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I hate biology by Facebook meme. We’re living in a time of great natural history illiteracy, but we’re also living at a time in which people want to respect and learn about nature.

Virginia opossums are one of the most common species in the United States. They fit nicely in suburbia, and they are quite often encountered.

They are not cute, at least by conventional standards of cuteness, and when you encounter them, they stand with their mouths open in a gape threat display. They usually drool and generally look nasty.

So well-meaning people have tried to make the opossum look good, and in doing so, they have decided to bullshit people.

Bullshitting about any animal is a bad conservation strategy.

One common statement is that “many studies” or “a study” have shown that opossums are smarter than dogs and cats.

I had to hunt to find that citation! You’d think that such a groundbreaking discovery would be all over the clickbait science press, but no, it’s actually rather obscure study.

It was a study that was performed in the 1950s using the Fink arrow maze. It is really just a test to see if an animal can remember where it was fed before.  The researcher who did the research was a W.T. James, and he performed some other studies on the species, which did not show such a marked ability among the opossums. They are capable of learning.

Other researchers looked into the opossum’s intelligence and have generally found it lacking. Indeed, a 1965 study revealed that opossums were much worse than rats at learning how to follow a maze.

The 1950s study is the only one that compared dogs and opossums, and we live in a time in which a new cognitive study on dogs is released every month or so. Dogs are pretty intelligent animals. They have evolved some cognitive shortcuts that have allowed them to live in close concert with humans and to learn from humans.

So you have one study that shows opossums are more intelligent than dogs and you think that is worth posting on a Facebook meme?

It’s bullshitting people.

The truth is opossums don’t have to be smart to be successful. What makes them successful are two simple things: they reproduce rapidly and they will eat virtually anything.

They also can live their whole lives next to people and never really bother anything. Opossums are far less obnoxious to have around than raccoons are.  Raccoons tear things up. They open up garbage bins. They den in chimneys. They kill cats and eat their food.

A raccoon is an intelligent animal. They know how to open up chicken coops and eat all the chickens. They know how to open up gates and get into cornfields.

An opossum will just trundle around and not cause too much trouble.

It works for them.

And yes, they eat ticks and can prevent the spread of Lyme disease.

But they aren’t smarter than super social carnivorans.

So when you see these memes posted on Facebook about how wonderful opossums are, keep in mind that the claim about opossum intelligence being greater than dogs comes from a single study.

It’s bullshitting people. This study is useful, but it’s 60 years old. And no one has attempted to replicate it or tried to draw deeper meaning in the general comparison of cognitive abilities between dogs and opossums.

So yeah, one study. Interesting discovery, but it hasn’t been replicated. Also it doesn’t match what else we know about the two species.

It’s just one of those things you run across in a literature review and wonder about.

A much better understanding of opossums is they are primitive mammals. I don’t mean that they are inferior in this sense. I mean that they very similar to the first mammals that ever existed, and they have retained these primitive, generalized traits for tens of millions years.

That’s pretty amazing.

And it’s not bullshitting people.

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The North America wildlife management strategy is best described in this video:

Just a few days ago, NPR reported that the percentage of people hunting in the United States has dwindled to 5 percent, and this lack of hunter participation is hamstringing wildlife management departments all over America.

The North American model’s main funding mechanism, which isn’t really mentioned in the Rinella piece, comes from two main sources, hunting license and taxes paid on hunting equipment. Right now, if you buy ammunition or a sporting gun, there is an 11 percent sales tax, which comes from the Pittman-Robertson Act.  There is a 10 percent sales tax on pistols and revolvers, and that money goes to the Department of the Interior, where it is then distributed to the states and territories for conservation purposes.

With gun and ammunition sales often driven by speculation and fear-mongering about gun control (which is now in the news again), it is unlikely that this source will dry up in the near future.

The real problem is lower hunter participation. With fewer and fewer hunters taking out after game each year, the coffers of state wildlife agencies become emptier and emptier. The election of so many Republican legislatures nationwide also means that the states are less likely to offer up alternative revenue for wildlife management agencies. So many people who are hunters vote Republican, but in the end, the Republican Party isn’t about increase taxes on anything to keep spending money on what some view as a socialist enterprise in our wildlife management system.

So we live at a time when our public management system is under attack from conservative force but is being starved by an increasingly urban and liberal public. Yes, an increasingly liberal and urban society isn’t going to be spending money on hunting licenses.

