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Posts Tagged ‘coyote’

black coyote

For most of my life, scientists believed that the present era was still the Holocene.  Glaciers retreated with a global warming trend around 11, 650. Man went from being the apex predator over much of the world and became the apex consumer. Agriculture allowed our populations to expand, and we started to give up our wandering ways and became “civilized.”

It was generally believed that the past few centuries are but a continuation of this age, but now a growing number of scientists believe we have left the Holocene and entered into the Anthropocene. Several scholars have issues with this new distinction, but I think it is quite useful. In this era, human activity is the main factor affecting climate and ecology, which is why the age is named for the Greek word for human (anthropos).

The best argument I’ve seen for when this era began is 1610.  In this scenario, the era is dated to when European disease and conquest killed off enough Native Americans and enslaved and enough African had been enslaved to allow forests to grow back in former agrarian fields.  This process started in 1492, but by 1610, enough of those trees had grown to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to push the planet into the Little Ice Age.

Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger have a great model for understanding dog domestication as a change in trophic strategies.  In the Pleistocene ecosystems, most wolves were mesopredators, playing second fiddle to an ecosystem full of cave lions, machairodonts, large bears, and cave hyenas. When these wolves hooked up with people, though, they hitched their wagon to the species that often behaved as the apex predators in the ecosystems.  When humans switched to agrarian lifestyles during the Holocene, humans became apex consumers, and dogs joined us as beneficiaries of being allied to that apex consumer species.  During the Holocene, many wolves became apex predators, as the cave lions and other large predators became extinct.

I’ve always liked the framework that Morey and Jeger derived in this paper, but now that we’re entering into a new geological age, maybe we need to look at the change in trophic strategies of wolves in this new age.

Morey and Jeger don’t have a good framework for what happened to wolves in the Anthropocene, but across Eurasia and North America, wolves were gone from many human-dominated landscapes by the first decades of the twentieth century.  They existed only in isolated areas in Western Europe, and in the  lower 48 states of the US, they lived only in Minnesota and in an isolated region in East Texas and Louisiana, where the taxonomically controversially red wolves were located.

Large pack-hunting wolves were really in quite a bit of trouble.  In the United States, the coyote population began to expand out of its Western core range into the Great Lakes States. They eventually made to New England and the Maritimes of Canada, and they hybridized with relict wolves and the expanding population of domestic dogs.  Coyotes eventually colonized all the Eastern states, and as they did so, they largely became the apex predators in many parts of their range.

But in the 1960s, attitudes about wolves began to change. Many nations protected wolves, and there were often introduction plans in the works.  By the early decades of the twenty-first century, wolves were making significant comebacks in Germany and Italy. The wolves in Italy were often living very much like stray domestic dogs, living large at garbage dumps. Wolves live near large cities in Germany, and how these wolves are going to adapt to living in such human dominated environments is going to be a major question for researchers.

And in throughout Eurasia, we began to see that domestic dogs were mating with wolves.  Indeed, it is now estimated that a majority of wolves in Eurasia have relatively recent dog ancestry. 

Similarly, as coyotes expanded in North America, their genes began to work their way into the wolf population.  Yes, coyotes in a large part of the US have wolf ancestry, but we also have discovered that wolves across North America have coyote ancestry. Indeed, one interesting thing about these genome comparisons is that coyotes and wolves are much more closely related than we initially gleaned form mitochondrial DNA analysis. The calculation is that the gray wolf and the coyote last shared a common ancestor around 50,000 years ago.  This recent common ancestry has a taxonomic implication, which is that coyotes are themselves a divergent form of gray wolf in much the same way domestic dogs are.

In the Anthropocene, the wolves that have done the best have been the domestic dog and the coyote. The domestic dog’s ability to ingratiate itself into human society or live very nicely as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter on the periphery of humanity is a great gift.  The coyote can live as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter as well, and it also can live very nicely as a mousing fox or pack up and hunt deer.

