Posts Tagged ‘dog taxonomy’

It’s not unusual for people who are trying to deny evolution or promote creationism or both, to come up with a common question:

“If evolution is true, then why don’t dogs have something that isn’t a dog every once in a while?”

This question would not be so much of a problem if we, who think we know better, would stop trying to create a species called Canis familiaris.

Canis familiaris made sense when we didn’t know what dogs were derived from, and it might have made sense if we thought there were hard and fast reproductive barriers between dogs and wolves.

But it turns out that they really aren’t such distinct animals. We’ve learned this when we’ve performed more complete assays of domestic dog and wolf genomes. Since then, we’ve found that the majority of Eurasian wolves have some domestic dog ancestry, and black wolves in North America got their black coloration as the result of a single cross with a black dog that mated with a wolf thousands of years ago in the Yukon or Northwest territories.

A recent genome comparison study of wolves and dogs that attempted to put together a phylogeny of the species clearly states:

[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.

The monophyly of the species is one thing that I think everyone should agree is worth preserving in any taxonomic system, but the genomes clearly show that if we create a special species for the dog or the dingo, we wreck the monophyly of Canis lupus.

I would also contend, perhaps a bit more controversially, that in light of a similar study of North American wolf-like canids’ genomes, that the coyote is also part of Canis lupus. This study found that gray wolves and coyotes have exchanged genes across North America and that gray wolves and coyotes last shared a common ancestor only around 50,000 years ago. That ancestor was probably an ancient Eurasian gray wolf that came into North America and evolved for a more generalist, jackal-like niche in the mid-latitudes of North America.

When someone claims that dogs are not wolves, they can only mean it in the same way that pugs are not Siberian huskies or that Great Danes are not dingoes. They are not wild Canis lupus, but they clearly are within that species, if we wish to keep the species monophyletic.

The reason why people want to claim a special species for the dog is because of Raymond Coppinger’s ideas still hold a lot of sway with people who wish to be learned about dogs. It’s not that everything that Coppinger said was wrong. It is what he was wrong about seems to be all that people know.

Coppinger argued that domestic dogs were obligate scavengers and thus must be placed as their own ecological species. An ecological species is the best argument for Canis familiaris. But it has limits for our understanding of evolution, and it can be turned into an absurd concept. For example, there are two sharp-tailed grouse subspecies that live in slightly different but adjacent habitat but do not readily interbreed. If we were to adhere to the same sort of species concept, then these two subspecies would have to be distinct species, even if it busted up the entire monophyly of the sharp-tailed grouse species.

Coppinger is ultimately quite wrong about the obligate scavenger status for domestic dogs. In India, for example, predation by feral and free-roaming domestic dogs is a major conservation issue. And Italian wolves are big time dump denizens. So both dogs and wolves can be predators or scavengers based upon available prey and refuse resources.

Because the ecological species concept is muddled when comparing wolves to dogs and keeping an arbitrary Canis familiaris species destroys the monophyly of Canis lupus, it would make more sense to drop Canis familiaris entirely.

One could raise dogs to Canis lupus familiaris, but Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg have argued in their book, called The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved, that there is no set of behavioral, physical, or physiological traits that define all dogs as a taxonomic entity. They instead argue that we should just call them “domestic Canis lupus,” in which they also group the dingo, which is “feral domestic Canis lupus.

I remain agnostic about what we should call dogs, but Pierotti and Fogg’s quibbles are difficult to ignore. Perhaps we could have the subspecies for the dog, but there must be some acknowledgement that all we are doing is defining a domestic and feral population of a species.

If this blog post looks familiar, I wrote almost this exact same post in March, but I sometimes feel that I have to explain the very real scientific reasons why we don’t say that dogs are a unique species. It is not anti-science to do so, despite what Facebook dog experts tell you. If we want a monophyletic Canis lupus, then dogs have to be part of it.

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The shell of my canid classification begins with this phylogenetic tree that comes from a complete sequencing of the domestic dog genome.

What I am about to write is a very tentative taxonomic system, and I reserve the right, as would anyone, to revise it.