It is a perfect storm of bad ideas from the right and the left.  It is easy for hunters to attack urban people. We all have this concept of the New Jersey cat lady, who has 25 cats in her house and does TNR with the alley cats and goes to great length to raise hell when the bear season comes every year.  That is someone who definitely does exist, but it is a caricature of what liberal, urban America actually is.

Most people who live in these areas vote Democrat, but they don’t really have a strong opinion about hunting. And because they really don’t know anyone who hunts, they are very easily manipulated by animal rights organizations. They are manipulated by ignorance.

Ignorance is nothing to be ashamed of. I’m ignorant about many things. We all are. If your day-to-day existence doesn’t include much wildlife, it is easy to think that those animal rights people actually do know what they’re talking about. If you don’t know anyone who hunts, it is easy to accept the premise that all hunters are right wingers who love their Donald Trump and Ted Nugent.

And hunters have responded to this stigmatization by wrapping themselves up in right wing politics, which will likely turn out to be the biggest strategic move that hunters could have made.

Right now, the Republican base is aging, and fewer and fewer young people each year register as Republicans. By wrapping hunting up into the greater ideals of conservatism rather than conservation, hunters are going to suffer greatly as the next generation of voters shuns the Republican Party.

That’s going to be bad for wildlife, too. They will not be buying tags for hunting, and they won’t be buying guns and ammunition either.

So both revenue sources for the North American Model will be drying up.

One could simply add canoes, camping equipment, and cameras to the goods subject to the Pittman-Robertson taxes, because then you’d have non-hunting wildlife enthusiasts paying for conservation.

That solution would require legislation, and I am not certain if people who are engaged in those activities would support those taxes. Businesses that sell those items would likely not be happy with adding a cost to their sales prices.

So the only real solution is to find a way to destigmatize hunting for the younger and more urban generation.

The first thing that hunters who are interested in the future should do is take on the cause of conservation.  It is not helpful for hunters to be deniers of scientific facts, especially when it comes to climate change. People under a certain age will not buy any of that stuff.  Demographically, that battle has been lost, whether you’re right or not. (And you aren’t).

If you can sell hunting as an ethical way to manage forests, say show how killing a some white-tailed deer every year promotes the regeneration of oak forest, then you’re making some headway. Also show how humanely you kill a deer, explain that a single shot to the heart, which is kills in seconds, is far more merciful than a lingering death in the March woods when all the acorns are gone.

The other thing hunters must do is realize that conservatism is a lost cause. Conservatism isn’t going to save your guns, because consevatism is a discredited ideology for the generation that is about to take power. What will save your guns is recognizing the need for meaningful gun legislation and making dead certain that you understand that hunting is primarily about conservation. It is a “green” idea to hunt deer, and being green isn’t a bad thing, because it ensures that wild places will continue to exist.

If you’re going to hold onto these ideas and attack young people, then they will not listen to you, and they WILL listen to the animal rights extremists, who honestly don’t have a very good grounding in conservation principles at all. Animal rights extremists know how to do publicity right. They know how to do politics.

Most hunting organizations know only how to operate in a system in which conservative politics reigns or has the potential to reign. The new world for hunting organizations is figuring out how to exist in a society that doesn’t regard socialism as a dirty word and views climate change as a major issue that must be addressed.

Hunting can survive, but only if hunting organizations realize that real world has changed. And it’s up to us to be much more effective at destigmatizing field sports.

I know this is easy for me. I’ve never been a conservative. I was raised in a family of liberal deer hunters, so it’s not like I really have to change my approach.

But I am only one person.

For those hunters who disagree with me, I have two questions:

Do you really think Ted Nugent has changed the minds of enough young people to keep hunting a part of America’s conservation heritage for decades to come?

Do you think Donald Trump has added to his electoral base since the 2016 election?

You know the answers to both questions.

And that’s why we are going to have this big challenge ahead of us for the future of hunting and conservation in this country.

 

 

No Permanence

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My grandpa’s deck. The great feeding ground for countless songbirds.

The snow hangs around in patches where the sun doesn’t hit it directly. Beneath the bows of the white pine and the steep northern slopes of a hollow, it holds on cold and white.