Gene flow among wolves, coyotes, and dogs has made these entities much more fuzzy than we once thought they were. Dog genes are working their way into both the coyote and wolf population.  Strange pelt colors are popping up in the wild animals. The black coloration in domestic dogs was conferred onto the North American wolf population during the Holocene, but this same mutation for melanism has entered the coyote and Italian wolf population in very recent years. Dogs have introduced dewclaws on the hindlegs to some wolf populations, and I have seen photos of Eastern coyotes that have those hind dewclaws as well, which likely were introduced through breeding with domestic dogs.

Coyotes in the East are evolving larger size to become better predators of deer, but becoming larger and more effective ungulate hunters will have a trade-off. As carnivorous mammals grow larger, they become more and more dependent upon large prey to survive.  Very large wolf-like coyotes will lose their ability to live well on small prey and garbage.

So in the Anthropocene, dogs remain allied to the apex consumers. Some coyotes operate as apex predators, and some wolves live as opportunistic scavengers.

And as these creatures adjust their trophic strategies in a much more predator tolerant world, the pseudo species barriers that exist among wolves, coyotes, and dogs can break down. Hybridization among these creatures is likely to be a major feature of their continued evolution, a definite feature and not a bug.

These canids  thus make the leap with us into this human dominated age, an age that is experiencing a mass extinction of amphibians and great retrenchment of large sharks and big cats.

Yet they are still there. Evolving as the winds change. Winds that we ourselves are changing and are only now starting to understand.

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Coyotes, nature’s sighthounds

Built a lot like a lurcher.

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Why coyotes are not basal Canis

The traditional understanding of coyote evolution is that coyotes are basal wolf-like canids. This understanding comes from the hypothesis that coyotes directly evolved from Canis lepophagus in North America alone. Coyotes look and behave a lot like jackals of the Old World, and because we know that the larger wolf-like canids evolved from jackal-like ones, we just assumed that the coyote was a primitive form.

One problem with this positioning has always bothered me. Jackals tend to have proportionally smaller brains than wolves, but coyotes have proportionally larger brains than wolves. Domestic dogs have evolved smaller brains from wolves, although wolf and dog brain size comparisons aren’t as cut and dry as people think. 

No one thinks of dogs as basal forms of Canis, so it is possible for animals in this lineage to lose brain size, just as it is possible for a primitive lineage of canids known as coyotes to evolve a larger brain.

Please note that my discussion on brain size here isn’t really a discussion about intelligence, because the literature on which form is most intelligent is quite all over the map. Domestic dogs kept in Western countries in the modern way do appear to have social cognitive abilities that virtually all other species lack, while wolves are much better at working with each other to complete tasks.

But coyotes have proportionally larger brains than either wolves or dog do, and in this lineage, larger brains are generally a derived characteristic.

However, the really important data about coyote evolution is the discovery that they shared a common ancestor with gray wolves much more recently than commonly suggested. A genome-comparison study of various North American canids found that the common ancestor of both gray wolves and coyotes lived around 50,000 years ago. Because anatomically modern gray wolves replace the Mosbach wolf in the fossil record between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, the ancestor of both had to have been a form of gray wolf from Eurasia.

The coyote is thus a jackal that has evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, which means it is not a primitive canid at all. It likely evolved this jackal -like morphology and behavior because the form of gray wolf that it derives from was unable to compete with the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear and the machairodonts as a top-level predator. It was forced to evolve a smaller body that could be fed on carrion and small prey.

We know now that there is a big difference in what prey predators target once they exceed 20 kg. Predators that weigh more than that mass target large vertebrates, while those that are smaller than that weight target smaller prey. Although coyotes do cooperatively hunt deer, they primarily feed on rabbits and mice. So by becoming smaller, coyotes were not directly in conflict with dire wolves or the other large predators of Pleistocene North America.

