Posts Tagged ‘grey wolf’

west virginia coyote

I’m currently reading John Lane’s excellent book, Coyote Settles the SouthIt is an excellent book, and I will be reviewing it here very soon. The whole time I’ve been reading it I thinking about my encounter with the male Eastern coyote I called in back in March.

He’s not exactly the same coyote that Lane is writing about. He’s a coyote of the gray woods, not the subtropical pine forests and river bottoms.

But in some ways, he is the same. He is the same creature that has adjusted to all that Western man can throw at him and thrived.

And he’s thrived at the expense of the wolves that once roamed over the Northeastern US and the South. He’s just the right size to live on a diet of rodents and rabbits but also has the ability to pack up and hunt deer. He can be an omnivore, enjoying wild apples and pears that fall to the ground, almost as much as he would if he came across a winter-killed deer.

The coyote is a survivor. I’ve written on this space several times that the reason he has thrived is because he has been here far longer than the wolves that once harried his kind. Until last week, it was assumed that the coyote split from the wolf some 1 million years ago. This million year split has been used for virtually every study that has examined the relationships between different populations or species in the genus Canis. It is used to set the molecular clock so that we can figure out when wolves and dogs split and perhaps give us some idea as to when dogs may have been domesticated.

This assumption has been directly challenged in a new study that was released in Science Advances last week. The paper examined full genome sequences of several different canids, and it can be argued that it pretty much ended the debate as to whether the red wolf and Eastern wolf are species. They aren’t. Instead, they are the result of hybridization between wolves and coyotes. Most of the media attention has paid attention to this discovery in the study.

It’s the most important practical implications, because the US Fish and Wildlife Service delisted the gray or Holarctic wolf in most of the Eastern, Southern, and Midwestern states in favor of protecting the Eastern and red wolves. Red wolves are called Canis rufus, and  Eastern wolf is Canis lycaon. With them being recognized as hybrids, this greatly complicates the issue of how to conserve them under the Endangered Species Act, which, as its name suggests, is meant to conserve actual species and not hybrids between species.

The authors of the study feel that these hybrid populations are still worth conserving, largely because the red wolf contains the last reservoir of genes belonging to the now extinct wolves of the Southeast.

But in order to make this work, we’re probably going to have to rewrite the Endangered Species Act, and that is not going to happen any time soon.

However, the finding in the study that is worth discussing more is that not only showed that red and Eastern wolves were not some relict ancient species of wolf. It is the finding that coyotes and wolves split only 50,000 years ago.

Using a simple isolation model and a summary likelihood approach, we estimated a Eurasian gray wolf–coyote divergence time of T = 0.38 N generations (95% confidence interval, 0.376 to 0.386 N), where N is the effective population size. If we assume a generation time of 3 years, and an effective population size of 45,000 (24, 25), then this corresponds to a divergence time of 50.8 to 52.1 thousand years ago (ka), roughly the same as previous estimates of the divergence time of extant gray wolves.

This finding means that the studies that use that 1 million year divergence time to set the molecular clock for all those dog domestication studies need to be reworked. This is going to have some effect on how we think about dog domestication, and although the domestication dates have been moved back in recent years, the actual split between dogs and wolves is likely to be much later than when we see the first signs of domestication in subfossil canids.

That’s one important finding that comes from this discovery that wolves and coyotes are much more closely related.

The other is that yes, it did pretty much end Canis rufus and Canis lycaon as actual species, but it probably also ends the validity of Canis latrans as a valid species. Coyotes could be classified as a subspecies of wolf. Indeed, they are much more closely related to wolves than Old World red foxes are to New World red foxes, which split 4oo,ooo years ago. And there is still some debate as to whether these two foxes are distinct species, because we’ve traditionally classified them as a single species. Plus, if we start splitting them into two species, we’re likely to find the same thing exists with least weasels living in the Old and New World. And the same thing with stoats.

And then it’s not long we’re fighting over the house mouse species complex.

