Posts Tagged ‘domestication’

Sardinian mouflon.

Domestic sheep are not that common in North America. When I write about this species, it is almost as if I am discussing an animal that other peoples in far distant lands keep. Sheep are just not a part of the current American landscape. You can drive for miles down rural roads in virtually any part of the country, and you’ll be very lucky to see a single flock.

And if we look at the raw numbers, it turns out that sheep just aren’t that numerous here.

There are about 6 million sheep in the US. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that America is home to over 96 million cattle and over 61 million pigs.  We are not currently a major sheep producing nation.

This was not always the case. Indeed, it was the sheep trails that opened up much of the West for settlers to come pouring in. Their numbers were always relatively high, even with the constant worries of poison plants and predation from wolves, bears, cougars, coyotes, and free roaming domestic dogs. Sheep had high economic value for their wool and meat.

The US sheep population continued to grow until the 1950’s, when it was estimated that 55 million grazed our pastures and open ranges. Then wool prices began to drop. And Americans lost their appetite for lamb and mutton. These meats are not universally palatable, especially when the majority of the population is accustomed to eating chicken, pork, and beef.

Of course, sheep are far from a rare species. The worldwide population is estimated at  over 1 billion. China and Australia have the largest populations. China has nearly 144 million, while Australia has over 99 million.

The US and Canada combined have about 7 million sheep total. We just aren’t sheep people (at least at this point in history).

Like all domesticated animals, sheep have benefited from their relationship with us.  Wild sheep numbers in Eurasia and North America are nothing compared to that 1 billion figure for domestic sheep.  In fact, there are more than twice as many sheep in the world as there are domestic dogs. Current estimates suggest that there are only about 400 million dogs worldwide.

Now, domestic dogs are the oldest of our domesticated species. Estimates for the  date of their domestication range from 12,000 to 135,000 years ago.

However, the sheep is thought to have been the second animal that joined us in this venture. The oldest domestic sheep are thought to date to 11,000 years before present.

Sheep are our oldest hoof stock. This will be the first post in a series about this animal. These posts will explore their domestication and their natural history. They will also examine how domestication has changed the sheep into an animal that is very dependent upon people for its survival.

And because of their long association with us, domestic sheep are as much an enigma as domestic dogs are.

Although it is pretty conclusive that domestic dogs are a form of Canis lupus, this fact is still not universally accepted. It was even less accepted before the advent of sophisticated techniques for the analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA. Charles Darwin believed that wolves, coyotes, and all forms of jackal had something to do with the origin of the domestic dog. Konrad Lorenz wasted a big chunk of Man Meets Dog, describing lupus dogs that were derived from wolves and aureus dogs derived from jackals.

Well, the wild ancestor of the sheep is still not been fully documented. It is believed to have descended from some form of mouflon, but mouflon taxonomy is itself a giant mess. It is possible that several types of mouflon played a role in the domestic sheep, and it is also possible that other species of wild sheep–especially the urial and the argali– may have contributed genes to the domestic sheep.

I hope this introductory post gives you some idea of what to look for in the coming days. I have no idea how long this particular series will go.

The reason why I writing it this way is because I tried to put all of this in one long post last night, and it was far too long.

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Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

I found this wonderful documentary about the domestication of animals. However, this particular documentary focuses very closely on how the wolf became domesticated. Like good films of this type, this particular documentary tells the story of a bitch wolf that joins up with a band of European hunter-gatherers. When she is killed defending her pups, the hunter-gatherers raise them.

This documentary sides with the “captured cub” theory, which contends that hunter-gatherers were very interested in taming all sorts of wild animals, even nursing them with human milk. Of course, it is usually said that wolves cannot be raised on human milk. This is true, but our diets are very different from hunter-gatherers. Perhaps they produced a different kind of milk that was more palatable to young carnivores.

Also, note how the bitch wolf joins the human clan very easily. This would almost never happen among modern wolves, which have been selected through our persecution to be quite nervous and reactive animals. It is very likely that ancient wolves were very curious about people. After all, virtually all other wild dogs that exist without humans hunting them are interested in us.

As I’ve said before, domesticating the wolf had to have been so easy that a cave man could do it.