The cardinals have stopped their flitting forays in somber in winter flocks. The trees rise with cardinal song, and the cockbirds are resplendent red and game for scuffles in the woodlots. The sun comes in casting stronger now, and the days are lengthening. And testosterone levels drive the redbirds into their coming days orgy.

A band of three whitetail does stands upon the dormant grass. The starving time is now, when the acorn crop has long since been exhausted and so have their fat reserves. The land has yet to bring forth the green grass and chewy twigs of spring, and so they live in hunger.

But the cardinals will soon have their nests and screaming broods to feed. The white-tail does will shed out their mousy-gray coats of winter and replace them with fine pelts of tawny. And then they’ll seek the thickets of greenbrier,  multiflora rose, and bracken and drop their spotted fawns into the May balmy.

Today, I was at my grandparents’ house. My parents have rented it out since my grandpa’s death, and now, they are between renters.  All landlords know that time between renters is a time to clean and renovate and do improvements.

I came to pick up some garbage left on the premises. I hadn’t been on this property since the November of 2011, when I was left to watch some Jack Russell pups while my parents and my aunt and uncle went off to attend to some of my grandpa’s final affairs.

It felt eerie to stand on that property today, a place where I spent countless happy childhood hours. I see my grandpa’s beloved Colorado blue spruce, a shelter for so many songbirds in winter, now standing nearly needle-less against the sky.  It too has fallen into death.

I then passed by the grove of spruce where my grandpa sat every evening and every morning. He would sit in his wooden chair and stare out of over the old pasture. His blue eyes glanced on countless numbers of deer that came there to graze. They even fell upon an errant emu, which he initially mistook for a bear.

To left of the spruce grove is a black cherry tree that stands at the edge of another old pasture, and a carefully placed birdhouse was the nesting box for a great many generations of bluebird.

But when I passed the spruce grove today, I saw that his wooden chair had a broken leg, and it stood sideways and unstable as if it were crumbling away into the earth.

The cherry limb that held the bluebird box had fallen to the ground, and the birdhouse was bashed to pieces. Only one of the sides and the board with the opening remained intact.

The former renters put up a cheap above ground swimming pool. It lies beside the outbuilding where I kept my hamster puppy mill. I could still smell the motor oil and sawdust and hamster piss, but that damned pool just took away from it all.

Below the pool is the dog cemetery, where several generations of good dogs now lie.  I think there is something almost sacrilegious about putting an above ground pool so close to a dog cemetery. It is on those grounds that Miley was laid to rest last summer, and just yards from her lies Dixie, my grandpa’s last dog. A beagle cross of some sort, she live out most of her 18 years on this land, spending her mornings and evenings resting beneath my grandpa’s wooden chair and glowering out at any dogs that bother to approach her place near the throne.

The pool will gone soon enough.  New renters will move in. They will bring in new things. I won’t set foot on that property so long as they live there.

They will not know the summer evenings when I’d beg my grandpa to take me fishing at his bluegill pond that lay just across the gravel road. They will not know of my grandmother’s big hugs and special pancakes.

They will not know that the first story I ever wrote and illustrated was in that house. I did the illustration, and the writing was all by dictation. It was a story about the beagle named Willie, the one that used to watch my playpen while my parents worked on their home just down the road.  I gave the words to my grandmother, and she obliged my puny childhood prose.

They won’t know about my early forays into wildlife photography, when I set up the cushions to the deck furniture up against the sliding glass door so that I could have my own photography blind. I was mimicking Dieter Plage, who set up his own blinds to photograph birds in the jungles. My grandpa fed the wild birds on his deck, and you could watch them all day through the sliding glass door. But I thought I had to do it, so I could see the birds.

My photos were all crappy.  They were out of focus, and I often got better photos of the deck furniture than the birds. But it was all in good fun.

The new renters will come with their own lives, their own histories. They will make their memories there.

And I will hold onto to mine. I will keep them buried until something rises them from my psyche. If I stand on that property, they will be evoked again. I will feel sorrow and sadness.

I will miss those beautiful days of youth and my two loving grandparents.

But I must let them live within me.

There may be no permanence to this world.  But they live on in my memories.

My grandpa once told me that grandchildren were the most important generation, for they are the last ones who will remember what their grandparents were like as people and not as characters in stories told to the younger ones.

I think that this is true. In fact, it is beyond true. It is profound.

As long as my memory works, they will live as real as they were, and I must make sure that I create memories for my younger relatives. That way, I can live on in their minds, as my grandparents do with me.