But if we’re going to lump red foxes, it’s pretty hard not to lump coyotes and wolves. It is true that wolves normally kill coyotes in their territory, but it also found that wolves in Alsaska and Yellowstone, wolves that were thought to be entirely free of any New World ancestry, also had some coyote genes.

So the coyote, like the extinct Honshu wolf and the current Arabian wolf, could be correctly thought of a small subspecies of wolf. We know from paleontology that in both North America and Eurasia there were various forms of canid that varied from jackal-like to wolf-like, and although we know the jackal-like form is the earliest form, these two types have ebbed and flowed across Eurasia and North America. We’ve assumed that the jackal-like forms gave became the coyote and the larger wolf-like forms have become the gray, red, and dire wolves.

But what we’re looking at now is the coyote isn’t the ancient species we thought it was. It’s very likely that some ancestral wolf population came into North America, and instead assuming the pack-hunting behavior of Eurasian wolves, it tended toward the behavior of a golden jackal. When this ancient wolf walked into North America, it would have found that the pack-hunting niche was already occupied by dire wolves. There were many other large predators around as well, and evolving to the jackal-like niche would have made a lot more sense in evolutionary terms.

This is what the coyote is.

The pack-hunting modern wolf came into the continent and took it by storm, and the coyote exchanged genes with it. They lived together as sort of species-like populations in the West, but when wolves became rare from persecution following European settlement, the coyote and wolf began to exchange genes much more.

So with one study using complete genomes, the entire taxonomy of North American Canis is truly blown asunder.

And the implications for dog domestication studies and for the practical application of the Endangered Species Act could not be any more consequential.

Very rarely do you get studies like this one.

It changes so much, and the question about what a coyote is has become unusually unsettling but also oddly amazing.

I will never think of a coyote the same way.

The mystery is even more mysterious.



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I was previewing John Bradshaw’s Dog Sense on Google, and I came across this profound passage. Please read it and then spend a few minutes reflecting upon it.

It is so poignantly true. The wolf that hitched its wagon to our star has thrived– thrived beyond what one would expect from any large species in the order Carnivora. Most large carnivores exist in very small numbers and at low densities.  Not so with Canis lupus familiaris.  It is everywhere.

And generally thriving.

No other large predatory mammal exists in these numbers.

Becoming the dog was truly an evolutionary breakthrough.


My only complaint about the quote is that last line about wolves “staying” wolves. That implies that wolves themselves have no experienced selection pressures but only dogs have.

Much is made about the selection pressures that produced the domestic dog, but what about the selection pressures that produced the modern wolf?

Many of our assumptions about wolf behavior come from an assumption that the ancient wolves that were ancestral to dogs and modern wolves were exactly the same as modern wolves in terms of their behavior.

This assumption causes some problems. Modern wolves are actually quite difficult to domesticate, but the ancestors of domestic dogs had to have been very easy to domesticate. Modern wolves must be habituated to people by 19 days of age to imprint upon people. After that age, they are next to impossible to domesticate.  This means that it would have been hard for ancient hunting people to domesticate any wolves, because a wolf isn’t weaned at 19 days. It is possible to tame adult wolves that have had no prior experience with people, as Woolpy and Ginsburg were able to demonstrate. However, this tame process would have also been hard for hunter-gatherers to use, for their taming process involved what might be called “taming by Stockholm Syndrome.”  These researchers isolated adult wolves, and the only other living beings they saw were people. The wolves became quite tame to people, and they were able to generalize their affections to all humans, even retaining this tame aspect 18-22 months after human contact had been discontinued.

It seems likely that the original wolf population was quite like other wild dogs in non-persecuted populations– opportunistic and quite curious.  They were probably very interested in people, and people became interested in them. One can see possible parallels in this sort of relationship with Timothy Treadwell and his “pet” foxes. If Treadwell had focused his attention on his camp foxes instead of brown bears, he might have produced something really interesting, for within his fox family, I think we can see the contours of what the first tame wolves were like. For the foxes, Treadwell was company and a food source. For Treadwell, the foxes were a curiosity, and they sometimes barked warnings about approaching bears or wolves. I found his footage of his camp foxes far more compelling than the “grizzly” stuff, because I think that through his relationship with the foxes, he told us how dog domestication could have happened.

