Posts Tagged ‘domestication’

st croix

Of late, I’ve been perusing various sites and Youtube channels that focus on sustainable agriculture or, rather, agriculture that can work with significant reductions in fossil fuels.  Now, I should note that I am a skeptic, and I don’t think that any one solution is the actual solution to the problem. But there are people working on it.

Among the ones I’ve been following is a Missouri grass-fed beef farmer named Greg Judy, who runs cattle, sheep, and swine using intensive mob grazing techniques, which require the use of mobile live wires.  He uses very little worming on his stock, so he has had to reinvent some of the domestication selection pressures on his stock.

For example, when he started running his worm-resistant sheep, he had a simple selection criteria.  If it jumped the live wire, he shot it. Within just a few generations, he had put enough selection pressure on his flock that he had sheep that could be contained with just a single strand of electric wire.

Just that simple idea set my mind on the process of domestication. In its initial stages, all those thousands of years ago, the process probably wasn’t any more elegantly simple than Judy’s shooting the fence jumpers.

When the idea of truly scientific selective breeding came to the fore in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we were able to accelerate innovation in our various domestic strains. We bred animals that could gain weight rapidly on grain, that were docile enough to be crowded into feedlots, and that could be more easily transported via rail or by truck.

But now, the climate is warming, and the constant burning of fossil fuels is to blame. You can disagree with me on this, but most of the world’s leaders in politics and business agree with me.  Not enough do, of course, but enough do that we’re going to see policies put into effect that will make burning fossil fuels untenable.

This shift will mean that producers of meat will be forced to develop ways of running and finishing stock that will be based more upon grass forage than upon bringing in processed feeds, and this process will mean that we will have to change our selection criteria for livestock once again.

It may mean that the fence jumpers get shot. It will also mean that animals that cannot gain weight or give birth and nurse young on grass will be bred.

This constant adaptation of domestic animals to our societies’ various needs means that domestication has always been an ongoing process. We weed out the undesirable traits. We cull a little wild in the strain there, or we try to breed it back in over here.

Societies change. Climates change. Ecosystems change. Economies change.  Our understanding of biology is that populations of organisms change, too, and domestic animals undergo similar processes to the wild ones. It’s just that the human factors are the bigger driving force with these animals.

So we never just domesticate a species, and it’s done. In reality, we domesticate and select and select and select some more.



Read Full Post »

bat-eared fox

I have not yet been asked to review the new film Alpha, which is a story about early dog domestication. I have not seen the film yet, but I do want to see it.

I do think we need to get beyond the Coppinger model for dog domestication, and I think there have been some serious attempts recently, but I’m not going to play around with that right now.

Instead, I’m going play around with some speculative domestication reverie. Forgive me my flights of fancy. I must play around a bit.

Let’s say that domestication didn’t involve wolves at all. Let’s say it happened with a very different canid.

And you really can’t get more different from wolves than bat-eared foxes are. Bat-eared foxes are odd little creatures. They are intensely social foxes that live almost entirely upon harvester termites. They do eat other things, and they have even been known to scavenge carrion. But most of what they eat is harvester termites.

Let’s say that somewhere in East Africa some 50,000 years ago, a wandering band of nomad came into the land, but found the whole countryside devoid of game.  The only quadruped messing about the scene were several bands of bat-eared foxes.

And the hunters speared the foxes and ran them down and roasted their bodies on campfires and ate away at their manky fox flesh and hoped the spirits would bring forth a kudu or an impala from the bush.

So for many weeks, the people hunted the bat-eared foxes, and they choked down the fox meat.

But then the fox numbers dwindled, and the disgusting pains of hunger swept through the people. And the babies starved to death, and the children grew gaunt in the piercing sun.

And so the hunters set out on a big journey into the rising sun hoping that they would some place so wondrous as to have plentiful hoofed game.

One hunter, though, knew of a little trick that he’d learned from the hot days of fox chasing in the sun. He knew that the bat-eared foxes like to hang near the termite nests, and he knew that if he staked out one big termite nest, he’d eventually run into a fox.

For two hot days he sat in silence. But on the nightfall of that second day, he the hoary gray form of a bat-eared fox. It was a vixen, and she was all heavy with milk.

Her form was gaunt and tight, and he teats were all swollen with the milk. And the hunter felt pity for her, and so he could not cast his spear upon her.

He sat there watching as she picked up the termites and marveled her rapid mastication.  Rare is the hunter who can avoid watching his quarry and empathizing with it. It is man’s ability to empathize with an animal that ultimately makes him great hunter. It is his ability enter into the animal’s mind and see its ways and its habits as the animal sees it.

But he still can kill it and kill it with skill.  It’s just that every once in a while, the empathy subsumes the hunter, and he feels that odd profound kinship with the animal. It is a feeling I have felt so profoundly on my own hunts, and it is one that I know has made me pass up more than a few shots.  And these are the feelings I do not wish to lose. If I do, I will be a monster, not a fully human hunter.

So the hunter sat and watched the vixen eating the termites, and he let her pass. He then followed her tracks through the arid country. He kept his distance back on the trail, hoping that he would not spook her.

He followed her out of nothing more than curiosity, and as he followed her, he noticed the cloven hoofs of a kudu. The fox and the kudu were following the same trail,  so the hunter knew that if he tired of his little fox tracking, he might be able to get on a kudu trail and bring home some nice meat for the band.