Here’s how I would classify the dog family in terms of cladistics.

The first thing I would do is that we have to split the dog family into tribes, which will create the clades where I will put the species.

Traditionally, there have been just two tribes for extant canids, but I think a third one is necessary.

The two traditional ones are Canini (Canis, its allies, and the South American wild dogs) and the Vulpini (which inlcudes all the foxes, including the Urocyon gray foxes and island foxes). I would argue, that because the Urocyon foxes are quite divergent from the rest of the dog family, they need their own family. They split from the rest of the dog family 9-10 million years ago.

So my tribes are Canini, Vulpini, and Urocyoni.  In Vulpini, I will put all the Vulpes foxes, the bat-eared fox, and the raccoon dog. The arctic fox and the fennec fox are now both Vulpes foxes. Canini will remain the same.

I do not believe in paraphyletic groupings within my classification, so you will notice some weird things about it very soon.

Let’s start with Canini.

In Canini, we have CanisLycalopex, Cerdocyon, Chrysocyon, Speothos, and Atelocynus. I have done away with Cuon and Lycaon.  The reason I have done so is to keep the genus Canis monophyletic. Traditional classifications have these two species, the dhole and African wild dog, as belonging to distinct genera, but they are likely sister taxa. Further, they are also less removed from the rest of Canis than the black-backed and side-striped jackals are. The rest of the genera are endemic South America canids. Two of these, Cerdocyon and Speothos, occasionally enter Panama, but they mostly a South American species.  North America was the original place of dog evolution and diversification, but today, North America is home to only three genera, the very common Vulpes foxes, Canis dogs, and the Urocyon gray foxes. Endemic North American dogs largely slipped down in South America, which is why South America is home to so many quite diverse species of canid. But all derive from North America ancestors with which they share a common ancestry with Canis.

In Vulpini, I have placed the bat-eared fox and the raccoon dog with all the Vulpes foxes.I have also split the native raccoon dog of Japan, the tanuki, into its own unique species. It has a 2n count of 38, while the mainland raccoon dog is 2n=54.  I have suggested that its scientific name should be Nyctereutes viverrinus.  I also think that evidence is pretty clear that North American red foxes are divergent enough from the Old World red foxes to be given their own species, Vulpes fulva.

In Urocyoni, I would have but a single species, because it turns out that island foxes probably split much more recently that was previously thought.  In this case, I would say that the island fox is a insular dwarf subspecies of the mainland Urocyon, and it will have but a single species in it.

So allow me to list my species in their tribes.

In tribe Canini:

Genus Canis:

  1. Black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas)
  2. Side striped jackal (Canis adustus)
  3. Dhole (Canis alpinus, instead of Cuon alpinus).
  4. African wild dog (Canis pictus, instead of Lycaon pictus).
  5. Eurasian jackal or golden jackal (Canis aureus).
  6. African golden wolf (Canis anthus, which used to be a golden jackal).
  7. Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis)
  8. Coyote (Canis latrans)
  9. The wolf/dog/dingo species (Canis lupus).

I do not recognize domestic dogs as distinct species from the Holarctic wolf species, and I also do not recognize the red wolf or Eastern wolf as valid species. Domestic dogs are essentially a specialized wolf that can live with and easily read human beings. Dingoes, despite rather desperate attempts to make it otherwise, are nothing more than an East Asian feral dog that has made its home in Australia. Eastern wolves and red wolves are recent hybrids between wolves and coyotes that occurred after European settlement of the continent. It was only recently revealed that the African golden jackal was quite genetically distinct from the Eurasian golden jackal, and now that species has been divided into Canis anthus and Canis aureus.

So that’s the genus Canis. 9 species. There are potentially two more, because it turns out that two wolf populations, one in India and one in the Himalayas have rather unique mitochondrial DNA sequences. It would be interesting to see how those two populations within a genome-wide analysis.

The rest of Canini are all South American endemics.