These foxes were curious about people because they had been fed (illegally) by park tourists– and because they were park foxes, they were never persecuted by man.

Persecution could cause selection pressures on wild populations. I seriously doubt that I could go out and tame wild red foxes in West Virginia, where they are heavily hunted by hound and have been extensively trapped for their fur.

The wolves that did not become dogs experienced some similar to these red foxes. The effects of man’s nearly crazed persecution of wolves on the evolution of modern wolves have not been fully considered. But one effect of this relentless trapping, poisoning, and shooting is that the only wolves that have been able to survive have been those most emotionally reactive and “paranoid.”

One of the overlooked aspects of the Belyaev experiments that domesticated silver foxes is that the critical period for socialization in these  domesticated foxes increased simply through the selection for tameness. These experiments selected foxes for tameness and approachability, and the researchers bred from those foxes. Over generations of selecting for tameness and approachability, the foxes became very dog-like in both behavior and appearance. Because these experiments are used as analogies  of the domestication process, they are almost always mentioned in dog domestication literature– but never the part about the critical period.

It seems to me that wolves have experienced a Belyaev experiment in reverse. Persecution was a selection pressure against tameness and approachability, and the animals that survived the cull were largely those that were most nervous and emotionally reactive.   It is so severe that many wolves won’t cross roads. Roads and virtually anything else that appears novel are too much for them. This is one reason why it was found that many captive  wolves won’t eat beef. They were raised eating deer and elk, and beef  is just too novel and too scary. Perhaps one of the reasons why these wolves are so nervous is that nervousness and paranoia are the result of a selection pressure that chooses wolves with shorter critical periods for socialization. Just as Belyaev selected for tameness and got longer critical periods, man could have selected for only those wolves that were paranoid and emotionally reactive– and this may be in some way correlated or associated with a shorter critical period.  Maybe it goes like this:  If you have a short critical period for socialization, one has only a limited opportunity to learn which things are safe, so almost everything else in the world is scary. Conversely, if you have a longer critical period, one can learn that more things aren’t scary and one’s brain develops very differently. Both of those courses of development would have profound influence on how one’s brain would develop, and perhaps, it can explain many of the differences between dogs and wolves.

Such animals would have had a very hard time colonizing almost all of Eurasia and North America, so it seems likely that the ancient wolves that existed during the time of dog domestication were not nearly as paranoid. They were likely curious and opportunistic and maybe even a touch more socially tolerant.  These animals could be more easily tamed, simply because they were not overwhelmed with fear or fear-based aggression. They also would have been more willing to exploit the new opportunities in becoming a camp wolves. These wolves would have regular access to large prey, which they may have helped their human counterparts bring down, and they would have humans around to help protect and raise their offspring, which means that the pair bond system that virtually all wild dogs seem to use would no longer be as efficient a way of passing on genetic material. The Casanova wolf strategy would be the best way for these camp wolves to breed, and thus more wolves in the population would be breeding. Early domestication would have had the advantages of good food and freedom from a pack structure in which only a few individuals breed.

One part that is always missing in the wolf and dog comparison is the tendency to ignore the simple reality that wolves have continued to evolve after dogs were domesticated. The dog didn’t descend from the wolf running wild today, but both descend from a common ancestor.  Both may be the same species, but that same species exists in two distinct populations. One has been selected by both nature and man to be very close to humans. The other has been selected to fear humans at all costs.

The error is assuming that the latter has always been this way.

Doing so creates too much confusion in trying to understand how dogs could have been domesticated from wolves.

It wasn’t confusing. It was likely so easy that a caveman could do it.

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From The Seattle Times:

Wildlife officials say the Northern Rockies gray wolf population has decreased for the first time since the animal was reintroduced to the region 15 years ago.