Only through analyzing full genomes of coyotes and gray wolves did we realize that our assumptions about their evolution were wrong. Earlier studies that looked at mitochondrial DNA alone found that coyotes fit within a basal position of the wolf-like canid lineage. However, recent full genome comparison of various wolf-like canids that looked at the role hybridization played in their evolution found something interesting. The lineage that leads to wolves, dogs, and coyotes experienced some introgression from a ghost species that was closely related to the dhole. The authors think that the reason why coyotes turn up so basal in these mitochondrial DNA studies but appear so wolf-like when their full genomes are compared is coyotes have retained a mitochondrial line that comes from that ghost species.

So the generalist coyote is a re-invention out of the gray wolf lineage. It is not basal to the wolf-like canids. It just merely resembles the basal forms in some of their ecology, in some of their behavior, and in their odd mitochondrial inheritance.

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Long-time readers of this blog know that I am quite critical of Dan Flores’s Coyote America, a book that has been hailed as a sort of definitive source for the natural and cultural history of the animal. The good parts are where the author talks about native peoples and their relationship and understanding of the animal. The bad parts are where he misrepresents the molecular research on coyote evolution, most notably where he contends the genetic difference between a gray wolf and a coyote is equivalent to that of humans and orangutans (page 27, if you’re looking for it). I’ll give Flores a pass in that he didn’t do his research for the book until after the coyote, gray wolf, Eastern wolf, and red wolf genome comparisons came out, and found that all these animals were as closely related to each other as humans from different continental origins.

But I don’t know of anyone who thought that coyotes are to wolves what humans are to orangutans. At best, we thought coyotes were to wolves what our species of human was to Neanderthals.

So that was my beginning of great distrust in Flores’s account of how coyotes evolved in North America.

I do remember one part that I thought might have been true, simply because it mirrors the way coyotes moved into the eastern parts of North America. Flores contends that coyotes did not make it into Southern Mexico and Central America until after European colonization took place. The clearing of the tropical forests and the introduction of sheep and goats made all of this possible.

This made sense to me, but then I thought, well, I should look it up.

It turns out that Flores was dead wrong about Southern Mexican and Central American coyote populations. A 2004 paper that looked at the paleontology and sixteenth century accounts of coyotes in the region found that coyotes were in the region before European conquest.

So coyotes have lived in Guatemala and El Salvador long before Europeans felled the forests and turned out sheep and goats. Their recent range expansion into southern Panama may eventually lead to their arrival in Colombia, and they will have the Southern Continent to colonize.

This book gets so many facts wrong about the evolution and natural history of coyotes that I do worry a lot about its impact. It is written as a popular natural history, so it needs to be understood in that vein. However, the author seemed to choose which scientific facts he wanted to present without looking deeper into the fullness of the literature that exists on them.

And as a natural history writer, I find such errors to be problematic, but I always find some way to make sure you know that I am not the final authority on any subject. Because I blog, I can show you my evolution in thought more easily. Books are far more permanent inscriptions. That’s why you will see me hedge about certain subjects where I know more research is being done, such as what the African golden wolf actually is or where dog domestication happened.

The challenge is to make natural history subjects interest and to make your interpretations fit the literature, both of science and of prose.

And yes, it took me a month to read Flores’s coyote book. I had that many problems with it.

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One of my favorite cryptozoology rabbit holes is the story of the “onza,” a supposed late-surviving coursing cougar or “American cheetah.” Onza is Spanish for cheetah, and there have been skinny, long-legged cougars from Mexico that have been claimed as onzas.

One of the earliest indications that such an animal existed in historic times supposedly come from Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who took over Mexico with Hernan Cortes. While living in relative luxury on his own personal fiefdom in what is now Guatemala, Bernal Diaz wrote an extensive account of his exploits in the taking of”New Spain” from the Aztecs and other Meso-American peoples.

His account of the court of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II (known as Montezuma in the US) also includes an account of the emperor’s menagerie. Advocates for the onza as a late surviving American cheetah point a line the the text where Bernal Diaz discusses the “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf.”

I don’t know exactly what Bernal Diaz meant by cougar that looked like a wolf, but the really interesting thing is that this is not the full line.