Most are in the genus Lycalopex. Here are the species:

  1. The culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus).
  2. The chilla or “South American gray fox” (Lycalopex griseus)
  3. The Pampas fox or Azara’s fox (Lycalopex gymnocercus)
  4. The Hoary fox (Lycalopex vetulus)
  5. The Sechuran fox (Lycalopex sechurae)
  6. The Darwin’s fox (Lycalopex fulvipes)

The word “Lycalopex” is a combination of the Greek words wolf and fox (“lykos” and “alopex.), and they actually do look like bantamized wolves or coyotes. Indeed, I’ve seen less-informed people use photos of culpeos as coyotes.

They are superficially fox-like. I have seen them called foxes and zorros my entire life, but it is hard to explain to people that these animals are much more closely related to wolves and dogs than they are to foxes.

Also, it has only been since 1996 that the Darwin’s fox has been given full species status. It was previously thought of a subspecies of chilla that lives only in the temperate rainforests of Chile, but when its mitochondrial DNA was compared to several chillas, it was found that they were quite distinct from each other. The Darwin’s fox is most closely related to the Sechuran fox, which also has a very narrow range along the Pacific Coast of Ecuador and Peru. Darwin’s fox is arguably the most endangered of all canids. It lives on Chiloé Island and Nahuelbuta National Park. A small population was also discovered in Valdivian Coastal Range.  There are only about 250 of them on Chiloé Island and about 70 on the mainland. That’s an estimated 320 individuals, which is a bit more than the estimated 350-440 Ethiopian wolves. For some reason, we tend to hear more about Ethiopian wolves than Darwin’s foxes, but they certainly are deserving of our attention.

I should note that the genome-wide analysis found the Darwin’s fox to be a bit more divergent from the Sechuran fox, which was closer to the culpeo. So it does need a bit more work to figure out how those relationships work.

The rest of Canini are what I call the South American weirdos. This is where canid evolution went a little strange. Here we have a dog on stilts, a basset-type dog with the dhole’s trenchant heel dentition, a dog that lives on a lot fish, and one that eats crabs. Also, the only dog species to have gone extinct in historic times is here too.

So here are the species:

  1. The maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus)
  2. The Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis)
  3. The bush dog (Speothos venaticus)
  4. The crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous)
  5. The short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis)

The Falklands wolf is now extinct. It was an unusually curious animal that was soon killed off to make way for sheep farming. No one knew what it was related to until just a few years ago, when it was discovered that its closest relative was the maned wolf. It has been suggested that this animal was a living fossil that resembled the ancestral South American canid that came down into that continent from North America before branching into the Lycalopex and “weirdo” forms.

The maned wolf itself looks like a large red fox with really, really long legs. Its closest living relative is the bush dog, which is the only native pack-hunting canid in South America. It looks like an unholy hybrid of a basset hound and otter, and it has evolved the dhole and African wild dog’s trenchant heed dentition in parallel. It was even suggested at one time that it was a type of New World dhole, based solely upon the teeth.

The last two are closely related enough that one might be able to put them in a single genus. The crab-eating fox is pretty common in South America, and it is often seen out on beaches and river banks searching for food. It was commonly seen eating crabs, so it got that name. The short-eared dog, its closest relative, is almost never seen and has hardly been studied. It is perhaps the strangest dog still in existence. It has a long, bull terrieresque muzzle and little rounded ears. It has been known to eat quite a bit of fish in its diet, but other than that, very little is known about them. They live in very low densities in the Amazon Basin.

We have finished the Canini tribe, now onto the Vulpini.

The Vulpini go as follows:

First the genus Vulpes:

  1. Old World red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
  2. North American red fox (Vulpes fulva)
  3. Rüppell’s fox (Vulpes rueppellii)
  4. Corsac fox (Vulpes corsac)
  5. Tibetan fox (Vulpes ferrilata)
  6. Swift fox (Vulpes velox)
  7. Kit fox (Vulpes macrotis)
  8. Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus)
  9. Blanford’s fox (Vulpes cana)
  10. Bengal fox (Vulpes bengalensis)
  11. The Cape fox (Vulpes chama)
  12. The pale fox (Vulpes pallida)
  13. The fennec fox (Vulpes zerda)

