Posts Tagged ‘Forrest Galante’

galante and wolf

Forrest Galante hanging out with a socialized wolf that has features similar to the Southern Rocky Mountains gray wolf.

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Forrest Galante’s Extinct or Alive on Animal Planet.  In the new season, he documents the discovery of the Fernandina tortoise, a Galapagos giant tortoise that has been declared extinct in the wild.  He also has found an unusual giant lion in Zimbabwe that has genetics that cannot be described to any known form of lion in Zimbabwe and might be descended from the massive Cape lion of South Africa.

So yeah, I love this show. The most recent episode involved looking for the Southern Rockies gray wolf in the Sierras of California. Some canid had been killing cattle in that part of the world, and when Galante’s team went into the region looking for the animal, they found lots of interesting things. With use of a German shepherd tracking dog, he discovers a massive deer that has been killed by a canid, and later investigations revealed a large canid that left massive tracks in the snow.

He finally captured the animal on trail camera, and he initially thought it was a wolf. But it had too many coyote-like features to suggest that it was pure.  So Galante surmised that this animal was a coywolf.

Now, this raises a lot of questions. One is that no one has ever seen a coyote-wolf cross in the West before. We know that they exist or existed because the genomes of Western wolves suggest some tiny amounts of coyote ancestry. But no one has seen one before in the West.

Further, the first wolf to enter California from Oregon was noted for his friendly relationship with coyotes. This wolf was of the Northwestern wolf subspecies, but it is possible that he passed some genes into the coyote population.  In recent years, wolves have colonized and bred in California. One pack, called the Shasta Pack, mysteriously disappeared, either killed by poachers or just dispersed. It is possible that a survivor of this pack wandered south into the Sierras and bred with a coyote.

So Galante is finding lots of interesting things in the wild.  One thing I did sort of quibble with in the episode is idea that wolves and humans were at constant enmity in indigenous cultures. Yes, there was conflict between hunting man wolves on this continent, but the work of Raymond Pierotti and Brandy Fogg has revealed that many indigenous cultures had a close relationship with wolves, which often bordered on something like a pre-domestication symbiosis. He played up potential conflicts between indigenous people and wolves, but reality was a lot more nuanced than that.

Also, I don’t think most people are aware of the really upsetting discovery that gray wolves and coyotes last shared a common ancestor only around 50,000 years ago and that the two forms of canid have exchanged genes across the continent. That discovery has been sort of paradigm shattering for me. I have never looked at coyotes the same way since it came out.

Wolves and lions were once the most widespread large predators in the world. Depending upon which version of lion taxonomy one prefers, the American lion was either a subspecies of modern lion or a lineage of cave lions, which were a sister species to the modern lion.  If one considers it the former, then lions had a much larger range than gray wolves ever did, but if one considers it the latter, then gray wolves were the most widely distributed large predator.

It should be no surprise that lions and wolves have lots of mysteries lurking in their double helices.  Galante is getting the public to look at these animals with new eyes.  Lots of hidden things are there to be discovered.

More work need to be done to document Galante’s coywolf, but it is something that should be taken seriously.


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extinct or alive

During the past few months, I’ve been watching Forrest Galante’s Extinct or Alive on Animal Planet, and I have been greatly impressed.  This show’s premise is kind of like Finding Bigfoot, but unlike that show,  there is actually a fairly good chance of finding the animal in question.

The first episode was a search for the Zanzibar leopard, an endemic subspecies of leopard that has been declared extinct for some time. Even the locals, some of whom include the leopard in their traditional religions, don’t believe they still exist.

But you know what? Galante’s team caught an image of one on a trail camera, and now there is serious talk about developing a conservation plan for this ende

This show uses lots of trail cameras and electronic animal calls, which are devices I know do work.

Two of the episodes were about cryptic wolves. One was about wolves in Newfoundland. Yes, the island, not Labrador.  That episode focused heavily on the wolf that was shot in Newfoundland back in 2012.  It may not have been the exact same subspecies of white wolf that lived in Newfoundland at the time of contact, but it clearly showed that at least one wolf had managed to cross the sea ice, just as coyotes did.

The team staked out several areas that looked promising for wolves, and they played an electronic caller. I know how frustrating waiting on a timid wild canid to respond to these calls can be, but in that episode, thermal footage of large wolf-like canids were captured.

The other episode that focused on wolves was the search for the Florida black wolf, a creature mentioned quite extensively by Bartram in his eighteenth century. The original claim was of a black panther in Florida, but Galante thought a wolf would be a more likely candidate.

The team did find a large canid track that matched a coyote’s track, but it was of exceptional large size. My guess is this track was left by a large Eastern coyote, many of which have wolf ancestry and, particularly in the Southeast, are often melanistic.

There was no discussion of red wolves on this episode, which I almost expected. I find discussions about red wolves a bit tedious, just because some of the assumptions behind their species status have been called into question.

And one issue is the red wolf paradigm has essentially removed the true wolves of the Southeast from the public discussion about wolves in North America. The wolves that lived in the Southeast were either red sable or melanistic, and melanism was such a common feature that Bartram reported not seeing a wolf of any other color in Florida.

Galante showed the image of the black wolf of Tensas, a remnant population of Southern black wolves that lived in Louisiana, that was captured by early trail camera by Tappan Gregory. These black wolves probably are the wolf component of the current hybrid red wolf, which are mostly coyote in ancestry now.

Melanism in in North America resulted from an ancient cross with a single dog that entered the wolf population, and melanism is associated with a stronger immune response. Wolves living in the humid subtropical South would have a selection for stronger immune systems to live in a place with lots of bacteria and worms.  These same factors, including the crossbreeding with domestic dogs, are likely playing a role in the spread of coyotes in the East. I have seen many images and photos of black coyotes, and virtually every single one of them is from a state in the humid subtropical South.

So though I doubt that that Galante would be able to find evidence of the original black wolf of Florida, I bet he very well could come across one of these large Southern melanistic coyotes that have both wolf and dog ancestry.

Maybe this animal is evolving in parallel to the older form with a different wolf stock at the base.

One other aspect of this show that I do enjoy is how much Galante goes out of  his way to look for other interesting animals. The season finale was about the search of the great auk in the Faroes, but he spent considerable time observing other seabird species. I happen to find puffins and guillemots quite fascinating, even if the great auk is likely lost to the ages.

Galante is an effective science communicator. His conservation message is as passionate but clear.  He is able to tell the story of the animal in question, and all the time, you’re truly hoping that one will appear on a trail camera or come coursing forth on the thermal imaging camera.

I have largely stopped watching wildlife documentaries because the quality just isn’t what they could be. I grew up watching all the old Survival Anglia nature films, and I almost expect the narrator to speak using received pronunciation, a bit of prejudice that Sir David Attenborough has made even worse for me.

I also dislike nature documentaries that are just pulpy and lack any real depth.

Extinct or Alive is a breath of fresh air. The show is truly about understanding the issues related to extinction and the concept of a Lazarus species, and it is exciting and entertaining at the same time.

So I am definitely looking forward to the next season this wonderful series. If you’re into this type of science-based natural history investigations, then I think you will be deeply impressed with Extinct or Alive.

I’ve not been this excited for a nature series since I was a teenager.





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