As he followed the trail, the kudu sign grew fresher and fresher. And out of the bush, a young kudu materialized out of the heat waves.  Both hunter and kudu were suprised to encounter each other, but the hunter knew to throw his spear.  It hit home, and the kudu ran and ran. The hunter followed its blood trail, and then found the beast lying in its death throes.

He dispatched the kudu with a simple blow to the head, and it became meat in very short order.

The hunter covered his kill and began the journey back to where he had left his companions. He had dropped a kudu bull, and they would soon have food to eat.

But he had to make his way carefully home, for the stench of blood could bring in lions and hyenas. So he started homeward,  when he sensed presence of another being staring at him.

When he turned to look for his stalker, he was shocked to find the vixen standing upon a little boulder. She was transfixed by him, and he was amazed by her.

He turned to walk away, and the bat-eared fox squall-barked.  He turned to look in her direction. He waved a blessing at her, and then turned to walk again. The vixen squall-barked again, this time with frantic intent.

The hunter turned to look at the fox, but then another movement caught his eye, He turned his head to make his eyes register upon the form before him, and then he realized that a young male lion had come to stalk him. It had been trailing the wounded kudu, and now, it had come upon a bit of human flesh. All it had to do was lie in wait, and there would be a kill.

The hunter stood tall on his legs and reached for his spear. He had but one opportunity to make the lion fall as it began to charge, and he knew that he had to make it count. Otherwise, he would be lion’s meat.

He made his spear aim dead on the lion, and as the beast began its horrific charge, the hunter steeled his nerves  and began his spear cast. It home just as the lion’s charge reached within ten feet of him.  The arrow hit the lion lungs, and her ran off in terror to die the death of a mortally wounded beast.

But the hunter lived. And he owed his survival to the little squall-barks of the bat-eared vixen.

He just began to make his way home when he herd the sound of many hoof-beats. All around him were vast herd of zebra and wildebeest.  And there were many kudu and impala flitting about.

In his journey following the bat-eared fox, he had accidentally stumbled onto some game rich country, and he had to bring his people here.

And he had to make them thank the fox.

And so these people survived a long bout of famine all thanks to their guardian spirit, a little bat-eared fox.

And so the legend was passed through all the people’s children and their children and their children’s children.  And the people came to revere the fox, and bring the kits into their villages and make them their guardians and good luck talismans.

And soon there were whole populations of bat-eared fox that lived in villages and ate people food along with their normal insectivory.

And they followed the people out of Africa into Eurasia, where they diversified into so many forms.

And the bat-eared fox is found on every island and on every continent where people exist.

Some herd our chickens and ducks. Others keep malaria mosquitoes at bay, while others rat as proper terriers do in our present reality.

But in this reality, man’s best friend is the bat-eared fox, not the domesticated wolf. And wolves themselves never survived into the present era. It was too clunky and too churlish to fit into the world dominated by man, and it was fully extirpated from all the land.

And so I’ve laid out some silly reverie of speculative domestication. Forgive me my folly. I sometimes can’t help it.




Read Full Post »

People are often castigated for breeding white tigers. After all, we know that white tigers cannot survive in the wild. However, this may be a moot point. The future for the tiger may no longer be as a wild animal.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the aurochs is not extinct.

Yes. I’m fully aware that the last of these large wild cattle died of natural causes in the forest near the village Jaktorów in Eastern Poland in 1627.

However, the aurochs species is not extinct at all.

It’s actually doing quite well. There an estimated 1.3 billion individuals of the aurochs species still running around the world today. Their range is no longer restricted to Eurasia and North Africa.  They are now found throughout the world.

That’s because the aurochs still exists as a domesticated species. We just usually refer to them as domestic cattle.

Most people don’t know the name of the wild ancestor of domestic cattle. When I was a kid, I naively assumed they were derived from bison or maybe water buffalo.

The aurochs couldn’t survive the duel forces of habitat destruction and widespread hunting for humans. Agriculture demanded the use of fences and cultivated fields, and as we currently see in Africa, where large ungulates are among the most hated of species because they raid crops, the aurochs was not well-received in agricultural areas.  Domestic taurine cattle derive from aurochs that were domesticated in the Near East.  There is very little evidence that European aurochs contributed to modern taurine cattle strains, although I should caution that this finding is still hotly contested. There is no evidence that European aurochs mitochondrial DNA lineages exist in modern taurine cattle, but it possible that wild European bulls might have contributed to domestic taurine cattle.  These wild cattle would have introduced very wild characteristics into the domestic stock, that is very likely that they could have been killed off for that reason alone.

In the last days of the aurochs, they existed only in Eastern Europe, where Slavic and Germanic nobles organized hunting parties to slaughter them.  These were sporting hunts, not at all dissimilar to the hunts organized against British white park cattle or Spanish bullfights, but these nobles had no real understanding of wildlife management. And it wasn’t long until they became very rare. When it was discovered that the last population in Poland had been reduced to only around 40 individuals, all hunting was banned.  The hunting ban didn’t save the wild herd.  It is not exactly clear what happened, but it is likely that these last  individuals were too far from each other to exchange genes. They then became inbred, and they weren’t able to survive the inbreeding depression that set in.

Now, this isn’t really an unfamiliar story for us in the twenty-first century. The only difference is we have a good understanding of wildlife management and conservation breeding. If the seventeenth century Polish gamekeepers had only known what we know now, they might have been able to save the aurochs. Perhaps if they had allowed the aurochs to mate with primitive and feral domestic cattle, there could have been some chance for a genetic rescue.