The exact relationship between fox species isn’t that clear, but generally, most authorities recognized that kit and swift foxes are distinct species, even though they do have a limited hybrid zone. It is also clear that the arctic fox is a very close relative of those two species, and perhaps the best way to think of the arctic fox is that it is a swift fox that has become specialized to the arctic ecosystems. As I mentioned earlier, a study at UC Davis found that red foxes in North America diverged from the Old World red fox 400,000 years ago.  This divergence is enough to make some consider them a distinct species, and it should be noted that even red foxes that were said to have derived from European imports that were released on the East Coast are also just as divergent. Which means they aren’t derived from these imports, as was initially believed.

The addition of the others in Vulpini are a bit more controversial, but I’ll say that bat-eared foxes are vulpines, as are raccoon dogs. So the rest of Vulpin is:

  1. The bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis)
  2. The common raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides).
  3. The Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki (Nyctereutes viverrinus).

All of these are earlier offshoots of the fox lineage, but they are close enough to foxes to be considered Vulpini. As mentioned earlier, there are good reasons to think that the tanuki is a distinct species, but its exact status is still somewhat controversial. Bat-eared foxes have the most teeth of any canid, and they pretty much eat nothing but harvester termites. They are found in disjointed populations in East Africa and Southern Africa.

And finally, I have made the decision to raise the Urocyon “foxes” to their own tribe, and because of their genetic similarity, I have reduced them from two species to one.

So tribe Urocyoni is:

  1. The North America gray fox or tree fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus).

So in my classification of Canidae, I have 36 living species, with two more that could be identified in the form of the Indian and Himalayan wolves.

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African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus or Canis pictus) are more distantly related to dogs than humans are to chimps. African wild dogs cannot crossbreed with dogs, and they are not an ancestor of any domestic dog breed. This species has suffered greatly because of its common name. Many ranchers and pastoralists in Africa have persecuted this species under the suspicious that it is nothing more than a feral domestic dog. It’s not even an ancestor of the domestic dog. It’s a truly unique but endangered species.

Stanley Coren has posted a slide show on Huffington Post entitled Dog Facts: 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Your Pet.

I couldn’t get past the first slide because this is what it said:

How do scientists decide whether dogs started out as wolves? One way is to try to cross breed the species by mating a wolf to a dog. If that mating produces live puppies that are fertile and can have pups, then that means that the wolf and dog are the same species. It turns out that dogs can have puppies, not only with wolves, but also with jackals, coyotes, dingoes, African wild dogs, and even some kinds of foxes. Although genetic research says that the first species that humans domesticated was the wolf, the guess is that dogs are mixture of all of these different wild canines, which probably explains the existence of so many different looking dogs in the world.


One wonders if Coren consulted any of the genetic literature on domestic dogs.

It turns out that their wide variance in phenotype comes from two really basic weird aspects of the dog genome. One of these is that just few genes account for massive differences in phenotype in domestic dogs. Variation on just three genes produces almost all the variance in coat that domestic dogs. That’s somewhat shocking, I know.

Further, it’s been found that all dog species have an unusually high number of tandem repeats in their genes.  Selection selective breeding animals with such high numbers of tandem repeats often results in massive changes in phenotype within just a few generations. That’s why dogs breeds change so rapidly through the years.

Small size in most domestic dogs has been traced to a single gene that likely originated from domesticating the Middle Eastern wolf. Arabian wolves are often as small as 25-30 pounds– much smaller than other subspecies– and have also been implicated in providing a lot of the genetic material to modern domestic dogs.

Now, all the genetic literature points to the wolf as the primary and perhaps sole ancestor of the domestic dog. Coren totally screws the pooch when it comes to classifying the dog and its closest relatives.

Dingoes are not an ancestor of the domestic dog. They are  descended from domestic dogs that came to Australia from Indonesia as domestic animals. In every genetic study I’ve seen, dingoes group with East Asian domestic dog breeds, which also share an affinity with the Chinese wolf.