A census of the endangered species released Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed the number of wolves fell by about 5 percent in 2010, to 1,651 animals.

Fewer wolves in Idaho accounted for the entire drop, as wolf numbers were up slightly in Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington.

The decline is set against a backdrop of rising political pressure to allow more hunting of the predators, which have aggravated ranchers and sportsmen with attacks on livestock and big game herds.

The number of attacks on cattle was virtually unchanged. Sheep losses dropped sharply from 721 in 2009 to 245 last year.

Idaho is the reason for the population drop?

Well, Idaho does have a very active anti-wolf community, led by a Dale Gribble type named Ron Gillett:




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From The Kansas City Star:

When Andrew Protenic looks back on the 2010 Missouri deer season, he’ll have quite a tale to tell.

No, it doesn’t have anything to do with a huge buck. Or an extraordinary shot he took.

Instead, his story centers on an animal he mistook for a coyote and shot — a creature that appears to be a wolf.

For now, the Missouri Department of Conservation isn’t sure just what he killed — a wild wolf that had done some serious traveling or an escaped pet. Perhaps a wolf-dog hybrid.

Resource scientists have collected tissue and hair for DNA analysis, and they’re contacting wildlife biologists from nearby states that have wolves to get a clue to where this animal came from.

But one thing they’re certain of: This definitely isn’t the type of tale they hear often during the Missouri deer season.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d see a wolf when I was out deer hunting,” said

Protenic, 34, of Smithville. “I’ve hunted there in Carroll County for eight years now, and I know a lot of the people in the area.

“No one I talked to has ever seen anything that looks like a wolf or talked to anyone who might have one as a pet. This is a real mystery.

“When I first saw it, it just looked like a big coyote.”

Protenic, who was properly licensed to hunt both deer and coyotes, realized he had something far different when he got down from the tower stand he was hunting in Saturday, opening day of the firearms deer season.

He had seen few wolves before. They’re not supposed to be in Missouri.

Though they long ago inhabited the state, they disappeared in the late 1800s due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. Today, they’re listed as a protected species in Missouri.

But wolves survived and even thrived in Minnesota. From there they spread to neighboring states, such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Still, wolves are listed as a federally endangered species in most of the lower 48 states.

The last time a gray wolf was reported in Missouri was in 2001, when a young animal was mistakenly shot in Grundy County. That wolf had a radio collar and its origin was traced to Michigan.

Could Missouri have attracted another wayward wolf? Missouri officials aren’t sure.

But initial clues indicate it may have been a wild animal.

“The animal was covered in lice, and most captive wolves are generally parasite free,” said Jeff Beringer, a resource scientist for the Department of Conservation. “We also found no wear spots in the elbows, which is common on captive wolves and other animals that spend a lot of time lying around.”

The wolf, a male, weighed 104 pounds and appeared to be 3 years old, Beringer said.

No form of identification — tattoo, ear tag or microchip — was found.

Protenic immediately called a conservation agent and feared he might be in trouble. But no state charges are pending against the hunter.

Wildlife officials expect DNA results to be back in about a week. Then they’ll have a better idea of what they have and perhaps where it came from.

“I’m really interested to hear what they find out,” Protenic said. “If it was a wild animal, it had to travel a long way out of its normal range to get here.”

I had to slow down a bit when I read that the last wolf in Missouri came from Michigan.


Wolves live on the UP of Michigan, which is at least 700 miles away from northern Missouri. That is a  long distance. I’ve not heard of wolves dispersing that far from their natural range before, but it is possible.

If a Michigan wolf can show up in Missouri, it could show up in West Virginia, which is even closer to the UP by 100 or so miles.

My guess is that this is a Western wolf of some sort. Maybe it was once captive. Maybe it really did disperse to Missouri, which is actually part of the original range for red wolves, not 100 pounders like this one.

It would be amazing if this animal turned out to be a real wild wolf.

