Strange California canid

California coyote

I don’t know the original source of this photo, but it appears to be of a coyote or coydog in the West.  If this is a wild coyote or coydog, then this would be evidence of hybridization between dogs and coyotes outside the East. My initial source said it was in California.

If anyone knows, I would greatly appreciate it.

Update  (3 September 2016): This animal was photographed in Baja California, which is in Mexico.  There isn’t much written about coyote hybrids outside of the US and Canada, but it is assumed that they do happen in Mexico and Central America. Pre-Columbian civilizations in Mexico did cross coyotes. dogs, and Mexican wolves in their menageries. 

Raccoon picnic

This family of raccoons came by to eat some deer pellets and nibble on the feed block.


I didn’t think I’d do another one of these, but my conscience has been dragged back into it.

Jemima Harrison posted this morning (my time) about a friend’s flat-coated retriever who died at the age of 7. Both the dog’s parents were dead before they were 8 years old.

I used to follow this dog’s owner’s blog, way back when there was a more active dog blogosphere. I remember when she was born, and I remember when her mother died.

I’ve always admired this breed. It was once the most common retriever in Britain, and I love all those old paintings and photographs of the dogs at pheasant and partridge shoots.

At one point in my life, I thought I wanted one of these dogs. They were sleeker and more agile than golden retrievers, and I’d always preferred golden retrievers that came in that body type, even if the show ring never did.

But then I looked at the health of the dogs, and I decided that I would pass.

A golden retriever is already a notorious tumor factor. That there could be a retriever in worse shape with regard to cancer was something that really did bother me.

I used to wonder if this breed could be made more viable if they did some crossbreeding, but virtually every breeder in the breed is so opposed to it that having rational discussions with them is like talking to a creationist or someone who believes that Bush did 9/11. Their job, regardless of the facts, is to come up with ways to justify keeping the gene pool walled off.

And at that point, I knew the problem would never be solved.

It’s taken me a while to realize that no amount of explanation will change anything.

It’s that way with just about every breed of dog. If it’s not flat-coats and cancer, then it’s bulldogs and everything that’s wrong with them. Or pugs.

After doing this for years and years, I’ve stopped having any confidence that any of these problems will be solved, and I’m not wasting my time.

So we’ll hold onto closed studbooks, “linebreeding for health” or some other delusion, until we hit the eventually genetic dead-ends of several breeds.

The population of canids known as “domestic dogs” will continue on, because the vast majority of North Americans will choose things other than registered dogs. And the village, street, and pariah dog populations will still be there in other parts of the world.

But as for the Western “purebred” dog, its future is quite tenuous indeed.

And when you’re powerless to stop something, you’re better off giving yourself some distance.

That’s what I have done.





Why wild dogs now

red wolf posed

Red wolf. The best photo of one. They may not be a species like was hoped, but they are still beautiful animals.

I’ve moved on from domestic dogs. I’ve been searching for a topic for this blog for some time now, because I’m utterly disillusioned with the world of domestic dogs. I entered into that world in pursuit of the ghosts of dogs long past. I let them live a while here, but I never found them in their true essence again.

I will always love dogs, and at some point, I may write about them again.

But the world of domestic dogs is complex. It is firmly tied to the world of people, and people are complex. Dog people allow themselves to project their egos through the dogs to the point where it becomes really hard to have frank and honest discussions about anything.

So I’ve turned to the dogs that have not created a niche for themselves by attaching themselves to our culture.  Some, like coyotes and red foxes, readily scavenge from the excesses of our civilization, but they are not part of human kind. Different cultures may have worshiped the wild dogs, as we do in our own sort of New Agey, ecological worldview.

But they remain distinct from us.

They get to roam without leashes or collars. They don’t follow commands or guard anything but their own territories. They hunt to feed themselves.

And they usually avoid direct observation by our kind.

They are dogs without licenses, except “license’ to be themselves, living out the lives for which eons of evolution have molded them. They choose their own mates. They roll in the stinkiest dung. The only masters they know are forces of nature.

And those masters can be incredibly cruel.