The best way to classify dogs, dingoes, and wolves is to count all three as belonging to the same species. Conventionally, dogs are Canis lupus familiaris, and dingoes are C. l. dingo. I think that in light of what we’re seeing in the genetic studies, dingoes ought to be classified as Canis lupus familiaris.  The basenji, which is always classified as a breed of domestic dog,  is actually much more genetically distinct than the dingo is.

So Canis lupus encompasses dogs, wolves,  and dingoes (including the New Guinea singing dog).

That species is interfertile with the coyote, and many coyotes have genes from wolves and domestic dogs. Certain wolves in Eastern Canada have genes from coyotes, and the so-called red wolf, which is primarily coyote in ancestry but does have some ancestry from wolves.

Golden jackals can also crossbreed with dogs, and it’s possible that domestic dogs have a bit ancestry from this animal. Evidence for this ancestry has not yet been discovered. Only the Sulimov dogs, which are recent intentionally bred golden jackal/dog hybrids, have been proven to have golden jackal.

Ethiopian wolves can also cross with dogs, and hybridization with domestic dogs in the Bale Mountains has been considered a major threat to their continued survival.

Other than those animals I’ve just listed, there is no proof other than anecdote and lore that these dogs have crossed with any other wild dogs. There is no genetic evidence of a dog and red fox hybrid, though there were always alleged ones. There is no evidence of African wild dogs crossbreeding with any dogs, except from breed lore from Rhodesian ridgebacks and basenjis, and there is no evidence other than unsubstantiated claims that black-backed and side-striped jackals have ever hybridized with dogs.

There is a breed origin story for a breed from Thailand called the Bangkaew dog that claims dhole ancestry. Supposedly, they are derived from a bitch that got impregnated by dhole in the forest. There were no other domestic dogs around, so it had to have been a wild dog.

I think that golden jackals are a much more likely wild ancestor of this dog, if it does indeed have blood from another species. However, as far as I know, no one has looked for the genes of either dholes or golden jackals in this breed.

Except for dogs that were intentionally bred to coyotes or golden jackals, there is no evidence that species other than the wolf have contributed to domestic dogs.

There are always stories about different wild dogs crossing with domestic ones.

However, there has been no evidence of dogs crossing with anything other than the species I’ve listed here. All the rest are nothing more than stories, folk tales, and speculation.

I think one reason why people hold onto the hope that dogs are derived from a wide range of species is they secretly want to vindicate Konrad Lorenz and Charles Darwin, who may have been right about many things.

But they were wrong about the ancestry of the domestic dog.

Dogs, like it or not, are domesticated wolves that have some weird features in their DNA that make them very easy to mold into bizarre shapes through selective breeding.

They did not derive from hybrids of several dozen wild species.

Coren is simply wrong here, and I don’t know why he keeps makingthese claims. He made this same claim in The Intelligence of Dogs, when the genetic literature wasn’t as clear as it is now,and in How to Speak Dog.  Every genetic study shows that dogs are derived from wolves, and modern dog lineages are likely derived primarily from the wolves of the Middle East. No matter how many times Coren or anyone else wants to claim that dogs are derived from many species, the claim will be still be false. And it’s even worse that he makes claims that dogs are derived from species with which they cannot even cross.

There are so many errors in that first slide that I couldn’t get to the rest.

See related post:

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This is an Arabian wolf (Canis lupus arabs). It is a wolf that is very similar to a dingo.

As regular readers of this blog know, I am generally opposed to splitting up species, unless  a very, very good reason is given.

For example, I can see that coyotes, golden jackals, and wolves are different species. Although capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring, these animals normally don’t hybridize. The evidence is clear that they split from common ancestors millions of years ago, and they maintain very clearly different ecological niches.

But when you start talking wolves and dogs, I see far fewer differences, especially when one considers how diverse wild wolves are and have been through their evolutionary history. It is intellectually dishonest and misleading to base all comparisons between wolves and dogs by using the big game hunting wolves from Alaska and Northern Canada as the wolf from which all analogies are made.

Those wolves are actually quite specialized– every bit as much specialized as a border collie, a golden retriever, or a pointer.

