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Posts Tagged ‘Prairie dog’

Believe it or not, but this image is of two domestic dogs.

“WTF?” you say.

Yep.

This image comes  from The Natural History of Dogs (1840) by Charles Hamilton Smith and William Jardine.

On the left is an alco. If one reads the description of the alco, it is a small dog of Meso-America, probably something like what we think the ancestor of the chihuahua was like. The authors mention these dogs living as feral animals, which is currently a de rigueur comment on all official histories of the chihuahua. The only difference I can see is that alco is described as looking like a Newfoundland puppy, which means they were likely almost always drop-eared. These little parti-colored dogs were known in Mexico from the early days. Some texts, like Mary Elizabeth Thurston’s The Lost History of the Canine Race, calls them “techichi.”  Techichi are popularly known as the ancestor of the chihuahua, but the mummified dog in Thurston’s book that is said to have been a techichi is long-haired and black and white– and has floppy ears.  It is a myth that all dogs owned by Native Americans before the arrival of Columbus were all large and wolf-like. Some were quite small, and some were brachycephalic.

The dog on the right is much screwier.

Look at the head.

It looks like some kind of rodent.

I think the reason why this animal looks so bizarre is that the authors rather haphazardly conflate several different things called dog, including something that isn’t a dog at all. The engraver who produced the image was William Home Lizars, who lived in Scotland. I can’t find any evidence that he was ever outside of Europe.

The authors, however, likely confused him about what this animal looked like in their texts.

The authors came across a tawny dog in what I am guessing is San Juan del Rio in the state of Querétaro in central Mexico. The authors call this dog a “techichi,” which Thurston conflates with the alco. This conflation may or may not be correct, but it is closer to being correct than conflation that Hamilton Smith and Jardine produce.

We have seen only one individual of this race, by the Indians called Techichi. It was a long-backed heavy looking animal, with a terrier’s mouth, tail, and colours; but the hair was scantier and smoother, and the ears were cropped. It is likely that the specimen seen by us at Rio de San Juan was of the same race as the Techichi described by Fernandez.

To this race belongs the Carrier Indian Dog observed by Dr. Richardson, and described by him, in a letter we had the pleasure of receiving, as having a long body, with legs comparatively short, but not bent, and short (not woolly) hair (pg. 156).

Richardson’s dog was probably the Hare Indian dog, which was much smaller than the travois dog of the Plains Indians. This dog was described by Sir John Richardson, and he described the dog as being like a small black and white coyote. The dogs were used for hunting, and he extolled its virtues as a hard running dog. These dogs were not used for hauling, but they would carry a twig or mitten in their mouths as they ran– which is where Hamilton Smith and Jardine get the “carrier dog” name. Richardson thought the breed was a domesticated form of coyote.

It may have been exactly that, but the breed has since gone extinct. And no remains have been found for modern science to examine.

Now, Hamilton Smith and Jardine start going down several rabbit holes in their discussion of Native American dogs. They mention William Bartram’s black wolf dog, which Bartram encountered guarding herds of Seminole ponies. They also talk about a black wolf-like dog from Canada that was very much like the old Newfoundland (St. John’s water dog) in temperament.

And then the authors mention Maximilian von Wied’s encounter with wolfish dogs on the Great Plains, which he thought were derived from wolves. The authors disagree with Maximilian, claiming that the dogs derive from”Caygotte” (coyote), a view they shared with Richardson. Of course, the dogs on the Plains were larger than the Hare Indian dogs, and they were used primarily for hauling. Maximilian would also talk about these dog mingling with the large wolves of the Great Plains, which leads one to believe that if they had any wolf in them, it was the Holarctic wolf and not the coyote.

If Hamilton Smith and Jardine had left their discussion with the discussion of Caygotte as the ancestor of the Native American dogs, it would not have been confusing, but in the next sentence, the authors posit that “[T]here [is no] reason for rejecting the prairie dog (Lyciscus latrans) as one of those who have contributed to furnish breeds of original American dogs” (pg. 156).

Now, if you read a little deeper into the Hamilton Smith and Jardine text, “Lyciscan dogs” are what we would call the coyote, which the authors divide into the Caygotte and the North American prairie wolf.  The prairie wolf gets the name “Lyciscus latrans,” which we now call Canis latrans– the coyote. However, the authors use Caygotte, the supposed Basque name for this dog in Mexico, to extend not only to what we would call the Mexican and Central American coyote but to several species of South American wild dog, some of which might be nothing more than wolfish variants of the domestic dog. The authors then enter an aside which posits that a legendary dog in India, which is said to have been a hybrid between a dog and a tiger, is actually a Lyscican dog– an Old World variant of this coyote tribe. I guess the dog and tiger hybrid suggestion was too silly for them! The South American “Caygotte” is probably a reference to the culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus), which superficially looks like a small coyote, but it is actally part of the South American “fox” genus (Lycalopex— “the wolf foxes.”).

If the authors had been more careful in their wording of the common name for the supposed ancestor of the ‘”carrier dog/Techichi” and  called it a “prairie wolf,” I don’t think Lizars would have produced such a bizarre image.

Hamilton Smith and Jardine use the word “prairie dog”  instead of “praire wolf,”  but it is obvious the authors mean prairie wolf.  They use the scientific name Lyciscus latrans.

William Home Lizars was not a scientist, so my guess is that when he saw that these animals looked like they might be derived from a prairie dog, he looked up a prairie dog.

A prairie dog is a rodent– a type of ground squirrel. They native to the Great Plains of North America from South Central Canada to Northern Mexico. They live in vast colonies that include extensive burrows, which we call “prairie dog towns.” Whenever, a dangerous animal appears on the scene, one prairie dog will warn the others through barking– well, it kind of sounds like barking– and that’s how they got this name.

My guess is that when Lizars saw prairie dog as possible ancestor of the techichi/carrier dog, he looked up the prairie dog. He saw the squirrel, and he also saw that the authors mention it as being tawny. Prairie dogs are tawny squirrels.

So he made the carrier dog look like a hybrid between a chihuahua and a prairie dog. Not only is a prairie dog long-backed and tawny, it looks like its ears have been cropped.

Black-tailed prairie dog

Now that’s  about as fanciful as the tiger dog hybrids!

One can see what sort of conflations people could produce from having very imperfect information about natural history.

The image at the top of this post comes from conflating the techichi with the Hare Indian dog and the other wolf-like dogs of the Native Americans.  The supposition that some of these dogs were derived from coyotes or “prairie wolves”  became mixed up with the prairie dog.

And the result is an image of a sort of chimerical animal that would probably scare the living daylights out of anyone who happened to encounter it.

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