There are many species that have several parallels in common with the aurochs.

Perhaps the most similar to aurochs is the current situation with the  tiger.

Like the aurochs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the tiger is facing dueling threats of habitat loss and fragmentation and hunting pressure from humans.  Unlike the aurochs, the tiger is not currently being hunted for sport. Instead, it is being hunted because its body parts are considered useful for medicinal purposes in China. China’s booming economy in recent decades has resulted in a very strong middle class, which has increased demand for tiger parts.

So tigers are being hunted in areas where they still live.

And in most of tiger range, suitable habitat is becoming harder and harder to come by. Growing human populations in much of Asia, demand new agricultural areas. Forests are also being felled to feed the growing lumber market, and humans want to graze livestock in areas where tigers currently roam. Tigers will occasionally take livestock. They also will occasionally take people.

Most people living in tiger territory have very little tolerance for them.

All of these features pretty much spell doom for the tiger.

However, like the aurochs, it has another chance.

And like the aurochs, this chance really isn’t all that pretty.

You see, the tiger readily breeds in captivity.

And although there are between 3,000 and 4,000 tigers left in the wild, there are an estimated 20,000 tigers of various and crossed subspecies living in captivity.

Unlike the aurochs, however, the exact utility of captive tigers isn’t clear. It is true that there are tiger farms in China that mass produce tigers for their body parts, but it strains credulity that these farmed tigers could actually become a sustained domestic population in the way domestic cattle were.  The Chinese people are not ignorant. They are becoming more and more attuned to science, and they are adopting modern medicine. This process of accepting modernity has been going on for centuries, and the same forces that are creating a strong Chinese middle class– namely greater access to education and foreign markets and ideas–are going to erode the market for medicinal tiger products over time.

The best that these tiger farms can do is take some of the pressure off of wild tiger populations, which is not a bad thing. However, it is unlikely that we’re going to find another use for tigers to replace the function that will be lost when the market for tiger products eventually collapses.

But by the time it collapses, there won’t be many tigers left, and there won’t be much room for those that are still around. And those that are still around will likely become so locally inbred that they won’t be able to survive, even if they are no longer hunted.

I am not optimistic for the tiger’s future. Its future, such that it has, will be to exist as a captive animal.  Over time, captivity’s selective pressures will fundamentally change them. They probably won’t become an animal that one could ever keep as a pet, but they will never be the wild animals they once were.

They will be living museum pieces, maintained solely to remind of what once was but never will be again.

These captive tigers are better monuments to what was once the tiger than the docile and dopey domestic cattle are to the aurochs.

Indeed, the best monument to the aurochs is this memorial that was placed at Jaktorów:

Someday soon, we’ll have to place one of these monuments in some Asian forest. My guess is it will be somewhere in India or Bangladesh or perhaps in the Russian Far East.

This monument will be to the last wild tiger. No longer does it it burn bright in the forests of the night.

Instead, its faint embers burn away in the cages and enclosures of the zoos, tiger farms, and circuses.

The embers will grow fainter over time– until the tiger will be but a shadow of itself.   It will become a giant pussy cat that can never roam as its truly domestic counterpart is often allowed to do.

Read Full Post »

From Hunter-Trader-Trapper (1902):

I am very much interested in the domestication and cultivation of the’ opossum and skunk, especially the latter. Mankind is rapidly pre-empting the inhabited territory of the world and the domain of wild animals have rapidly become extinct and many more are rapidly disappearing from the face of the earth. Hunters and trappers are penetrating the wildest and most forbidding parts of the earth in quest of furs, while farmers and boys all over the country are robbing the skunk and opossum of their furry coats that “our fair lady” may have warm neckwear. Very few people have any idea of the immense amount of this “second hand” clothing there is worn thruout the world. It is my opinion that furs in the future will rapidly become scarcer and therefore higher. Carnivorous animals have a natural antipathy for man and can rarely be domesticated. The skunk and opossum are carnivorous to a certain extent but will eat a great variety of foods. The opossum is a great vegetarian and will eat all kinds of fruit. The skunk is a dear lover of sweet corn, sweet potatoes, bread, melons, etc. The fact is these animals are easily kept and are also easily tamed, especially the skunk. The skunk is as easily cared for as the ferret, and there is a ready market lor his fur, while to sell the ferret you must advertise for a buyer. The skunk is one of the three animals of the world that furnishes a naturally black fur. The black house-cat and the black bear are the other two [LOL, Great naturalist there!]. This is one secret of the great value set on the fur of the black skunk. I do not think the cultivation of skunks will ever be overdone. I would very much like to read the experience of others who have tried or who are trying the project of raising these animals. I made my third shipment of furs for this season Feb. 7, 1903. It consisted of 15 skunk, 15 muskrat, 17 opossum, 3 mink and 2 house-cats. My check for above was a beautiful little piece of paper worth $31.45. This puts me near the $100 mark for this year. I have on hand about $15 worth of furs since I shipped. I expect to make about two more shipments this year.

Lee S. Dick

I’d like to know where he got the info on black fur. Um, in case you didn’t know, it’s bit wrong.

But apparently at one time, there was a great market for cat fur!

I don’t know what became of this domestication attempt. I know that striped skunks can breed in captivity, and they come in several fur farm color morphs. Some states that allow pet skunks require that one be of one of these morphs, just so that the authorities know for certain that any pet skunk is captive-bred.

I don’t think opossums have ever been propagated in this fashion. I’ve never heard of an opossum fur farm– probably because the fur itself never was all that valuable.