Of course, the fellow who shot it might be in some legal trouble.

This story reminds me of the 85-pound “coyote” that was killed in Massachusetts a few years ago.

It turned out the an Eastern timber wolf that had dispersed from Quebec through Maine and New Hampshire into Massachusetts, where it took up sheep killing as a vocation.

Not a wise choice.

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Wolves very rarely prey upon people. However, under certain conditions, wolves will consider humans a prey source.

Although we can find modern and historical examples of wolves preying upon humans, some of the historical examples include so much local prejudice and folklore that one might start questioning the credibility of the account.

Take the case of the wolf of Ansbach.

Modern-day Ansbach is a city in Bavaria, but in the seventeenth century, Ansbach was the main city of a principality within the Holy Roman Empire (the thing that was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire and included most of the lands in which German is spoken today.)

In 1685, wolf began to prey upon lifestock.

And then it started to hunt both women and children.

Nobody knows how many peasants from Ansbach were victims of the wolf, but it was enough for it to be a major hazard.

Now, the rumor among the peasantry was that the wolf was the reincarnation of  cruel Bürgermeister.

From that rumor, the maneating wolf became a werewolf.

Hunters pursued the wolf. Anyone who killed such a menace would have become a hero, for not only would he have killed the living wolf that had been killing women, children, and livestock, he would have exacted revenge upon the Bürgermeister for his various atrocities against the people.

One day, the hounds chased the wolf until it couldn’t run anymore, and it jumped into an uncovered well to escape.

Of course, that wasn’t such a smart move.

The hunters found the wolf in the well and dispatched him.

As as happened so many times when such a predator is killed, the body of the wolf was paraded down the streets of Ansbach and displayed in the market place.

But because everyone believed that this was no mere wolf,  its carcass was not treated in the way one might expect.

The muzzle was cut off, and the body was dressed in human clothing.  A wig was placed upon its head. A mask covered its face. A beard was placed upon its chin.

The animal became the hated Bürgermeister.

And to exact full revenge upon that tyrant, the clothed and disfigured wolf was hanged from a gibbet for all to see.

They had been unable to overthrow the tyrant while he lived, but in executing this wolf, they were able to symbolically overthrow him.

It is a very unusual story.

It is certain that there was a maneating wolf in the Principality of Ansbach, which had once been ruled by a tyrannical Bürgermeister.

In the lore of peasants, the two beings had to be the same, for both menaced the people of the principality at roughly the same time.

Perhaps some of the people believed it.

Or more likely, it is possible that in killing the wolf and displaying his body in this way, the people were better able to cope with the hardships they experienced under such tyrannical rule.

Or maybe the new Bürgermeister wanted some symbol to show that the reign of his predecessor was finally over. Trust your new ruler. I’m not like him.

Whatever it was,  the real animal’s mythic and symbolic status exceeded his real attacks upon the people.

With wolves, such embellishment is not unusual. It is almost de rigueur. The wolves of the Old West that preyed upon the cattle herds and spent years evading traps, bullets, and poison developed a similar legendary status.  (See the Custer Wolf).

These stories tell us so much more about our species than about theirs.

They are predators. They kill because it is their nature.

We are humans.

We believe ourselves to be separate from the other animals.

We also believe that we are above nature.

Animals that attack us or our livestock are an affront to that worldview.

And they must be destroyed.

To destroy them, we must cast the predator as an evil person.

The Custer wolf becomes the ranging desperado. The wolf of Ansbach becomes the evil tyrant.

To kill the wolf is to kill evil.

In killing evil, man is redeemed.

Man regains control.

The delusion of being separate from and in control over the rest of creation regains currency.

But the wolf itself is no more evil than the man who hunts deer or butchers pigs.

It is a part of nature. It is subject to the real forces of ecology and economy.

But man must feel he is separate from it.

It is a comforting delusion, but it is one that is as dangerous as it is beguiling.

To maim a dead wolf and dress him as a man shows us for what we are.

It  really says very little about the wolf.