My only complaints about this film is that I would be very careful about setting a date for when wolves began to live with people. Currently, the date and place of that domestication is quite contentious, especially with the finding of the Goyet “dog” skull, which dated to over 30,000 years ago. I would also point out that even in the later form of domestication, dogs were useful hunters– and they still are. There are people who rely upon their dogs to feed them, although the numbers of these people in the modern era are quite low.

Also, if you go through this video, I have some commentary about whether more than one wolf bitch in a pack will have a litter and which animal was the most likely ancestor of the domestic horse (it wasn’t the takhi or Przewalski’s horse.)

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This is a feral goldfish caught in the US. It strongly resembles its ancestor, the Prussian carp.

This is a feral goldfish caught in the US. It strongly resembles its ancestor, the Prussian carp.

It is often pointed out how much domestication and selective breeding have changed the domestic dog.  But they are far from the only species in which our selective breeding has changed dramatically. Dogs have been with us for a very long time, and because of tandem repeats, they can evolve into various different forms rather quickly.

However, if you would like to see another species that has dramatically changed because of domestication, look no further than the goldfish. Goldfish are species of carp, and believe it or not, there are two wild subspecies of this carp that still exist in the wild. These are the Prussian carp (Carassius auratus gibelio) and the Crucian carp (Carassius auratus carassius). These fish can all produce fertile offspring with the goldfish, and the Crucian carp is known to come in a yellow mutation. It was thought that the goldfish descended from the Crucian subspecies, when now it is generally accepted that it descends from the Prussian subspecies.

Prussian carp

Prussian carp


Over a thousand years ago, the Chinese were breeding carp in ponds. Some of these fish were yellow in color, a common mutation in carp.


A yellow Crucian carp.

In 1162, an Empress of the Song Dynasty had a pond constructed solely for yellow and reddish fish. Yellow fish were the sole domain of the imperial family, so the gold colored were bred more often. As a result, the main color of the domesticated goldfish would become gold, not yellow.

Within a 150 years, the Chinese began to breed veil-tailed varieties of the fish, and soon, goldfish began to change dramatically.

This fancy breeding happened in East Asia first, but it soon spread to Japan, where the fancy breeding really took off.

My favorite type of Japanese goldfish is the ranchu. The ranchu has a large head with an arched back that dips down before it reaches its tail. And, like many fancy goldfish, it has two tails. On its head, it has lots of growths that are considered absolutely necessary for its breed standard. It also has no dorsal fin.


The ranchu, like most double-tailed “fancy” goldfish, cannot really live in a pond as its less exaggerated relatives can. The double tail and unstreamlined body prevent these fancy goldfish from swimming fast. They need to swim fast if they are to be pond fish, because they will be unable to compete with faster swimming goldfish in their school. Also, these fish have lost their ancestors’ tolerance for very cold water.

However, I would not count the ranchu as the most bizarrely exaggerated goldfish. That title goes to the bubble-eye.


The bubble eye also has no dorsal fin. It has a double-tail, which does slow the fish down. But its most striking feature are the fluid filled sacks that come off the bottom of its eyes. It cannot ever be pond fish or ever kept with fast moving goldfish. Those sacks and the double tail make it really slow in the water. It is very hard to keep in a fish tank, because the chances are very high that it might damage its eye sacks. I once purchased one of these and it lasted about a week in my goldfish tank. I had a common feeder-type goldfish in that same tank that lasted several years, so that should tell you which races of goldfish are the hardiest.

So our selective breeding has not changed only dogs. We like to really mess around with selective breeding, and if we can find novelty in our stock, we’ll breed for it. It is because of this almost inherited tendency in our species that we must draw the line at some point. Interest in novelty of all sorts may have been a great advantage for our species, allowing us to develop all sorts of new technology and art, but like everything else, our tendency to select for novelty can be excessive.

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The domestic turkey is a much larger bird than its wild counterpart.

The domestic turkey is a much larger bird than its wild counterpart.

Remember how I said that a certain image comes to my mind when the words “golden retriever” are mentioned? I think of a lightly build reddish colored beast that is not very exaggerated in appearance.

Well, the same thing happens when someone mentions the word “turkey.” No, not the country.