My guess is Mr. Dick’s venture didn’t go very far. Even if skunks are easy to breed in captivity, they have to be descented, which is a cost that exists across an entire breeding operation. I know that ferrets normally are, but I don’t think descented ferrets necessarily had to make up the bulk of the early domesticated population. With striped skunks, one would have to descent them. It’s just too much of a hazard to deal with an animal that squirt nastiness into your eyes every time it gets a little miffed.


Read Full Post »

In the dog family, we have managed to fully domesticate only two species: the domestic dog, which is a variant of Canis lupus, and the red fox. The former was domesticated at least 12,000 years ago, but it could have happened as early as 135,00o years before present. The derivatives of this domestication are quite widespread– and quite successful.  The other domestication is much more limited in scope. The Belyaev experiment with fur-farmed silver foxes in Siberia produced a strain of domesticated red foxes. These animals are widely studied, but  they have remained almost exclusively in Russia. They have now only recently become available as pets in this country.

However, a third species has the potential to be domesticated, and this domestication could become as widespread as the dog.

I’m talking about the fennec fox (Vulpes zerda).

It is native to the deserts of North Africa, where locals have occasionally kept them as pets.

However, in recent years keeping them as pets has become increasingly popular in the West.

They have certain advantages over other fox species that make them a candidate for domestication. They are more social than other foxes. Descriptions of them in the wild suggest a colonial breeding system, in which several pairs live near each other. Adults are known for their unusually playful behavior, which obviously could endear them to virtually any person.

They also lack the musk glands that other foxes possess. Red foxes are notoriously possessed of a rank odor. Fennecs don’t smell all skunky.

However, no intense selective breeding for tameness and docility has yet occurred in captive fennec fox populations.

That means they still have a lot of their wild behaviors. They don’t follow rules as dogs do, and they are nearly impossible to litter box train or housebreak. Of course, you wouldn’t want them running out in the yard without supervision. They would bolt as soon as they could.

But all of these issues do not seem to prevent people from wanting them as pets.

And that inevitably means that breeders of these animals will select for a more docile temperament and more trainability.

Selecting for those traits will have an effect upon the fennec phenotype– just as it has affected the dog and domestic red fox population. Selection for tameness alone in the Belyaev experiment produced foxes with very unique phenotypes. (Some looked a lot like border collies.)

One can only imagine what fennecs will look like with floppy ears and curled tails. I can see them having spots and flattened muzzles.

I can also see them eventually coming in different sizes.

And different coat types.

Which might make different strains.

Which we can only hope will be bred with such care that inbreeding and the popular sire effect don’t destroy them. The current registry system for captive fennecs is trying to ensure genetic diversity within the population.

Maybe in this dog domestication 2.0,  we won’t be as stupid.

Maybe we won’t waste the potential of this species as we did with domestic dogs.

Maybe we won’t get bizarre notions about blood purity or attach our own egos to the gene pools in a such a way that we stop caring about things like COI’s.


I just know that the fennec has a long way to go before it becomes a truly domesticated animal.

But I don’t doubt that one day it will be.

This will be our second chance with another dog species.

Let’s just hope we learn from our mistakes with domestic Canis lupus and do what’s right for the fennec.

I hope we learn.


I should reiterate that fennec foxes are a long way from reaching this level of domestication, but it seems likely that they will eventually attain this status.

It’s really a matter of time.

Within this species lies the potential for a new companion animal.

I may be attacked for promoting keeping a wild animal as a pet.

I’m not.

It just seems to me almost inevitable that the fennec is going to become a domestic animal.

There are too many of them in captivity, and the demand for them is only going to increase.

People like the idea of keeping wild dogs as pets.

It doesn’t matter that fennecs, as they exist in captivity now, are very much wild animals– with wild instincts and drives.

That’s why it’s probably not a good idea for us to try wolf domestication again.

A hundred pound wolf that is acting out its natural behavior is a dangerous thing.

A three pound fennec, though, is a bit less daunting.

A new domestication event could happen here.

It may even be inevitable.

And with that will come many possibilities.

And responsibilities.

Read Full Post »

This female wolf has made a living for herself in Brașov, Romania– a major urban center.


I post this video to tear apart this poorly considered theory, which holds that domestic dog isn’t derived from the wolf.

The crux of that theory is that wolves cannot live near humans without causing trouble.

And while wolves can and do cause problems, not all of them do– as this wolf clearly demonstrates.

As for the genetic “evidence” in that theory, we have a very poor picture of the genetics of ancient wolf populations. Many ancient wolves have been found to have totally unique MtDNA haplotypes. The Alaskan bone crushers and the wolves that lived in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago had unique MtDNA haplotypes that have not been found in living wolf populations.

That could explain why there is such a gap between dog and wolf MtDNA sequences.

However, the piece doesn’t discuss how big the differences are.

Wolf and dog MtDNA haplotypes vary at most by 0.2 percent.

Genome-wide studies have found that dogs and wolves are very closely related.   (See page 13.)

Knowing what I know abut wild canid behavior, it would make more sense that the dhole would have been the ancestor of the domestic dog. It is more socially tolerant than wolves are. In fact, it is not unusual for pariah dogs to run with packs of dholes.

But the dhole cannot hybridize with the dog.

The wolf can, and wolfdogs are quite fertile.