I think now we should have a discussion on something a little more important and bigger than our crazed symbolism about wolves.  When do wolves attack people?

I found this piece by Valerius Geist on when wolves become dangerous to people, and I think it is very good for framing a discussion on the wolf and its relation to man.

They aren’t particularly dangerous to people.

But one should remember that all wolves are individuals. All wolf packs have different “cultures.” All ecosystems teach wolves different things.

Some wolves might consider people a food source under certain conditions.

Dogs kill people. Many Indians in the Caribbean and Latin America were actually dispatched by heavy greyhounds and mastiffs of the conquistadors, who occasionally killed Indians just to feed their bloodthirsty dogs.

So why is it so hard to accept that wolves sometimes kill people?

Animals that kill people should be killed.

However, we should not use the reality of predation in the way we historically have.

We should not use an act of wolf predation upon stock or people as an excuse to extirpate the whole species.

That’s folly. And it should be condemned.

But the longer we say that wolves never attack people, the more desperate and denialist we sound.

We sound like we’re bullshitting.

And when we’re dealing with animals as complex and intelligent as wolves, we need to be careful about our absolutes.

Only when we deal with the real organism can we work to conserve it.

The wolf is neither evil incarnate nor some kind of wild golden retriever that lives on mice.

It is a being.

It is complex.

It is incapable of being fully under our control.

It is incapable of being reduced to our prejudices.

That’s really what makes them so fascinating.

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Some accounts of the relationship between dingoes and Indigenous Australians may have resembled the relationship between Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and the wolves that became dogs.

Dog domestication was a process that began long ago.

When I say “long ago,” I don’t mean four hundred years ago, when the first English settlers came to this continent, first to search for gold and then to grow wealthy planting tobacco.  I don’t mean a thousand years ago, when the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings ruled England.

I don’t even mean 10,000 years ago, when the first civilizations were being carved out of the alluvial plains along the Tigris and the Euphrates.

I am talking of a time before there were cities, before there were wheat fields, before there were even houses as we recognize them, and certainly long before we began to write records of our existence.

I am talking of a time so ancient in our past that we almost cannot imagine its antiquity.

We don’t know the exact date, but it most likely happened between 40,000  and 100,000 years ago.

It was during this time that some wolves developed a culture in which they festooned themselves to hunter-gatherer bands.

It is often suggested that this relationship was between a scavenging wolf that fed off the kills of the much more successful human hunters.

It could have been a hunting partnership. Schleidt and Shalter contend that the wolf was the first pastoralist. It was the first animal to fully understand the full herd behavior of its prey species. The big cats, including the lion, never fully developed this understanding and relied instead upon stalking and ambush to kill large prey. In this hypothesis, man utilized the wolf’s pastoralist behavior to become a more efficient predator. And the two species were better able to hunt large prey and spread across the world.

(The weakness of this piece is that Schleidt and Shalter think Neanderthal were involved in the domestication. I am not so convinced.)

However, in either hypothesis, dogs are derived from wolves that were connected to hunter-gatherer clans.

It was a kind of culture. Culture is behavior that is transmitted through social learning. It does not take much imagination to realize that dogs and wolves are capable of some form of culture. Wild wolves have their own “cultures.” There are wolves in western Canada and Alaska that rely heavily upon the salmon runs for their sustenance. Arabian wolves often don’t form packs and live almost exclusively on small prey.  During the last ice age, there were huge wolves in Alaska that specialized in hunting megafauna.

These wolves all have developed cultures that have allowed them to survive in their respective environments.  In this way, they are similar to people, but when people develop a new culture to live in a new environment, we develop technology. Wolves change shape. It is widely known that members of the dog family have this ability to quickly develop a different body after just a few generations of selective pressures. This elasticity in shape is why domestic dogs so rapidly evolved into so many different breeds.

In the wild, such elasticity meant that wolves could easily adapt to new niches. For wolves, this ability is as useful as our ability to fashion new technology.