Keep mind that in the Middle East, there are very dog-like wolves. The subspecies is called Canis lupus arabs. Except for color, it very strongly resembles the dingo of Australia, which is often considered a “primitive” form of domestic. (I consider it a domestic dog that has fully returned to the pack-hunting wolf culture and ecological niche).

As has recently been revealed, dogs were originally domesticated in the Middle East, and it is likely that if we want to make comparisons, we should be looking at C. l. arabs, not all of these moose and muskox hunters. No serious authority considers C.l. arabs a distinct species, so I am not about to consider the validity of Canis familiaris.

It’s a silly name.  The differences between dogs and any wolves are no more extreme than the differences between Eurasian wild boar and domestic pigs or between domestic cattle and the extinct aurochsen.  We don’t consider domestic mallards to be different from wild ones, even though we have call ducks and Rouen ducks that are very different from the original wild form.

I think it’s just that we still have mental blocks about wolves that we cannot accept that they might be the same species as the creature with which we share our homes. A wolf is a wild thing that cannot be controlled, but a dog, well, a dog is something that can be controlled.  It’s just a degenerate wolf that evolved to eat human feces and garbage.

There are certain arguments that need to be considered when thinking of where dogs and wolves fit together. Dog and wolf are not the same as wolf and coyote and wolf and golden jackal.

Dogs did not split from wolves millions of years ago. It was a much later split, and the split has not been complete.  The black coloration in wolves has been traced to genes that originated in domestic dogs.  I have found extensive historical records of dogs and wolves mating on the North American frontier. Essentially, without persecution to distort wolf behavior and genetics and without the presence of other domestic animals that require people to protect them from wolves, dogs and wolves are more than willing to get together.

But what about ecology? Don’t dogs and wolves have different ecological niches that make them separate species? That is also not a particularly convincing argument.

In the case of the dingo, these animals have returned to the wolf culture and ecological niche. They hunt large game in packs and act the top predator in their native country. Wolves in Italy might as well be dogs, because they live exactly as stray dogs do throughout the world. They don’t hunt much. Prey simply isn’t around, so they move into garbage dumps to find food. That is exactly the same ecological niche we see in most free-roaming domestic dogs.

Dogs and wolves are capable of adapting their cultures to the ecology of their particular situations. Within their genome is an ability to adapt their body types very to fit their particular situation. Wolves that hunt moose get very large. Their jaws become very powerful.  Wolves that hunt mostly small game never develop those traits. Their jaws are weaker, and they learn how to forage on their own, as is the case in the aforementioned Arabian wolves.

We underestimate the ability of C. lupus to adapt its behavior and its physical traits at our own peril. It is something we cannot understand. We are not that physically different from each other, so we assume that other species are similar. It’s very hard for some to accept that Pekingeses and Arctic wolves are part of the same species.

It’s not very hard for me.

And when I think about it, I am even more deeply amazing at the species with which we share our lives.

What has been written above is an intellectual exercise. Taxonomic debates and analysis often are, and when we consider the exact taxonomy of the genus Canis, debate is automatically going to be in the offing.

But this debate has certain practical realities, which can actually harm conservation efforts.

Wolves are a good example. Not only are dogs often considered a separate species, but several wolves are considered distinct enough to have their own species status.

The red wolf is the most famous one. Too much has been written on that particular animal, so I’m not going to waste a lot of time on that one. I will say that I am of the view that it is the result of hybridization between C. lupus and Canis latrans. Some evidence suggests that this hybridization happened in recent times. However, there are theories that they represent an ancient hybrid or are some form of ancient wolf that evolved solely in North America.

I’m not going to go into this one, but I do know red wolves behave like C. lupus and not like coyotes. However, we are spending lots of time and money trying to keep red wolves from mating with coyotes.

Just out of tradition, I consider them to be part of C. lupus, along with C. lupus lycaon, the timber wolf or Eastern Canadian wolf. Some authorities believe that these animals are the result of hybridizaton between C. lupus and the coyote. Others consider them to be the northern population of the red wolf, if they also count the red wolf as a distinct species.