They die of starvation, of distemper or rabies, of mange, and of jaws of other predators, including the jaws of their own kind.

And they continue to be.

Dogs without masters are an affront to all that is holy.

And in their existence is true subversion.

So at this stage, I side with the rebel and the renegades and not the docile sagacity of the domestics.

They may yet return, but right now, I’m beguiled by the brush wolf in the gray March woods.

And it is upon his trail that I shall follow now.



Population control

population control

hagenbeck's wolf

One of the great enigmas in the world of canid zoology is the case of Hagenbeck’s wolf.

Hagenbeck’s wolf is a proposed species based upon one pelt.

The pelt came from an animal dealer in Argentina, who sold it to Lorenz Hagenbeck in 1926. Hagenbeck claimed there were four such skins, but he purchased only one. The dealer claimed they came from a wild dog that lived in Andes.

It was sent to Germany and wound up in the museums of Munich. In 1940, a zoologist named Ingo Krumbiegel examined the pelt. The pelt’s color was black and fur was much longer than other canids from the region. He assumed that it belonged to a undescribed montane species of maned wolf.

Krumbiegel ignored the pelt until 1947, when it began looking at again. In that year, he learned from Lorenz Hagenbeck that there were three other pelts just like it. That got Krumbiegel thinking. He had received from the Andes. He had thought the skull belonged to a maned wolf, but it was much larger than any maned wolf he’d ever examined or read about.

He thought that maybe this skull came from the same species as the one with the black pelt. It measured over 30 centimeters in length, while the typical maned wolf skull is only 25 inches in length

Krumbiegel began to reconstruct the animal from the skin. The “mane” on the neck of the pelt was 8 inches long.  He noticed the legs were a lot shorter than the typical maned wolf, which is creature of open woodland and grassland habitats and uses its long legs to help it see, hear, and smell over the tall grass.  He drew sketches of what he imagined this montane maned wolf looked like.

Krumbiegel thought the animal was unique enough that it deserved its own genus. He initially gave it the name Oreocyon hagenbecki or “Hagenbeck’s mountain dog,” but on learning that Oreocyon had been used before, he changed it to Dasycyon hagenbecki–“Hagenbeck’s thick (furred) dog.”

That proposed name has been the one that has been floating around cryptozoology circles ever since. Bernard Heuvelmans, the dean of cryptozoologists, thought that if Hagenbeck’s wolf really was that similar to the maned wolf, then it might be more properly classified as part of Chrysocyon.

The big maned wolf skull was lost during the war, so Krumbiegel was unable to make additional measurements of it.

In 2000, there was an attempt to do a DNA test on the pelt, but the researchers were unable to get uncontaminated DNA from it.  The pelt had been chemically treated, making recovery of DNA from it quite difficult.

The most likely explanation is that this pelt belonged to a domestic dog. Perhaps there was a population of domestic dogs that went feral in the Andes. They were prick-eared and black-coated, and they were thought of as “wild dogs.”

But they were actually feral.

It has been suggested that the large skull that Krumbiegel examined belonged to a German shepherd and that he extrapolated all of this analysis off a skull belonging to a domestic dog.

I’m a bit skeptical of that suggestion. Krumbiegel lived in Nazi Germany, where German shepherds were celebrated dogs and heavily studied. He surely would have known the difference between a German shepherd or wolf skull and that belonging to a South American wild dog.

No one has tried to extract DNA from the anomalous pelt since 2000. It’s generally been ignored. We do have better techniques for DNA extraction now, so maybe it is worth another go.

Maybe this animal really is a montane maned wolf or some other undescribed canid. Maned wolves do rarely come in black on occasion, and this could be suggestive of a relationship.

Perhaps it was a descendant of the improperly classified Canis gezi.  Maybe it was a closer relative of the extinct Falkland Islands wolf than the maned wolf, which is currently listed as its closest relative.

The truth is we really don’t know, but if we were to find out that it was something that spectacular, the question ultimately would be whether this animal still exists.

Maybe it was among the last of its species.

Or maybe it was just a feral dog.