When I think of turkey, I think of where I grew up in rural West Virginia, where wild turkeys were common. I don’t think of a 30 or 40 pound white bird that cannot fly. I don’t think of them as incredibly stupid animals, which is what the domestic turkey is. 

To me, it’s a wild animal that is hunting for game. It’s a bird that almost went extinct because of market hunted and the destruction of its woodland habitat. Like white-tailed deer, the wild turkey does well when the land is a mixture of tall timber, transition areas, and open ground. During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, most of the tall timber was felled and the land cultivated in corn and hay. This type of environment was perfect for the bobwhite, which often thought of as a quail even though it is not related to the Old World Coturnix species.

However, much of Appalachian and Northeastern farms were abandoned following the economic boom that followed just a few years after the Second World War. A wave of industrialization moved farmers into the cities, as many people from my native West Virginia moved to the steel towns of Northeast Ohio. Others moved to automotive plants, where their standard fo living increased.

But they abandoned the farms. By the 1970’s, the bobwhites were experiencing a sudden change in their environment. The old fields they once used began to return to the forest from which they came. Bobwhites soon lost their habitat. Bad winters in this part of the country wound up finishing off the large stocks of bobwhite. Their numbers are very low in most of West Virginia today.

Not so with the wild turkey. The wild turkey was gradually reintroduced to the state using what remained of the wild stock. Some landowners stocked them using hybrid birds, but these birds failed to thrive. It was only when birds with lots of wild turkey genes in them were reintroduced that the bird took hold in West Virginia.

The local flock in the area where my ancestral farm lies numbers 15 to 20 birds. These flocks separate during the summer months, when the hens go off to raise their young. It’s not uncommon in June or July to see two or three hens working along a fenceline with about a dozen or so poults following them.

The wild turkey, in this case the subspecies called the Eastern Wild turkey, differs from his domestic counterpart in several ways. He is a svelt and trim animal, capable of running great distances to escape predators. He also can fly over several hundred yards. I have seen flocks of them fly across the Little Kanawha River, usually one at a time.

A big male Eastern wild turkey, known locally as a “tom,” can weigh over 20 pounds. It is roughly half the size of its domestic counterpart. The hens are usually smaller, usually no more than 10 pounds.

The wild turkey differs as much from the domestic turkey as the coyote differs from the St. Bernard.

The wild turkey differs as much from the domestic turkey as the coyote differs from the St. Bernard.

These birds differ as much from the domestic birds as coyotes differ from St. Bernards.  The wild birds are cautious birds that will run or take flight from even the slightest disturbance.  The domestic birds are bred for such large breasts now that those that are factory farmed can no longer breed naturally. AI is the only way to produce many of the turkeys you buy in the supermarket.

The wild bird has a better flavor to its meat. It is less dry than the domestic. However, in my state, hunters are strictly limited to the number than can be killed during the fall season (only in selected counties) and the spring season (which is most of the state). No one wants to see the wild turkey disappear again.

The two birds will interbreed. I do know of some people who had free range white turkeys that suddenly hatched out black colored poults. However, most farmers do not let their domestic turkeys roam free as they once did, simply because they are too tempting for the coyotes. One breed, the Narragansett Turkey is an intentional hybrid between the two species.

Currently, domestic turkeys lack genetic diversity. Although several breeds have been developed over the years, the factory farmed birds are required to be white. No one wants a black feather on a turkey breast.

So the number top breed in production now is the broad breasted white. It is been heavily inbred to produce much more meat on its breast. Because of this breeding, the genetic diversity of the domestic turkey is low.  Yes, we’ve screwed up yet another domesticated animal. Some small farmers are trying to stop this by breeding heritage turkeys.

I should note here that domestic turkeys descend from the southern Mexican subspecies, where they were domesticated by one of the farming cultures native to that region before Europeans got here. They are not derived from the Eastern subspecies at all.

And not all domestic turkeys are big breasted and giant. The rare Norfolk black and Cambridge bronze turkeys are very similar to wild turkeys in their conformation. (In Britain, the males are called “stags.”)  The standard bronze turkey of the United States is also closer to this conformation.

Perhaps it is through these rare domestic strains that the domestic turkey can be saved.

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