These are probably the best known wolves with undetermined taxonomy, but just a few years ago, it was decided that the Indian wolf (C.l. pallipes) and the Himalayan wolf (C. l. himalayensis) are also distinct species.

Considering these animals to be distinct species does have some practical political benefits. After all, it is easy to get people worked up about protecting a distinct species than a mere subspecies.  Legally, it is called the Endangered Species Act, not the Endangered Species and Subspecies Act, although conservationists do try to preserve the distinct subspecies for a particular ecosystem.

And maybe that is a good thing that we can get attention focused on preserving a population of unique animals.

However, there are situations in which splitting up a species is nothing more than a good way to kill it.

I am reminded of the recent finding that has led some to count the northern white rhino as a distinct species from the southern white rhino. The southern white is a relatively healthy species. If a species of rhinoceros is going last through the next few centuries, it will be this one. The northern white rhino is extinct in the wild, and only a few individuals exist at the San Diego Wild Animal Park and a zoo in the Czech Republic.

(Four of the six Czech rhinos have since been sent to the Ol Pjejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where they could be very useful in preserving their species. I have not heard whether they will be allowed to interbreed with southern white rhinos or not. I hope that it at least gets considered. You can support Ol Pejeta’s efforts here.  )

It could possibly be preserved through some cross-breeding, and such cross-breeding has been employed in the past. I believe the Przewalski’s horse was essentially save through the influx of some domestic horse blood. However, Przewalski’s horse is now regarded as a subspecies of the wild horse from which the domestic horse descends– even though it has a different chromosome number.

The reason why we spend so much money preserving red wolves from coyotes is that we can’t conserve hybrids. People also worry about dingoes crossing with Western domestic dogs all the the time. There is an obsession with trying to find and preserve pure dingoes.

In weird way, this strarts to resemble something else.

Something I’ve always believed was more than a bit detrimental to domestic animals.

It is this desire to have purity for purity’s sake.

If we decide that some animals are distinct species and can never be crossbred, then we’ve essentially doomed them to extinction.

Of course, there are legal reasons for doing so. Blood purity problems plagued some of introductions. When a study came out about the hybrid origins of the red wolf,  various wolf haters called foul.  That is one reason why the Ghost Ranch Mexican wolves were deemed unsuitable for reintroduction. The possible taint of their bloodline meant that the wolf haters would be empowered.

I know that conservationist are much more concered with genetic diversity than breeders of purebred domestic animals. That’s an obvious difference between the two groups.

However, it is possible that splitting up species because of some unique genetic characteristic could have disastrous genetic consequences.

I can see that possibility that all of this splitting actually winds up creating situations that are akin to breeds of domestic dog. That is something that species with very limited populations really don’t need.

And it would be worse than the situations that exist within the closed registry system in domestic dogs. It is one thing to breed a golden retriever to a poodle. It is quite another to breed two species together that we have decided must be distinct enough to be different species.

Evolution has never embraced blood purity. That is a human construct. Nature has shown us that time and again, species have evolved through the influx of genes from another.

Including ours.

There is some evidence that after our ancestors split from the ancestors of the chimps and bonobos that our ancestors interbred with their ancestors again.

Species often are able to adapt and develop sustainable gene pools when natural gene flows are allowed to happen.

Such an idea is very hard for people to understand.

We like clear differences between ideas and concepts.

But in nature things are often nuanced and gray. The stark differences we expect and need for our understanding often aren’t there. Things that look clear  and distinct are actually quite smudged.

And when we try to create distinctions, we wind up with some real problems.

Our brains like distinctions, but the world is not as distinct as we like it.

How we answer these questions ultimately will affect how we create conservation strategies.

We can use the knowledge we have to preserve as much biodiversity as we can.

It may mean that we turn off that part in our brains that wants complete and total distinctions for the sake of preserving genetic diversity of certain species.

It does us no good to do to endangered species what we have done to our domestic animals.

It’s not good for our dogs, and it could be a killer for so many species.

This is a tendency that should be checked–or at the very least, kept in perspective.