Wolf can and do attack people, but it’s not like this is a universal trait. To say that we couldn’t domesticate the wolf because some wolves consider us prey is a bit laughable. The truth is that wolves are intelligent animals that vary in their temperament and life experience. Some wolves may decide that people are prey. Others may decide to scavenge off of us.

With wolves, the worst thing we can do is try to make broad generalizations about them. So much of their behavior is learned that what may be true for one wolf or one population of wolves may simply not be true for others.

Dogs are derived from wolves that learned to work together and live with humans. They not derived from some unknown mystery canid that has yet to be identified.

We do not know the exact ancestor of the domestic sheep. We also don’t know one of the ancestors of the domestic donkey.

But we do know where dogs came from.

This alternative theory is full of gaps. Every claim in it can easily be refuted. The fact that is presented as if there is a great conspiracy theory to claim that dogs are wolves makes it even more annoying.

You may not consider dogs to be the same species as the wolf, but it is pretty clear that dogs was derived from ancient wolves.

It’s that simple.

The overwhelming evidence in the form of genetics, archeology, and animal behavior suggests that the wolf is the dog’s ancestor.

Not a conspiracy theory at all.

It’s a reality theory.

And in science, to refute such overwhelming evidence requires an extraordinary amount of proof that this evidence is wrong.

I’ve not seen it here.

Read Full Post »

On my last evening at the beach last week, I went out to the pond to feed the turtles and a big Asian carp that essentially made a living out of begging food from people.

As I tossed out the first pieces of bread, I heard a quacking sound from the other side of the pond.

And then I saw six brownish forms motoring across the pond in my direction.

I recognized that I was about to enjoy the company of a few mallard ducks.

I have always been a bit of a duck lover. I had a pet Muscovy hen named Chester, who was so named under the assumption that she was a male. When she laid an egg, she remained Chester. I just couldn’t come up with something else.

I also have a soft place for wood ducks. Every spring, a pair of these ducks check out our pond. With all of those trees growing around it, the pond appears to be an ideal place for these tree nesting ducks. It’s only when they discover that there are no hollow trees in which to make a nest that they move on to more suitable lodgings.  I have often wonder what would happen if we put a nest box in one of the trees. Maybe they would stay. Maybe.

But my mind was not on those birds this evening. My mind had been on turtles, gulls, and scallop shells. It was only from that quacking that my mind began to consider ducks.

My mallard company continued to advance in my direction. I could tell that this was a mother mallard and her five nearly grown offspring. Her orangish bill announced her adult status, as did her quacking and her position in the rear of the swimming phalanx. Her five nearly grown ducklings still peeps as if they were still little down-covered things.

As I tossed the bread into the water for the ducks, it became clear that feeding in the water was not what they had in mind.  They ignored the pieces of bread in the water and kept advancing. As soon as they reached the bank where I was standing, they leaped out and surrounded me.

I dropped a few crumbs for them. Some of these fell at my feet. The ducks ran around at the edges of my toes and gobbled down the bread.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, I knelt down. Perhaps I was just moved at the boldness of these wild ducks. Perhaps I had some primal urge to want to commune with them. I don’t know.

But I got on the ducks’ level. I was looking into their soft brown eyes.

And they were looking into mind.

I made sure that I tossed a little bread to the hen, who stood a few feet behind her charges. She was covering their backs.

Two of the ducklings were quite bold, and it did not bother them in the least to take food from my hand. They seemed to enjoy this behavior.  It may have given them an advantage over their siblings, who were busy squabbling over tossed aside crumbs. From my hand, they were guaranteed a big piece and no competition. They just had to be bold enough to take the bread from my hand.

Twice the bold ducklings’ bills missed the bread and grazed my fingers. I could feel the serrated plates on the inside of their bills gently scrape my hand. I first felt this sensation when I was a young boy at West Virginia state park. I remember being so scared by it that I know that I cried when ” the duck bit me.”

Yet when I felt this sensation from these ducklings, I felt connected. The duckling and I were one for a brief second. I could feel its sensations. I could fully appreciate its essence.

It brought out something instinctive in me that I can’t quite comprehend or fully articulate. It is this deep desire to connect with other living things that suddenly was awakened.

I’m sure that this desire is deep within all of us. That is why we want to feed wild animals. Even if we know that feeding many wild animals makes them more dangerous than the would be otherwise, we still want to. We want to feed the raccoons, the opossums, the skunks, the bears, the deer, and the alligators.

Such a desire probably made us better hunters and trappers, so one can see that it has some evolutionary advantages. Being able to catch small, cute animals also probably helped men win favor with women. Later on, anyone would could domesticate animals would have certain advantages in maintaining as constant source of protein.

But beyond that, I think we just like to connect with non-human beings. We have to put on so many different shells when we deal with others of our species. With animals, we can allow ourselves to be more open.

That’s the main purpose of dogs and cats and other companion animals. They allow us to be ourselves with another being that has a pulse but no ability to make harsh judgments about who we are.

The cheeky ducklings took me back.  No, they didn’t necessarily take me back to my somewhat duck-crazed childhood. They took me into a deeper past.

A past we all share as Homo sapiens, whoever we are or where ever we live. It is the same past we share with domestic dogs. It is the past that existed when we lived as part of the ecosystem and not above it.

It is a past that we will never regain.

But for a few seconds, we can catch glimpses of it. The vestiges that come through when we walk in the woods with our dogs or when we feel the bill plates of a duck gently scraping our skin.

And the trick is learning how to appreciate the glimpses, however brief they may be.