That’s the enigma.

And in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much of a priority.

But wouldn’t you like to know?



eastern coyote

Within Canis, there are lots of bogus species proposed. A few years back,  a team of researchers in Australia made some skull measurements of dingoes and decided that we should declare the dingo a new species distinct from the domestic dog and wolf. Never mind that every single genetic study on dingoes clearly puts them within the East Asian dog clade. A dingo is a feral dog very closely related to things like chow chows and akita inu.

Comparative morphology once declared the Japanese chin a distinct species, complete with their own genus, Dysodes. Never that such a thing wouldn’t pass the smell test now, it is still being tried on dingoes.

Within the genus Canis, there has always been a desire for some to split up species. Morphological variation is really great in the more wide-ranging species, but thus far, every proposed new species has come out lacking. Molecular techniques have discovered one species in this genus, the golden wolf of Africa, and there might be a distinct species of wolf in the Himalayas.

But all the rest have come up short. A recent study of wolf and dog genomes revealed that if you make dogs and dingoes a species, the entire species of Canis lupus becomes paraphyletic. So unless we want to abandon cladistics as our classification model, we pretty much have to keep dogs and dingoes within the wolf species. The red and Eastern wolves have also come up short in these studies,

And, I would argue, so has the coyote. Because coyotes split from wolves only very recently, I think a case can be made to classify them as Canis lupus latrans.

But that’s not where some people want to go. In fact, as of March this year, there was a paper that came out calling for classifying the Eastern coyote as Canis oriens.

I think this is quite unwise. For one thing, this ecomorph of coyote, which does have both wolf and domestic dog ancestry, is pretty new. Further, there is no evidence that this population is fully reproductively isolated from dogs, wolves, or the original Western coyote population. There might not be a lot of crossbreeding with domestic dogs.

But Western coyotes that are free of dog or wolf blood can still come into the East.There are no massive barriers that stop these coyotes mating with coyotes that might have wolf or dog in them.

Roland Kays, who was part of one of the original genome-wide studies of North American wolves, recently wrote a piece arguing against calling the Eastern coyote “a coywolf” or a distinct species. In the piece, Kays argues that this population of coyotes is not reproductively isolated, so it really is premature to call them a species now.

I would argue that the Eastern coyote is actually an ecomorph that is evolving to live in the human-dominated world that was once woodlands of Eastern North America, and an ecomorph is not a species. It could become one, but it takes quite a bit of time and isolation in order to do so.

In fact,  I think the big take away from all the most recent study is that coyotes are a small type of wolf.

And that means that all this splitting we’ve done in Canis isn’t really all that helpful in understanding their exact biology and natural history.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t species of wild dog to be discovered. The case to split red foxes into two species is quite strong, and there is also a strong possibility that the gray foxes of the  West and of the East are distinct species. The new species of wild dog will be found in creatures in like these, not in the larger dog species.

But Canis is where the charismatic dogs are. Wolves and their kin capture our imaginations. They are the closest relatives of the domestic dogs, and the domestic dog is descended from the Old World wolf. Within domestic dogs, we’ve been splitting them up into different varieties for thousands of years, and in the last two hundred, we’ve been doing so almost insanely. This has had to have had some effect, perhaps subconsciously, on how we view their closest relatives.

At one time, people used to go nuts naming things. Clinton Hart Merriam named dozens of species of bear in North America, which we now all recognize as belonging to one species. There is a herpetologist in Australia who does much the same thing with snakes and lizards in that country.

We live in a time when most of the larger fauna have become known to science. Pretty much the only way new species can be discovered is through trying to race molecular evolution. We don’t live in those times of gentlemen naturalists taking ships up the Congo River in search of new species of leopard.

We’ve just cataloged so much nature since that time. We don’t know it all, but we know a lot more than we did in 1880 or 1920.

And while I’d argue that the term “species” has to have a subjective element to it, it can’t be so subjective that it become squishy and useless.

And that’s unfortunately what we’re getting with things like Canis dingo and Canis oriens. 

They really aren’t that much better than Dysodes pravus.





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