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c. lupus familiaris

Okay, I know I’ve touched on this before.

But I think I’ll go ahead with another post on this topic.

Dogs are wolves. They differ at most 0.2 percent from wild wolves in their MtDNA sequence. I needed to italicize that “at most” because it is very common to see it written that dogs differ 0.2 percent from their MtDNA sequence.  That means the maximal difference between dogs and wolves in their MtDNA sequence is 0.2 percent.

Historically, they did interbreed quite a bit. Accounts exist of settlers on the American frontier using bitches in heat to bring in the dog wolves, which would mate with them. Because dogs remain tied together after mating, it was easy to dispatch the copulating wolf with an axe.

This interbreeding has caused a great deal of genetic pollution in the European wolf population, leading to unusually colored wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs. We also have evidence that the black coloration in wolves in North America came from cross-breeding with dogs.

Now, a dog is a wolf that has adapted to a particular environment. It is just like the Arabian wolf is adapted to the deserts and the Arctic wolf is adapted to the frigid wastes. Neither animal could live in the other’s environment, yet they are of the same species.

A dog is simply a wolf that can live safely with people. It can read people better than the wolf can, and as a result, it is better able to learn from people than virtually any other non-primate species.

To me, it makes sense to call dogs Canis lupus familiaris. It makes as much sense as calling the Arabian wolf Canis lupus arabs or the Arctic wolf Canis lupus arctos.

Now, there are three groups of people who don’t like to call dogs wolves.

One of these groups are the people who hate wolves and like to talk about the negative aspects of their behaviors. They don’t want them to be associated with the domestic dog, an animal that most people like.

Another group is the people who don’t want people owning wolves. If dogs and wolves are the same species, shouldn’t we be able to keep a wolf like a dog? The answer is no.  Wolves are too reactive and  powerful for the average person to own. Their predatory behavior can be easily stimulated, which means that children and other domestic animals could be at risk from these animals.

However, I should also say that there are  domestic dog for which this same caveat applies. And there are wolves that are very dog-like and not even remotely reactive or nervous (like this one.)  But most dogs behave like dogs, and most wolves behave like wolves.

The other group that would rather I not call dogs wolves are the positive reinforcement dog trainers. After all, the training methods they hate are based upon an assumption that dogs are wolves, and wolves form packs that are ruled by a tyrannical alpha. If dogs are not wolves, then their behavior is very different, and thus, we can get away with training them using other methods.

Now, I do have an answer for this one.

The studies that determined that wolves live in packs like this have their roots in Switzerland. Rudolf Schenkel studied captive wolf packs in the Basel Zoo in the middle part of the twentieth century. These wolves were unrelated animals and were kept in close confinement together. To prevent fights, they formed a really strict hierarchy, and Schenkel assumed that this type of pack behavior was indicative of how wolves behaved in the wild.

Of course, we have since found out that wolf packs in the wild are much more libertarian organizations. They are nothing more than family groups, and if one wolf gets ticked off at another, it disperses. Indeed, virtually all wolves disperse from their natal packs to form their own families.

But even these pack forming behaviors are not absolute with wolves. Sometimes they form super packs in which several breeding pairs and their offspring live as a single group. And some wolves never form packs larger than the mated pair, particularly in the Arabian and Indian wolf subspecies.

Moreover, the most studied wolves are the big game hunting wolves that live in northern Eurasia or northern North America. These are actually quite specialized wolves.

To assume that these wolves can tell us anything about dog behavior is a bit of a stretch, but what it says to the positive reinforcement crowd is that wolves have always had variable behavior in the wild. Dogs are not set in stone to follow leaders any more than wolves are. Dogs and wolves are both intelligent animals that have always adjusted their behavior to fit their circumstances. That is why the species was so successful. Indeed, it still is successful, because some individuals figured out how to live with the naked apes that would later claim dominion over the whole planet.

I do recognize dogs to be a subspecies of wolf. However, I am not denying that there are differences. However, this species is already diverse in terms of behavior and phenotype in its wild form. Shouldn’t we also expect a lot of diversity in its domesticated form?

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