Read Full Post »

One of the hazards of breeding wild animals in captivity is that the forces of natural selection no longer act upon them. Specimens that thrive well enough of captivity are very often fundamentally quite different from those that would thrive in the wild. Those individuals who thrive well enough to reproduce may pass on traits that are entirely detrimental to living in the wild.

If the goal is to produce domesticated animals, as was the case in Belyaev’s fox farm experiment, one should rigorously select animals for tameness, docility, and general ease of handling.  Of course, when one does that, the animal fundamentally changes.

We have been doing that for thousands of years. We have become experts at selectively breeding domestic animals for any number of traits. We do not care that our Yorkshire pigs are nothing like Eurasian wild boars. We do not care that our Herefords and Holsteins are nothing like the extinct wild Aurochsen.  We are glad that our golden retrievers,  Scottish deerhounds, and Pekingeses are not exactly like wild wolves.

These domesticated animals fit their place in our society. They have a utility that is fundamentally different from their wild ancestors, and most of that utility comes from our skills at selecting desirable traits.

However, when our goal is to produce captive populations of wild animals that can be reintroduced into the wild, we often have problems. Simply put, we cannot create the conditions in captivity that imitate natural selection.

Try as we might, we simply cannot make it so that prey species evolve under predation. We cannot allow predators to hunt prey in captivity. If we are dealing with endangered animals, those activities are simply too risky to even try. Further, they most likely would violate  animal cruelty laws and could even violate conservation statutes. Endangered and threatened species are also too valuable for their genomes to ever experience possible risks of damaging or killing them. They must be treated as carefully as any museum artifact.

It is difficult to deny the reasoning behind such care. After all, every individual in a limited gene pool has importance, and we really shouldn’t be involved in what amount to canned hunts with endangered predators hunting endangered prey.

As noted earlier, once animals are removed from the pressures of natural selection, the animals themselves can evolve to  fit captivity.

Take the case of one line of the endangered Mexican wolf.

Mexican wolves (Canis lupus baileyi) are the smallest subspecies of wolf in North America. If the red wolf is a different species, it is generally believed to be the oldest extant subspecies in North America. It has unique markers in its mtDNA sequence that make it stand out from wolves from other populations on this continent. It was native to the Southwestern US and northern Mexico. It was extinct in the wild until 1998, when 11 individuals were released into the Blue Range in Arizona. Currently, about 50 Mexican wolves live wild in Arizona and adjacent New Mexico.

However, as a subspecies, it does have issues with compromised genetic diversity. Mexican and US ranchers nearly wiped the subspecies out.  The last of wild ones were all capture and then bred in captivity in hopes of preserving the subspecies.

One particular line of Mexican wolf was the Ghost Ranch colony. It was captured in New Mexico, and one of the founders of the line looked a bit like a wolf-dog. However, the rest all resembled wild Mexican wolves.

But as they bred over the generations, certain features began to pop up. Their heads got smaller. Their jaws got weaker. They were turning into dogs.

This line was bred at Carlsbad Caverns, and when it was decided to start breeding Mexican wolves with the possibility of releasing them into the wild, the status of the Ghost Ranch wolves fell into contention.

It is well-known that dogs and wolves will hybridize. In fact, it is probably not even correct to call wolf and dog crosses hybrids.  They are now recognized to be part of the same species, Canis lupus. It was suggested that Ghost Ranch wolves were derived from hybrid stock.

If that were true, then it meant that releasing wolves derived from that line could be contentious. The Endangered Species Act and state conservation laws were designed to protect Mexican wolves, not Mexican wolf and dog crosses. It would mean that a wolf haters could kill them and then claim that they were shooting a wolf hybrid, which is not a protected species at all.

Of course, that is not a trivial concern.

However, it was also suggested that the Ghost Ranch wolves were actually the result of a kind Belyaev experiment. Generations of being bred in captivity and being fed a less rigorous diet had changed these wolves in the same way the foxes were.

Because of the potential problems, the Ghost Ranch wolves were euthanized.  However, there are still a few individual wolves that are of the Ghost Ranch line. These animals are of great value.

You see, a later study of the DNA of Mexican wolves, including those of the Ghost Ranch line, found that there was no evidence of hybridization with dogs or coyotes. Not only were they free of that “contamination,” they were clearly genetically distinct from any wolf population in North America.

If only this sort of analysis had been performed before the majority of the Ghost Ranch wolves were euthanized, the Mexican wolf population would still have an important source of genetic diversity. Granted, they would probably would have those maladaptive doggish traits, but these possibly could have been bred out over time.

Also, there were some concerns that the McBride line, which is the main line that was used for reintroduction purposes, might have some issues with an inbreeding depression, and while there was no evidence of an inbreeding depression, it is known that it does have compromised genetic diversity. The Ghost Ranch and Aragon lines are also somewhat inbred, but it would make sense that allowing blood from these previously believed “unpure” lines would end some of these possible concerns.

However, there are very few Ghost Ranch wolves left. Twenty were found in the hands of a private owner, and these wolves were then added to the gene pool.

But because of the unintentional domestication of the Ghost Ranch wolves,  it was decided to get rid of this part of the gene pool.

Of course, when one is already dealing with a very rare subspecies, breeding practices can be loosened. Texas cougars were released to augment the Florida panther’s genetic diversity.  It is something that can be done, but it is generally frowned upon.

Releasing a wild animal that has possible domestic ancestry would always be a legal cheval-de-frise that wolf haters could use, so maybe euthanasia was a good idea at the time.