The full line is “tygers [jaguars] and lions [cougars], one of which resembles a wolf, called here Adive. “

“Adive” is a word that entered Spanish through North African Arabic, and it refers to the golden jackal. Well, the African golden wolf as we know it now.

Bernal Diaz is talking about wolf-like creatures called “adives” in New Spain, and although no one can make sense of his lion that looked like a wolf description. In an aside, he actually made mention of the coyote, and this must be the earliest mention of coyotes in a Western text.

My guess is Bernal Diaz was talking about a jaguarundi, which does look like an holy hybrid of a wolf and a cougar. This animal is sometimes called in Onza in part of Latin America, and it is also part and parcel of the late surviving American cheetah legend.

He could have also seen a Mexican wolf, and for whatever reason, he didn’t think of it as a wolf like existed in Spain. Instead, he may have classified it with the cougar, for it seemed so exotic to be a true wolf.

Bernal Diaz would have known these adives from his life in Guatemala, and he would have seen them in the Yucatan and during his adventures in Central Mexico.

Bernal Diaz wrote his account in 1576, when he was in his 80s. This account, even though it is just an aside, is the first mention of a coyote, and it predates the most famous early account of the “Indian fox” in Francisco Hernandez de Toledo’s Plantas y Animales de la Nueva Espana . Hernandez de Toledo was on his scientific expedition for the King of Spain at roughly the same time that Bernal Diaz mentioned the adive, but his account of the animal was not published until 1651, when he had been dead for decades.

So I would argue that Bernal Diaz was the first person to mention a coyote in Western literature, even if almost everyone missed his account as a mere weird word in an account about cougars and jaguars.

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We spend a lot of time debating about how wolves became dogs. A huge debate exists in the archaeological and paleontological literature about how one can determine whether the remains of a canid represent a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form between wolves and dogs. This debate is why the oldest dog remains are dated to around 14,000 years ago and come from the Bonn-Oberkassel site. Anything older than that, a big debate exists among experts about what can be used to define a wolf, a dog, or a transitional form.

But this debate does not exist solely in relatively recent transition between wolves and dogs. The entire evolution of Canis lupus is a hotly contested and often contradictory, depending upon which source one reads and whether one is looking a source that relies upon paleontological and morphological analysis or one that looks at the molecular evolution of the species.

It is well-accepted in European paleontology that Canis lupus evolved from Canis mosbachensis. Mark Derr paid particular attention to this evolution in his How the Dog Became the Dog. He posits that the extinction of the large hunting dog, Xenocyon lycaonoides, created an ecological niche that could be filled by the Mosbach wolf evolving into the gray wolf.

Yes, the Mosbach wolf was smaller than the modern gray wolf. Individuals from Northwestern Europe were mostly about the size of a modern Indian wolf or a “red wolf.” Indeed, the similarities between some of these mosbachensis wolves and red wolves are the best evidence for a unique red wolf species, for one can argue that red wolves are just a relict form of the Mosbach wolf that held on in Eastern North America. Of course, the genetic data do not agree with this assertion, but it is an interesting idea nonetheless.

My reading is that the Mosbach wolf gave rise to Canis lupus in Eurasia between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago. The coyote, though often posited as a primitive Canis, is actually derived from a divergent form of Canis lupus that got marooned in the American Southwest some 50,000 years ago and evolved to fit a jackal-like niche on a continent already dominated by dire wolves.

The Mosbach wolf disappeared from the fossil record around 300,000 years ago, but there is always a debate as to the possibility that it held on longer. The red wolf and Indian wolf are certainly possibilities for its continued existence today, but as we’ve looked at more wolf genomes both of those don’t come out so distinctive. Every study that I’ve seen that uses Indian wolf genomes finds that they are divergent Canis lupus, and the red wolf is a cross between wolves that are of that coyote type and relict Southeastern gray wolves from a later invasion of the continent. I do think there is pretty good historical data that some smaller wolves that we would define as coyotes lived in the Eastern states at the time of contact, particularly the small brown wolf of Pennsylvania mentioned by Shoemaker and the small “wolues” of Jamestown mentioned by John Smith. My guess is that no one really took stock of what they were killing when they killed off the wolves of Eastern states. It is very possible that coyote-like wolves were killed off in great numbers along with the big ones, and later on, coyotes from the plains came East, crossing with wolves and even relict original Eastern coyotes to form the modern Eastern coyote. The red wolf and the larger Eastern coyote are thus recreations of the Mosbach wolf that have happened in modern times.