Camp wolves did not automatically change shape to fit people– at least not in ways that are discernible in fossil record. These camp wolves probably hunted the same prey as their non-camp counterparts, and because they were doing similar things, they didn’t need to shape shift.

However, they eventually did. The oldest “dog skull” dates to the Aurignacian. This animal was probably not a “dog.” It was most likely a camp wolf that had started to develop dog-like conformation.

The people who were living in intimate terms with these camp wolves were probably better able to hunt large prey. There are skulls of normal looking wolves that have been found in areas where human hunters killed large numbers of mammoths.  They tended to use the same areas for their mammoth hunts, because the land had some feature, such steep cliffs or boggy terrain, that incapacitated the mammoths, making them easier to kill. Some of these wolf skulls have very extreme amounts of trauma, almost as if a flailing mammoth bashed its head in.

Although there could be plenty of reasons why wolves with these sorts of injuries could be found at mammoth killing sites, it doesn’t take a great imagination to think that these wolves were helping their human counterparts pursue this large and dangerous prey. Maybe the wolves gripped the mammoth as it went down, only to be mortally wounded by the woolly pachyderm’s death throes.

Except for those big Alaskan wolves mentioned earlier, it is unlikely that wolves ever tried to hunt things as large as mammoths. However, if they were camp wolves that were part of this human and canine hunting culture, it would make sense that they would involve themselves in a mammoth hunt. It would be a fun for them, in the same way hog hunting is fun for pit bulls and other catch dogs. It’s just the prey is bigger and a quite a bit more dangerous than a feral boar. I would also allow the wolves a chance to experience a total smorgasbord of mammoth bone, meat, and offal that they would have never been able to access on their own.

We have a very poor understanding of what life would have been like for these camp wolves.  At some point around 15,000 to 17,000 years ago, the dog phenotype took over among the camp wolves. It is likely that selective breeding began to produce animals of this type.

To understand what this culture may have been like, we must look to historical accounts of non-Western societies that still maintained a hunter-gatherer existence prior to European contact.

Some of the best accounts I can find are of Native Americans.

The Beothuk people of Newfoundland relied heavily upon caribou for their survival. Prior to European contact, the only large ungulates on the island were caribou, which the Beothuk hunted by using large fences and corrals to drive them into a killing area.  They owned no dogs, but at least one historical account shows that they had an intimate relationship with the wolves of Newfoundland, which like the Beothuk, are now extinct. They marked the ears of their “camp wolves,” which roamed wild and free in the wilderness. It is not mentioned if the wolves helped in the hunt, but it is likely that their prowess as caribou hunters did not go unnoticed.

Prince Maximilian von Wied and the fur-trader Alexander Henry saw camp wolves that coexisted perfectly with Plains Indians and their dogs. In this scenario, there were camp wolves that lived on their own, shifting in and out of camps at their leisure, and domestic dogs that were used as beasts of burden and camp guards. There is no evidence that the Indians ever used these wolves to hunt bison, but they had a definite relationship with them. The wolves likely interbred with their dogs and provided some sort of genetic boost to their working animals.

But those Native American accounts are nothing compared to some accounts of the dingo living in close proximity to Indigenous Australian communities.

Carl Lumholtz, the Norwegian ethnographer, wrote of Indigenous Australians taking dingo puppies from tree trunks and other dens and then raising the pups as if they were their own children. They would show great affection towards these dingo puppies, which then grew into excellent hunting dogs that they used to track game. During the mating season, the dingoes would wander off. Some would find mates in the bush and would never return, but others would return to the people who had shown them such love and attention.

It is possible that this relationship is closest thing to an historical account of what life for a camp wolf was like.  It is likely that the original hunter-gatherers stole wolf pups from dens and that these wolves became the basis of the camp wolf culture. Perhaps some of these wolves returned to their wild ways during the mating season and never returned.

Those who stayed wound up producing the wolves that became dogs.

These Australian natives were like these ancient people who lived with wolves. They were hunter-gatherers, who lived entirely off of what they could catch, kill, and gather.