But all of this confusion could have been avoided if the wolves had been kept and bred to preserve as many wild characteristics as possible. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Although we are experts at selecting for tameness and docility in domestic animals, we are not so good at selecting for the traits that make animals survive well in the wild.

The best we can do is leave the animals alone in their enclosures and try not to put too many selective pressures for tameness on them.

However, the result of doing such a thing means that one is potentially producing dangerous animals that zoo staff cannot handle. In the clip about the foxes, the “wild” group that had been bred to retain those characteristics was far more aggressive. The “dragon” fox would probably have traits that would be good to have in the wild.

But those are just red foxes.

What if we are talking about Amur (Siberian) tigers?

Remember the San Francisco Zoo tiger that killed one person and maimed two others on Christmas Day in 2007?

That tiger had traits that would have made her survive well in the wild. Her aggressive behavior was strong enough that she could escape an enclosure that easily held other tigers.

Such an animal would be a liability in any facility, but her offspring might be well-adapted to eventually live in the wild. That is, if we ever figure out how to rewild captive tigers.

So in the end, we are left with a balancing act. The animals must be bred so they retain at least some of their instincts and physical traits. However, they cannot experience natural selection as their wild ancestors did. They have to be treated with care. They also have to be able to be contained in an enclosure, and they have to be tractable enough to be safe for staff to handle.

They also have to be able to breed in captivity, which is itself an important selective pressure. Not all individuals can reproduce in captivity. Male clouded leopards are often so aggressive that they kill their mates. To get clouded leopards to breed, males that are less aggressive toward their mates have to be used. That certainly will have an effect upon the behavior of their offspring. They may be less aggressive than typical wild male clouded leopards.

All of these things must be balanced in the light of maintaining a dynamic and diverse gene pool. Breeding animals that could eventually live in the wild is a much harder undertaking than breeding domesticated animals. We must balance lots of things with domestic animals, but with these wild animals, we also have to think as if we are imitating natural selection.

Not an easy task.

Read Full Post »

Photo by Dr. Alexander Minaev.

I have been a little late in answering the moose question.

So here’s the deal:

This moose is a dairy moose. The “bell” the moose is wearing is a radio tracking device.

This particular moose is indeed an “elk.” However, it is not a Scandinavian elk at all. It is actually a Russian elk from a very interesting experimental farm in the Kostroma Oblast.

Everyone who reads this blog is aware of the experiments with silver foxes at Dmitri Belyaev’s research facility in  Novosibirsk. What isn’t well-known is the Soviets were very interested in domestication.


Well, large areas of the Soviet Union and what is now the Russian Federation are not suitable for many domestic animals. Although the Yakuts have a tough horse that can handle the conditions of the tundra, raising most domestic animals was always a difficult undertaking in much of the country.

In the 1930’s, the country was experiencing lots changes. Rapid industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and the isolation from the outside world put lots of pressure on the Soviet economy. This was a time in which there were both famines in the countryside and the development of what resembled a Western industrial middle class in the cities.

All of this happened under an economic system based upon what was called “socialism in one country.” This meant that the Soviet Union had to produce all of its food and materials from domestic sources. The problem is that while the Soviet Union was very rich in raw materials and natural resources, it lacked both capital and infrastructure to utilize them properly.

The fact that large areas of the country are unsuitable for the grazing of most stock meant that domesticating “more appropriate” species was a bit of a national obsession. One must also understand that this country was also attempting to develop entirely on the collectivist model, which mean that all enterprises had to produce to meet “need.” (“Need” is not the same thing as supply and demand in a market economy.)

That’s one reason why the state was so interested in domestication. That’s why the classical experiment on domestication comes from a Soviet geneticist (which is itself ironic because Lysenkoism was the main “scientific methodology” of heredity in the Soviet Union after 1948.)

The original plan was to domesticate the moose in order to create a super cavalry steed that could run hard in the deep snow and live on twigs. The Soviet government started domesticating moose at several game farms.

This idea isn’t quite as fanciful as it might seem. There are historical sources that the Yakut people had something like domesticated moose. When the Swedes coveted a world empire, they also had moose cavalry units– which actually didn’t work!

In the 1930’s, Soviet science believed that it was at the cutting edge of biology and that they could actually produce amazing new species of farm animal. I think some of what inspired this sort of thinking was the existence of many domesticated reindeer in the Soviet Union. Reindeer are wild animals and are totally unlike other farm stock.  About 3,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer peoples throughout northern Eurasia began to develop a pastoral relationship with reindeer, which eventually led to the development of truly domesticated herds of the species. If these people could domesticate this deer to make themselves self-reliant, why couldn’t the Soviet government do this on a much larger scale?

The moose cavalry idea fell apart. Although they did develop some moose that were suitable for riding, the Soviet Union and Finland went to war with each other in 1939, and such experiments were put on hold.

It was decided to turn the moose into a draft animal for logging operations. Using moose to do this work would be far more efficient, for horses required hay to be able to work long hours with loggers. Moose would be better because they could be fed the branches of the trees that were cast aside from the lumber.

The problem was that all moose calves that were ever to be of any use as draft animals had to be bottle-reared. A horse can be trained even if he is never imprinted on humans at an early age. Thus, you actually need people to raise moose calves for your lumber camps, which you don’t actually need if you’re using horses. And bottle-rearing any animal is very labor-intensive, which means that any benefit from using moose instead of horses is soon lost in that part of producing a good “work moose.”