In Europe, one potential late surviving Mosbach wolf was thought to have been found in Apulia, Italy, at the Grotta Romanelli site. Wolf remains have been found in the cave that date to between 40,000 and 69,000 years ago and they were often described as belonging to a late surviving Mosbach wolf. A recent morphological analysis revealed that these remains were of a peculiar form of Canis lupus that lived in that part of Southern Italy, and they were not of any kind of Mosbach wolf.

However, the Mosbach wolf is particularly intriguing. Occasionally, it has been posited as a direct ancestor of the domestic dog, but because we don’t have an overlap between the signs of the earliest dog domestication and the existence of Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record, one should be very careful in making such an assertion.

This same caveat should be placed when one sees Canis variabilis posited as dog ancestor. For one thing, there is no such thing as Canis variabilis. Instead, all the specimens listed as this species that come from the Zhoukoudian site in China have now been reassigned to Canis mosbachensis. This reassignment posits them as Canis mosbachensis variabilis, so whenever one encounters that “Canis variabilis” in a paper, just remember that they are discussing a particular East Asian form of the Mosbach wolf.

From my own speculative meta-analysis, it seems that the Mosbach wolf is ancestral to the entire wolf/dog/coyote species complex, which may include the African golden wolf, and the Eurasian golden jackal. A genome comparison study that included dogs, wolves, and one Israeli Eurasian golden jackal found that the divergence between the golden jackal and the dog and wolf species happened just before the anatomically modern Canis lupus replaced Canis mosbachensis in the fossil record. The Eurasian golden jackal could potentially be derived from a diminutive form of Canis mosbachensis that moved toward a more generalist scavenger form.

We also have some evidence of small Mosbach wolves in Europe that could have potentially gone in the direction of the golden jackal. This specimen was found not far from the Grotta Romanelli wolf that were found to be anatomically modern and not Mosbach wolves. It was found at the Contrada Monticelli site in Apulia. It was unusual in that it was quite a bit smaller than the Mosbach wolves found in other parts of Europe, and the authors found that Mosbach wolves were as morphologically variable as modern wolves are.

In North Africa, we also have a recent discovery of a canid that was much like the Mosbach wolf. The authors thought it was a bit different from the Eurasian form, and they decided to call this species Canis othmanii. This African wolf-like canid was found at a site in Tunisia and dates to the Middle Pleistocene, and it could potentially be the basal gray wolf that hybridized with the Ethiopian wolf to make the African golden wolf. More work needs to be done on this specimen, for it very well could wind up like Canis variabilis, a regionally distinct form of the Mosbach wolf.

The really fuzzy part about Canis mosbachensis isn’t that it is the ancestor of the gray wolf. The educated speculations I make about its relationship to the golden jackal and the golden wolf could be debated, and we need lots more data to figure out if I am right or not.

The really fuzzy part is what came before the Mosbach wolf. Most scholars think that Etruscan wolf (Canis etruscus), which makes an appearance in the fossil record around 2 million years ago, is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. For years, there was a debate about whether the Mosbach wolf was a chrono-subspecies of the Etruscan wolf or a chrono-subspecies of the gray wolf. All these suggestions would be technically true, simply because we could regard the Etruscan wolf-Mosbach wolf-gray wolf as a species that lasted and evolved over this time period.