This is the afterlife I know really exists, and though one will not know it in one’s passing, it will be some solace to know that one’s life touched someone else enough that they remember you.

Our existence is a fleeting deer. Blink once and the tawny form will bound away from the sunshine and into the deepest thicket, where your eyes will be able to make out its form again.

So the eyes must be open to sear that deer’s essence on the psyche before it goes out of sight.

red wolf female

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a bit of skeptic on the validity of the red wolf as a species.

In the early days of this blog, I thought it was probably a primitive form of Canis lupus that interbred coyotes, which is why it has such coyote-like mitochondrial DNA.  I thought its similarities with the Indian wolf were awfully compelling, but I was always leery of suggestions that it represented a full species called Canis rufus.

But then we started getting full genome analysis on red wolves, starting in 2011, when the first comparative assay of red wolf, gray wolf, and coyote genomes was published.

This study showed that red wolves were hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes.  This creates an enormous problem for the red wolf’s protections under the ESA, for the language of the statute doesn’t allow for the protection of hybrids. 2011 was first year of Republican majorities in the House of Representatives since Obama’s election, and I noted at the time that it would not be long before conservative forces began to push the red wolf out.

Since that study came out, a group of landowners in Eastern North Carolina have come out with complaints about red wolves. At the time of that study, there were very few documented complaints about them, but now there is an organized movement. Sometimes there videos are a bit in poor taste, but they have recently figured out some pretty savvy tactics, such as playing up the carnage against coyotes, including nursing pups that are hybrids between coyotes and putative red wolves.

The biggest complaint these landowners have is that red wolves were released upon private property, which generally would bother most people.  These landowners worked hard on getting their issues before the North Carolina Wildlife Services Commission, which in 2015, voted on a resolution requesting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end the program.

Then, two things happened in 2016, one of these was new full-genome comparison study, which I have written about quite extensively. It revealed that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across the continent, and yes, red wolves are mostly coyote and only partially gray wolf in ancestry.  A full genome comparison is a much better analysis than an assay of a genome, because the researchers were looking at a much fuller picture.

This makes the red wolf even harder to defend as a distinct species.

That same year, the  US Fish and Wildlife Service began rolling back its red wolf recovery program.

In 2017, the program’s standing was then on quite unstable ground. The election of a Republican president with a very pro-sportsman secretary of the interior pretty much meant that the red wolf would be on shaky ground.

In November of 2017, a Senate panel voted in a directive for the US Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the red wolf as part of a spending package that funds the Department of the Interior.

I’ve been following this story since that vote. I’ve been expecting this directive to appear in the various last minute spending bills that have gone through over the last few months.

It hasn’t, but there is still a lot of political pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to drop the red wolf in the updated Red Wolf Recovery Plan, which will be out some time this year.

This animal the biggest clusterf*ck in the history of wildlife conservation on this continent, and its problems are even more hampered by sort of unwillingness to accept that this not a surviving lineage of an ancient North American wolf.

Most people who love red wolves love to attack the full-genome study from 2016, but in that study, there might yet be a way to save them.

The legal definition of a species in the ESA is as follows: ”any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or wildlife which interbreeds when mature.”

In that study that gets lambasted by red wolf advocates, there is section of note, which reveals a recent split between the gray wolf and the coyote. Most of the literature on gray wolf and coyote genetics suggested a million-year split from a common ancestor. That particular study found only about 50,000-year split, which is roughly equivalent to when extant forms of Canis lupus radiated across Eurasia and North America.

Therefore, one could make the argument that coyotes are a subspecies of Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a hybrid between two subspecies and not an interspecific hybrid.

Under that definition, the red wolf would meet the species requirement under the ESA.

Of course, this strategy will never happen. Coyotes are not regulated as proper game animals in most states. In mine, you can kill one at any time. There are no bag limits, and you can hunt them with lights from January 1 to July 31.

Wolves are not managed the same way. Indeed, in most of the US gray wolves are a listed species, and you cannot kill them. In the states that do have a wolf season, there are strict bag limits and tagging requirements.

The politicians will probably cut the red wolf off.  It is very unlikely that this animal will be able to survive as a pure species, even if it were shown to be a genetically distinct species, because it readily breeds with coyotes. And once coyotes show up anywhere, it is virtually impossible to reduce their numbers.

Further, the coyotes that are coming into North Carolina are also hybridized a bit. They do have some wolf ancestry, though not as much as the putative red wolves do.

So to keep the red wolf going, we have to kill off another canid that genetically quite similar to the one we’re trying to save.

It is rather perverse in a way.

I say this as someone who really does support the Endangered Species Act and the Fish and Wildlife Service, but the red wolf issues ultimately harm the credibility of the act.

And that’s why I am such a negative nabob about them.

 

 

 

 

DANW

atila and the wolf

Photo by Tanja Askani.

In paleontology, a group of scholars exists largely on the fringe of the discipline. No matter what evidence is provided, they find some way to pump out a paper that says that birds cannot be dinosaurs. An established scholar or two will the publish and beat them down, but there is still an idea in the public mind that there is a debate between dinosaur experts about whether birds are a specific type of theropod dinosaur.

These scholars are known as BAND (“birds are not dinosaurs”), and they do get the attention of the popular press, even if ignored by the mainstream scholarship.

I’ve noticed in that in all my years writing about dogs and their taxonomy that there is a similar group in this sphere as well.  The difference is this group had the backing of one of the leading authorities on dogs in the world, Raymond Coppinger.

Coppinger was certain that dogs had to be classified as Canis familiaris, based upon a very crude ecological species concept. Village dogs that scavenge off human civilization hold a different niche than pack-hunting wolves, ergo, they are different species. Never mind that if we applied that same standard strictly, Arabian wolves, which scavenge a lot and don’t often hunt large prey, would be a different species from arctic wolves or any of the moose, elk, or bison-hunting wolves we have in North America.

If we are to adhere to cladistic classification, though, it is virtually impossible to create arbitrary species for dogs. The reason is best summed up in this paper that compared genomes of many wolves and a few dogs that have origins on different continents. The authors concluded:

 [W]ithin the Old World clade, wolf and dog represent sister taxa. Therefore, suggestions that the dog or dingo are a separate species (Canis familiaris) (e.g., Crowther et al. 2014) would cause gray wolves to be a polyphetic taxon; and consequently, our results support dogs as a divergent subspecies of the wolf. This result has societal significance as legislation in some countries and regional governments consider wolves and dogs as distinct species restricting the possession, interbreeding, or the use of vaccines and medications in wolves or dog–wolf hybrids if they have only been approved for use in dogs. In this sense, analysis of evolutionary history informs law and veterinary practice, as dog lineages are nearly as distinct from one another as wolves are from dogs, and the justification for treating dogs and wolves differently is questionable.

That pretty much should end this discussion. What these authors found and has been discovered in other papers is that dogs descend from a ghost population of gray wolves, Eurasian gray wolves, to be exact.

Lots of other experts agree with this assessment. Darcy Morey, an archaeologist with a great expertise in the study of Pleistocene wolves and early domestic dogs, has the address for his website as “dogsarewolves.com.” He and Rujana Jeger have formulated a conceptual framework of dog domestication that is quite unique. Basing their model upon trophic strategies on behalf of the wolves and shifting perceptions of humans, the authors contend that wolves that became dogs attached themselves to people. These early humans were often already acting as the apex predators in the ecosystem of the Pleistocene, and the wolves that did join up with people were able to take advantage of this niche.  Pleistocene wolves were not operating as apex predators in a faunal guild that included machairiodonts, cave lions, cave bears, and Pleistocene spotted hyenas, but when those animals became extinct, the wild wolves became the apex predators of Eurasia.  The wolves that hooked up to people joined humanity in agricultural societies and joined us as apex consumers. When humans began to domesticate other livestock,  wild wolves were seen as competitors and killed off.

The idea that dogs are not wolves does have some currency, especially if you’re quite stuck on Southeast Asian origins for domestic dogs. Vladimir Dinets believes that wild Canis familiaris was some kind tropical Southeast Asian canid that was related to but not descended from Canis lupus.  There is still a massive debate as to where dogs originated, and it should be noted that there are as many good papers that have concluded European or Central Asian origins as have suggested as Southeast Asian origins.

The reason you would go for wild Canis familiaris in Southeast Asia as the ancestor is that Southeast Asia is one of the few places in Eurasia that never has had gray wolves living there. In these schools of thought, much emphasis is placed upon Canis variabilis a possibly being the wild ancestor. Of course, Canis variabilis disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago, and no serious scholar thinks dogs diverged from wolves that early.

