast us when it all comes crashing down as ecology’s laws catch up to us.

jaguarundi

One must be very careful using studies of mitochondrial DNA to make conclusions about the natural history of animals. The DNA is inherited matrilinearly. It does not follow the entire genetic legacy of an organism.

However, it can point to the possibility that our understanding of taxonomy is incorrect, and these studies have pointed to multiple cryptic species in what we once thought was only a single one. Gray foxes and black-backed jackals have deep divergences in mitochondrial DNA lineages in populations that are not contiguous, which suggests that there are more species than the single one currently recognized.

Of course, these findings do require more study to figure out if these divergences are reflected in the nuclear DNA. But these studies are just the beginning.

Recently, I came across this paper from PLoS ONE that was published 2017. It looked the mitochondrial DNA of the jaguarundi, a neotropical cat that is most closely related to the cougar. It does range into the United States, but it hasn’t been seen here in decades.

This species has been a bit of problem for molecular biologists, because it is been quite difficult to figure out subspecies. There is little correlation between mitochondrial DNA sequences and morphology, which has made classifying them quite difficult.

But the authors discovered a rather unusual discovery. Using calculations of mutation rate, they found that the two main clades of jaguarundi diverged 3.2 million years ago. The same metric found that jaguarundis and cougars diverged 3.9 million years ago, and the divergence between the two clades of jaguarundi happened earlier than the divergence between lions and common leopards and the divergence between the tiger and the snow leopard.

This discovery does suggest that there at least two species of jaguarundi, which are morphologically indistinguishable.  Of course, the authors make it clear that more evidence from nuclear DNA needs to be included in the analysis, but the discovery does suggest that our classification of the jaguarundi as a single species may be faulty.

 

 

dare e-collar

I have started e-collar conditioning with Dare this week. This process is not cruel, and it involves no punishment.

What it does involve is her learning that very low static stimulation, which I can barely feel, can be turned off if she comes to my side. This process started on a long lead, and now she is doing it off-leash.  Eventually, this low level stimulation will be used to proof other obedience commands.

We are using the Einstein Mini Educator. Her working level, the level where she can feel the stimulation, is at a 6.  The stimulation levels go from 1 to 100.

People hate on these collars because they can definitely be used as a harsh aversive, and yes, they can be used to hurt the dog.  This way of using lower levels of stimulation to proof obedience, though, really isn’t more aversive than a gentle tug on a leash.

So hate these tools all you want. They are effective and are not abusive if used correctly.

 

 

Autumn dog

autumn dog

guatemala black howler

Hybridization between species is aspect of evolution that is only just now becoming recognized as a force in evolution. It is sort of taking a biological app from one species and adapting it another, and most studies on this phenomenon look at the app adaptation aspect of hybridization.

However, hybridization is more often than not less advantageous from a natural selection standpoint. Although these “new apps” and heterosis might be good for hybrids, many hybrids are sterile. Or if they aren’t sterile, one sex will either be absent or sterile.

Species generally have mechanisms that prevent hybridization. Many of these are behavioral.   For example, related bird species often won’t exchange genes because the female are simply not attracted to the males’ songs.  But there are molecular responses against hybridization as well.

One of the most contentious hypotheses about hybridization between species is that of reinforcement. What this hypothesis contend is that when two species begin to hybridize readily, there will be a strong selection for greater genetic distance between the two hybridizing species. With greater genetic variation, it will be less likely that the two species will be able to produce viable offspring, and over time, there will be fewer hybrids in the population.

This hypothesis has not been tested much. However, a study of two species of howler monkey in the Mexican state of Tabasco revealed that, yes, reinforcement is a thing.

Mantled and Guatemalan black howler monkeys diverged from a common ancestor about 3 million years ago. The two species have only a narrow contact zone, which is thought to have formed only 10,000 years ago in this tiny part of Mexico.

The researchers examined loci of the genomes of specimens of both species, including those in the hybrid zone. They found that the genetic difference between the two species was greater at the hybrid zone than from monkeys that lived in other regions. This discovery supports the hypothesis of reinforcement.  The greater genetic difference between the two species at the hybrid zone means that this greater genetic difference likely has evolved as a way of keeping the two species from producing lots of hybrids, which might not be as fit or  as good at reproducing in the wild as pure ones.

This discovery of reinforcement means that we have another tool in sorting out whether two species make sense. If we discover that there is greater genetic difference at a hybrid zone between the two species, then we know that they really are quite taxonomically distinct.  If we find the opposite, it means that hybrids aren’t deleterious in the population, and hybridization is either advantageous or neutral for the populations.

Yes, I would like to see this hypothesis tested on the various hybridizing canid populations in the gray wolf species complex. My guess is that it doesn’t exist in these animals, because hybridization isn’t that deleterious. And the genetic divergence isn’t that great to start out with.

But this study gives us a good idea of how hybridization operates in populations, and how some populations evolve to restrict gene flow.

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