However, a bit of a debate now exists as to whether the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf. An extensive morphological analysis of Etruscan wolf remains and those of another Canis species called Canis arnensis, which compared both to the modern black-backed jackal, the gray wolf, the golden jackal, and the golden wolf, found that our previous delineation between arnensis as being jackal-like and etruscus as being wolf-like were over-simplifications. Some characters of arnensis are much more like modern gray wolves than etruscus is, and it is possible that arnesis gave rise to the Mosbach wolf. Still, the bulk of scholarship thinks that the Etruscan wolf is the ancestor of the Mosbach wolf.

However, because the Mosbach wolf was not included in the analysis, it might be difficult to make such a conclusion. However, maybe the Etruscan wolf or something like it is the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf. The ancestral Ethiopian wolf must have had an extensive range in Northern Africa for it to have hybridized with Canis mosbachensis, Canis othmanii, or a basal modern gray wolf to form the African golden wolf.

I have focused most of this post on the origins of gray wolves in the Old World, but the first Canis species to evolve were found in North America. Canis lepophagus first appeared in the fossil record 5 million years ago. It was very similar to a coyote or a Canis arnensis of the Old World. This is the part of the story where the molecular data has largely shaken up what we used to believe about coyotes. Lepophagus is thought to have evolved into the larger Edward’s wolf (Canis edwardii), which is sometimes called Canis priscolatrans. These animals might have been the same species or very closely related to the Etruscan wolf. The modern coyote is thought to have derived from edwardii/priscolatrans/estrucus 1 million years ago, but genome-wide comparisons put the existence of most recent common ancestor of gray wolves and coyotes at less than 51,000 years ago.

The dire wolf derived from Armbruster’s wolf (Canis armbrusteri). Armbruster’s wolf derived from Canis edwardii/priscolatrans/etruscus 1.8 million years ago. The dire wolf then evolved from that species 125,000 years ago, which means the dire wolf’s most recent common ancestor with modern wolves and the coyote may have been as far back as 2 or even 3 million years ago.

This analysis is still being worked out. The molecular data is constantly throwing wrenches into the machinery of paleontology, especially the paleontology of canids. The most successful extant canid lineage are full of parallel evolution and phenotypic plasticity, and in this way, it has become quite a challenge to sort out the evolutionary history of these species. At various times, large wolf-like forms have evolved as have smaller coyote or jackal-like forms.

The story of Canis starts with a coyote-like lepophagus, but right now, its likely niche is adopted by the modern coyote, which also very similar to it. But the molecular data suggest that the coyote evolved to adopt this similar niche from a larger Eurasian gray wolf and that it did not directly descend from lepophagus over 5 million years in only North America. Instead, it evolved into wolves that wandered into Eurasia, becoming the Mosbach wolf and then anatomically modern gray wolf. Some of these wolves wandered back into North America and became generalist scavengers in the land of the dire wolf.

Very similar stories likely are lost to us, but we must understand that the history of wolves is not just about getting bigger and developing pack-hunting behavior. That is one part of the story, but another part is about evolving to fit niches, which sometimes means evolving a smaller size and more generalist diet.

Some of my ideas here are very speculative, but I think they are nested in my reading of the available literature. Do not assume that I have the final story of how these creatures evolved, but just understand that the molecular side is so rarely considered in paleontology literature that it is almost like we’re reading evolutionary history of two different lineages.

More work must be done to formulate a synthesis between these two disciplines. Otherwise, there will be continued conflict, and the one using an older methodology and often working with much more incomplete data-set will fall by the wayside. And that is not the one using full genomes.

If we know what problems exist using morphological studies on extant and recently extinct canids, it is very likely that we’re missing important data on many extinct species, one for which there is no DNA to test.

Still, paleontology has much to tell us about the way early wolves lived. It can tell us much about how the ecosystems were and why wolves evolved in the way they did. But its methodologies often miss relationships between extant forms and miss the tendency toward parallel evolution.

I tried for about two years to watch Joe Rogan’s interview with Dan Flores, who wrote a book on coyotes that I think is quite full of misunderstandings about canid taxonomy. When Rogan questioned him about the papers that show a recent origin for the red wolf, Flores pretty much just dismissed those papers because they didn’t look at fossil.

That’s not how it works. Within canids, we know that parallel evolution is a big thing, and it is very possible that coyote-like and red wolf-like canids have evolved more than once on this continent. Indeed, a careful reading of the paleontology and molecular data strongly suggests that this is the case.

In fact, it has always been the case with these wolf-like canids. Big ones evolved from small ones, but sometimes, the big ones become small, because it is a better fit for survival.

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plott hound

He bought the young Plott and named her Crockett, and he trained to hunt rac oons and gray foxes in the overgrown coverts that stretched out behind his house.

He was a school administrator by trade, but the demands of the job meant he could slip in and out when the cold nights of November came slipping down upon the hills.

He had run Walkers on red foxes as a boy, and he’d always had a beagle or two, but when his last beagle passed on to that Valhalla of cottontail chases, he went looking for a big hound to run.

When he saw the ad in the farm classified, he rushed off and plunked down the $250 for a little long-eared brindle pup and began the process of turning her into a first-rate varmint dog.

Crockett came from a long-line of hard driving bear dogs, but in these hills, the bears rarely graced the overgrown woods, and the law strictly forbade anyone from running bears with hounds.

So Crockett’s education was to run the raccoon and the gray fox until they took to the trees, where the man would come and blast them out of the trees with his .17 HMR.

Their fur would be sold at auction in the coming spring. It would sell for a pittance, but man and dog were united in their common cause, the cause of pursuit, the cause of the hunt.

She learned that tracking deer would make her neck burn with electricity, and she learned the same when she struck off after rabbits.

She learned that the gray fox scent and that of the raccoon were the great ones to follow, and like all proper trail hounds, she let loose the cries of the ecstasy of the pursuit while her nose breathed in the spoor and enlivened her very being.

One clear night in early December, Crockett was let loose from her dog yard, and she began casting her way through the coverts, casting her nose over the brush and briers and mud and rocks for the scent of the brier fox and the ring-tail.

She caught scent of a gray fox and began a baying run down its track. She was hot-blooded and alive, as only a scenthound can be when it’s on the trail of its quarry.

The fox heard her the banshee baying into the night and began his escape, running long hand hard down little ‘coon trails that course their way through heavy thickets of autumn olive. But the hound knew her trade, her passion, and she kept coming, screaming hard on the fox’s long tail.

So the fox changed his tactics and ran hard until he hit the big sycamore where he would sometimes spend long afternoons sleeping out out the day. Night was his time to prowl, and the tree was the perfect shelter until that sweet veil of darkness surrounded the land. It was along a remote little creek, where the thorny thickets drew in close, and no idle man would be willing to approach it, and any many with gumption would make enough noise on his approach to alert the fox’s ears and black quivering nose.

To get to the tree the fox began to double back on his track, trying to throw the hound’s questing run, and for a few minutes, he succeeded, and he used those few minutes to bolt fort the sycamore.

He raced up the tree as if he were a barn cat and not particularly canine. The gray fox is unique among North American canids in that it can climb trees, readily does so, especially when it wants to escape a predator.

The fox rested his form hard against a big branch and waited for the coming dog.  Crockett hit the tree hard about five minutes later, and she began singing the song of a hound that has finally treed. The man would be there soon,  the strap on his rifle would creak along with the cadence of his boots in the leaf litter. It would be the orchestra of death, the baying treed hound and the creaking rifle strap and the shuffling of boots, and then would come the loud boom. The fox would fall from the tree, and the hound would sent casting the woods once again.

But this time, another creature heard the whole song. It was a bitch coyote. 31 pounds of snapping, snarling fury, she had come to work the creek for any hidden vole or deer mouse trails, and now, she heard this other coyote screaming like it owned the place. It more than piqued her interest. It brought up her territorial spirit, and she came rushing down toward the sycamore, incensed at the interloper.