The real problem is the genetic closeness between wolves and dogs, and that same genome comparison study mentioned earlier shows a significant gene flow between wolves and domestic dogs. Up to a quarter of all Eurasian wolf genomes likely have some dog ancestry, and in East Asian wolves, the dog component of their genome can be as high as 20 percent. In European and Middle Eastern wolves, the dog component can be as high as 25 percent.

The only thing that keeps dogs from swamping the Eurasian gray wolf population with dog genes is the reproductive and territorial behavior of wolves. Wolves generally allow only one female to raise her pups. Wolves generally kill dogs that wander onto their territories, and they will kill dogs that are in territories they wish to claim.

But dog genes are getting into the wolf population at pretty high rate in Eurasia, a much higher rate than you would think of for two distinct species.

A lot of the people who have a hard time recognizing dogs as wolves are tired of bad dog training advice that is based upon bad wolf science.  They might also be tired of claims from the raw feeding community that say we must feed dogs like wolves.

But just because people misuse the classification does not infer that the classification is wrong.

Cladistically and genetically, dogs represent a now extinct population of Eurasian gray  wolves.  If these terms mean anything, then dogs are Canis lupus familiaris.

These theorists are always going to have a reason to say that dogs are not wolves, just like the BAND theorists.  Indeed, it may be necessary to refer to them as DANW (Dan-double u), for they are they are coming up with reasons to avoid classifying dogs as wolves, no matter how much genetic or archaeological evidence is presented.

In the grand scheme of things, classifying dogs has little effect on our practical understanding of them, but this continuous phylogeny denial makes the dog world seem oddly out of step.

No one would miss a beat if you called a Hereford a domesticated aurochs.  A pekin duck a domesticated mallard? No problem.

But if you say dogs are wolves, which they clearly are, then you’re anti-science.

I’m not, though. You’re the one rejecting cladistics for your special classification model.

I’m adhering to the same model that would be accepted with any domestic species and its wild ancestor.

You’re just rejecting it because you think that’s what the science says. Maybe, but it’s hard to argue with DNA.

But they do it on Maury Povich every day, so why not?

Update: A more recent study that examined the genomes of gray wolves from across their range revealed that 62 percent of all Eurasian wolves have some dog ancestry. That’s much higher than the genome comparison study mentioned above. 

 

black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.

 

African golden wolf

What we do know about the origins of Canis species is much more hotly-contested than what we know about the evolution of our own species. The earliest fossils of the genus are roughly 6 million years old, and the oldest species in the “wolf lineage” is Canis lepophagus, which lived in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico 5 million years ago.  This species is often posited as the direct ancestor of the coyote, and it may have been a direct ancestor of all the entire wolf-like canid lineage.

Of course, recent discoveries that have come from full genome comparisons make things a little complicated. With the discovery that coyotes diverged from gray wolves as recently as 50,000 years ago, the linear evolution from Canis lepophagus to Canis latrans is probably invalid.  Further another full genome study that used a single Israeli golden jackal (Canis aureus) as the outgrouping sample to determine when dogs and gray wolves split, revealed that this particular jackal diverged from gray wolves less than 400,000 years ago.

Both of these dates are far more recent that the millions of years that are assumed to separate these wolf-like canids from each other. Of course, more work must be done. We need more studies on coyote genomes, but these researchers have come across what could be the most important discovery in our understanding of the evolution of Canis species. Depending upon the study, coyotes and gray wolves were thought to have diverged between 700,000 to 1 million years ago, and this assumption is used to calculate when other Canis have diverged.

Now, this assumption always did bother me, because if Canis lepophagus leads directly to Canis latrans, where do wolves fit in?  Because in order for that model to work, gray wolves have to evolve from a very small coyote-like ancestor with very few transitions in between. It always just seemed to me like it was unworkable.

Further, there is a whole host of literature on the evolution of gray wolves in Eurasia, and in most European literature, there is a general acceptance of how gray wolves evolved from a smaller wolf called Canis mosbachensis.

Wolfgang Soergel, a German paleontologist at the University of Tübingen, discovered Canis mosbachensis at a site near Jockgrim in 1925. The animal is sometimes called the “Mosbach wolf,” which means it was found in the Mosbach Sands, where many fossils from the Middle Pleistocene have been found.