In some well-known dog books, such as Raymond Coppinger’s,  it is said that people living as hunter-gatherers would never be able to domesticate anything.  Other accounts of various hunter-gather people show that they are noted pet keepers. South American Indians keep all sorts of different pets– tapirs, parrots, macaws, giant otters, ocelots, margays, and various South American wild dogs. They do not become domesticated, but if any of these animals had some of the natural proclivities towards bonding with people that are apparent in some members of Canis lupus, they probably would have started down the road of domestication. The domesticated culpeo definitely was starting down that path. The people of Tierra del Fuego were hunter-gatherers, yet they were able to have a culpeo that very nearly became a kind of indigenous South American domestic dog.

So it is possible that the camp wolf society was made up of wolves that were captured as pups and then strongly imprinted upon people.

In addition to the capture-cub hypothesis, it is also possible that wolves joined hunter-gatherer clans as adults.  Wolves usually disperse from their natal packs at around three years of age. When they leave, they go off in search of new territory– and a mate. It is possible that there were some young wolves that dispersed and found themselves living in the hinterlands between different packs. Because these wolves were not persecuted and were behaviorally less nervous animals, they may have sought out people for companionship and the chance to have a pack of their own.

We have seen something similar in the story of Romeo, a black wolf that lived near Juneau, who found himself without a pack. He spent most of his life trying to hook up with people and their dogs, just so he could have some companionship.

It is probably likely that both of these scenarios went on for millennia.  Different wolves joined human camps for different reasons, but soon a whole population and culture of these animals developed. And it is from these animals that the domestic dog population eventually evolved.

The camp wolf phase of dog domestication is often brushed off. We do not have a very good archeological record of these animals, simply because the majority of camp wolves looked too much like non-camp wolves. We cannot tell whether wolves were truly part of human societies, even if their remains are found in the same caves. Because this phase happened so long ago, there are no written records of these animals, although Tacitus may have written about the camp wolves of the Germanic tribes. (Or he could have been writing about the proto-German, Belgian, or Dutch shepherd or the maybe the spitzes,  when he wrote of the “wolf-dogs of the Rhine.”)

Yet this phase is the longest in the relationship between Canis lupus and Homo sapiens. Man and wolf forged an alliance a very long time ago. Both species clearly benefited from the alliance. Man was better able to hunt large prey and protect himself from large predators and human enemies. And these wolves had access to large sources of prey.

The dog was able to spread into place the wolf on its own never dared to go. It entered Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, Polynesia,  Australia, New Guinea, and the Americas south of the Valley of Mexico.

The dog now exists in far greater numbers than any wild canid.  Its elastic shape that is easily influenced by selective pressures has let it develop into such bizarrely different forms as the two-pound Chihuahua to the 200-pound mastiff.

Dogs in the West and Japan– and now China–have become integral parts of human families.  Dogs are benefiting so much from advances in technology and wealth that they no longer live like the wolves that they are.

Man became a better hunter because of the relationship he forged with the wolf. Later, he would rely upon the descendants of those camp wolves to control his flocks and herds. From those flocks and herds would come a ready supply of meat, hides, wool, and milk. And a constant supply of those things– along with steady stores of grain– meant that human could focus upon building our civilization. Without dogs, we never would have tamed sheep or goats. They simply live in areas in which people cannot catch them or control them properly, but a sure-footed dog certainly can manage them. Without sheep or goats, it is unlikely that we would have tried to domesticate the horse, the ass, or the aurochsen.

Of course, none of those things were evident to the hunter-gatherers who allowed their relationship with some wolves to make them better adapted to hunting game. All they knew is that they were not the best caribou hunters in the world, and as a species that evolved in the tropics, they knew they were not exactly prepared to make it in the temperate parts of Eurasia.

The wolves likely showed them way.

And we may owe our success as species to these camp wolves, which eventually became our dogs.

Maybe this is why we love our dogs so much.

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