Crockett had never met the coyote before.  She’d smelled her track a time or two, and she sometimes smelled coyote’s mate’s tracks a well, but they mostly stayed far from the gray fox and raccoon haunts, preferring to stay so far from man’s dwellings that they would never meet a dog.

The coyote came with jaws open in a gape threat, and the hound turned from the tree.  She raised her tail and all her hackles. She let loose a few growling barks.

But the coyote tucked her tail between her legs and hackled up and began her intimidating circling of the dog.  A tail between the legs and jaws wide open are the war stance of the coyote, and a dog with its tail up and crooked forward is making its war stance.

And so the two stared each other down beneath sycamore, but this would not be solved without a fight.

31 pounds of coyote and 52 pounds of Plott hound collided with each other in a fury of fangs and fur. The coyote was an experienced scrapper, and her long canines cut deep into the Plott ears.

But Crockett came from a line of bear dogs. In her blood, coursed the veins of the German forester’s hound remodified over the centuries in the Appalachians into the gritty bear hound. Rumors and lore persisted that the Plotts had a bit of wolf crossed into them, and if it were true, then it would just add a bit more grit and fighting spirit to the hound.

Two or three good bites from the coyote was all it took to release the fighting fury of the big game hound. Her greater mass and thick muscle were more than the coyote bitch had reckon for.

And soon the coyote was down. The Plott’s jaws were on her neck, pumping hard for the kill, and the coyote slipped into death beneath the sycamore.

The gray fox stared down at the hole scene. He didn’t move, for he had not expected such a thing to develop.

The man began calling for Crockett as he came down into the creekbed.  He had heard the wild fighting the blackness of night, and he feared what might have happened to her.

Crockett ran to her master’s voice. He knelt to stroke her and talk the sweet lovings of a man greeting his dog. He was shocked to find the blood dripping from her right ear.

It was a big gash, and he wondered what could have done such a thing. Almost as if she read his mind, Crockett dashed off towards the sycamore. The man followed, casting his head lamp before him on its highest setting.

Its beams finally cast down into the thicket that led to the sycamore and then caught the Plott hound eye-shine. He plodded through the thorns to where he saw the dog standing, and then came upon her standing with her tail wagging.

The dead coyote bitch lay below her, and at first the man had no idea he was looking at. Had his dog killed a husky or a Norwegian elkhound. But one good look at narrow muzzle and long fangs told him otherwise. Crockett had killed a coyote.

He had never heard of a dog doing such a thing before, but his gritty little bear dog had done it.

He leashed Crockett and stroked her bloody ears. He told her what a good girl she was, and then he grabbed the coyote up by the hind legs with his other hand and began working his way back home.

He had bragging rights and a good dog, one that had taken out a wild bitch in the woods.

And as man and hound and quarry left the scene, the gray fox watched from his treetop vantage. He waited and waited until the hound and human feet no longer made a scratch on the leaves.

He shimmied down the tree, smelled the coyote and dog blood. All his hackles were raised at that hot scent, and his black tail hackle stripe rose up like a spiky flag.

If he could reason, he would have bet his life of that hard coyote bitch coming hard to fight the dog, but he’d spent much of his life keeping as far from their jaws as much as the hunter’s gun.

The night haunt of the gray fox was not ruined now, and after sniffing the blood for a bit, he slunk down the trail that he knew would lead him to a quiet lane of tram road where many cottontails sat out on cold December nights.

And so the hound and man left their mark of savagery upon the land.  Organic beings made of nature, but now wholly contrived into the modern era of varmint and raccoon hunts. they were but reenactors of the old hunter-gatherer men and their wolfish dogs that went questing out for big game for survival. Two beasts of prey working in confederacy, man and what became dogs were the apex predators of yore.

But modern man has long since abandoned this life, but a few souls participate in the hunt of game and use their dogs and perhaps feel that old partnership rekindled in the darkness. Yes, it is ersatz, but it echoes pretty loudly in their psyches.

And it is the echoes that drive them and their hounds into the cold crisp darkness in search of game.

And so the hound will go into the brush in search of quarry and man will be following after.

 

 

 

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