Mark Derr was particularly interested in this species in his How the Dog Became the Dog.  He points out that the earliest dated fossils of this species are 1.5 million years old and come from the ‘Ubeidiya excavations in Israel.  The most recent Canis mosbachensis remains in Europe are about 400,000 years old, after which time they were replaced by Canis lupus.  Derr speculated about the relationship mosbachensis might have had with early hominin species, which were also well-known from that site, and suggested that they might had some kind of relationship.

Further, there is a growing tendency among paleontologists to group Canis mosbachensis with another wolf that was its contemporary. This wolf, called Canis variabilis, was discovered at the Zhoukoudian Cave System in China in 1934. Its discoverer was Pei Wenzhong, who became respected paleontologist, archaeologist, and anthropologist in the People’s Republic of China. It was a small wolf with a proportionally smaller brain, and it has long been a subject of great speculation.

And this speculation tends to get lots of attention, for this cave system is much more famous for the discovery of a type of Homo erectus called “Peking Man.”  It is particularly popular among the people who insist that dogs are not wolves, which is about as scientifically untenable as the “birds are not dinosaurs” (BAND) clique of scholarship.

Mark Derr and as well as more established scholarship have begun to group variabilis and mosbachensis together. Variablis has also been found in Yakutia, and it may have been that varibablis nothing more than an East Asian variant of mosbachensis.

These wolves were not large animals. They varied from the size of an Eastern coyote to the size of an Indian wolf. They were not the top dogs of the Eurasian predator guild.

Indeed, they played second fiddle to a larger pack-hunting canid called Xenocyon lycaonoides, a large species that is sometimes considered ancestral to the African wild dog and the dhole, but the recent discovery of Lycaon sekoweiwhich was a much more likely ancestor of the African wild dog, suggests that it was more likely a sister species to that lineage.

Although canids resembling Canis lupus have been found in Alaska and Siberia that date to 800,000 years ago, anatomically modern wolves are not confirmed in the Eurasian faunal guild until 300,000-500,000 years before present.

I’m throwing a lot of dates at you right now, because if the modern Canis lupus species is as recent as the current scholarship suggests, then we can sort of begin to piece together how the entire genus evolved.

And we’re helped by the fact that we have an ancient DNA study on a Yakutian “Canis variablis” specimen. This specimen would have been among the latest of its species, for it has been dated to 360,000 years before present. Parts of its ancient mitochondrial DNA has been compared to other sequences from ancient wolves, and it has indeed confirmed that this animal is related to the lineage that leads to wolves and domestic dogs.  The paper detailing its findings suggests that there is a direct linkage between this specimen and modern dog lineages, but one must be careful in interpreting too much from limited mitochondrial DNA studies.

360,000 years ago is not that far from the proposed divergence between gray wolves and the Israel golden jackal in genome comparison study I mentioned at the beginning of the post.

This really could suggest something a bit controversial and bold. It make take some time for all this to be tested, but it is a hypothesis worth considering.

I suggest that all this evidence shows that Canis mosbachensis is the ancestor of all interfertile Canis, with the possible exception of the Ethiopian wolf.

If the Ethiopian wolf is not descended from that species, then it is a sister taxon. It is not really clear how divergent Ethiopian wolves are from the rest of interfertile Canis, but their divergence estimates currently suggest that it diverged from the rest of the wolf-like clade 1.6 million years ago, which is just before Canis mosbachensis appears in the fossil record.

If that more recent date holds for the split for the Eurasian golden jackal, then it is almost certain that this hypothesis is correct.  The Eurasian golden jackal may be nothing more than a sister species to a great species complex that includes the coyote, gray wolf, dingo, and domestic dog that both derived from divergent populations of Canis mosbachensis. 

The exact position of the Himalayan wolf and the African golden wolf are still not clear. We do know, though, that both are more closely related to the coyote and gray wolf than the Eurasian golden jackal is, and if its split from the gray wolf is a recent as less than 400,000 years ago, then it is very likely that all of these animals are more closely related to the main Holarctic population of gray wolves than we have assumed.

The recent divergence of all these Canis species is why there is so much interfertility among them.

And if these animals are as recently divergent as is inferred, their exact species status is going to be questioned.

And really should be, at least from a simple cladistics perspective.

More work does need to be done, but I don’t think my hypothesis is too radical.

It just seems that this is a possibility that could explored.

 

 

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