The other thing was that moose are not as skilled at pulling sleds or logs as specifically bred draft horses are. They may be the same size, but the horse has the right sized muscles in all the right places to actually move these objects efficiently. Because the moose can’t pull as well as horses can, the benefits of using them are even more reduced. Further, of all the photos of draft moose I have seen, I have not seen any that included a team of them. Horses can be used in teams to pull objects, which means they can pull more than any single moose in a harness.

So the domesticated moose failed as a cavalry animal and as a draft animal.

It was decided that they would be the next cow of the North. The whole country would be fed on moose meat.

But that didn’t work either. It was very inefficient to raise them to produce them as a meat animal. They were hard to keep together in lots, and they required large areas of forage.

But the Soviets were not done trying.

They decided that the moose’s real strength could be as a dairy animal.

And that is where things got interesting.

Now, after 1948, Lysenkoism took hold in the Soviet Union. Lysenkoism is a bizarre theory of heredity. It is Lamarckian in that it suggests that what an organism experiences in response to environmental factors can be passed onto its offspring.

One of the problems with keeping moose as farm animals is they are not terribly social. They are tolerant of each other for a bit, but they really don’t live in large herds in the way cattle and sheep do.

If moose were going to be dairy animals, they had to learn how to live in herds. Agricultural land was always finite,and keeping them together in small pastures would be an efficient use of the land. It was thought that if they forced cow moose to live in herds that they would produce offspring that would be more gregarious.

Of course, it didn’t work.

So it was decided to start a free-range moose dairy in what is now the Kostroma Oblast. The moose cows were fitted with radio transmitters, and they were allowed to become free-roaming.

I won’t say that these animals are full domesticated, but if the moose knows a person and that person rubs his or her hands with amniotic fluid,  that person can approach the mother moose and her calf.

And as dairy animals, this is important, because the calves must be taken away from their mothers.

Dairy cows have been selectively bred to develop very weak bonds with their calves. It is such that one can remove a calf from the mother soon after birth and cause minimal stress on the mother. (Although she will likely still make a fuss). This selection most likely came by accident. When the calves were taken, the cows that could produce the most milk soon after the separation were those with weakened bonding towards their offspring.

I wonder if the same selective process has happened here.  When the moose cows drop their calves, they are taken from their mothers just a few days after birth. The calves are then bottle-reared, and they imprint very strongly on people.

However, whatever is going on here, the Kostroma Moose Farm is not able to produce milk throughout the year, and the milk is sold to a local sanitarium.

It is hardly a major commercial enterprise, and it is unlikely that it will ever be, for several reasons. The Kostroma Moose Farm Website lays them out:

1. Moose pastures need special protection from poaching and ban of legal hunting, i.e. it is necessary to guard the whole home range from poachers and preserve biotopes producing moose food on its territory. Therefore, the domestic moose range must become a reserve (specially protected nature area) and this area must be equaled at least 36000-40000 ha.

2. Domestic moose will damage agriculture and silviculture areas. (In Russia this is traditionally ignored because fields and forests seem «everybody’s means nobody’s»). Gardens should be fenced.

3. A moose defending from real or imaginary threat or even playing can injure human.

4. Expensive radio tracking equipment is necessary to reveal animals’ position and movements.

5. To avoid discontinuance in feeding which is very dangerous for moose, a moose farm must have its own forest reserve.

6. The Kostroma farm staff including administration, dairywomen, wood loggers, tractor drivers, wildlife guards, etc. agree by order of magnitude to the number of domestic moose. Breeding moose is very expensive.

7. In many countries a release of tame animals is prohibited by law; and their goodwill return for food, milking and giving birth in enclosures may fall under the definition of capture for sustain in captivity.

8. Some animals will be lost because of their emigration.

9. A prohibitive animal number on one moose farm depends on food productivity of the reserved territory, and in Kostroma region is about 50 in total, including 10-15 dairy moose.

So you need a whole bunch of land, a whole bunch of labor, and certain economic and cultural conditions to keep 10-15 dairy moose. And these moose don’t produce milk as often or in such quantities as dairy cattle.

And the animals are not fully domesticated, and because they are deer, the bulls go through a rutting period in which they are pretty aggressive. The cows are not always tolerant of people near their offspring.

And like some dairy bulls, the young male moose that have been bottle-reared can be  quite aggressive towards people.

One worker described one particularly aggressive bull moose:

“We sometimes call him Bin Laden: he is kind to people he knows but has already forced a few people from nearby villages to spend hours on top of trees.”

Yes, I do know that bulls and stallions can be aggressive animals, but bulls and stallions can be safely contained. If the only humane way to keep moose is to let them be free range, then these dairy moose bulls are going to be a major hazard.

In the end, the idea of domesticated moose is one that sounded good on paper, but when the actual economic, cultural, and ecological reality set in, it now seems a bit like a failure to me.

However, these experiments do tell us a lot about the domestication process, even if their practical utility is somewhat questionable. The distortions that existed under Soviet-style socialism at least led to some scientific understanding about what it takes to domesticate a species and why some animals are unsuited for the domestic lifestyle.

And in that respect, the Kostroma Moose Farm and the whole attempt to create a super taiga steed or bullock does have some merit.

But I don’t see moose dairies popping up all over the world any time soon.

See the Kostroma Moose Farm.

Read Full Post »

If Coppinger is right that the animals we domesticated are either garbage or feces eating animals, then we might have a new candidate for domestication.

See who it is at Tetrapod Zoology.

Note: These are not Bradypus.

These will actually bite you.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: