Posts Tagged ‘raccoon dog’

bassingbourn black fox

The animal above was an anomalous black fox that was photographed near the village of Bassingbourn in South Cambridgeshire.  The photographer, John Moore, spotted the fox running in the fields near his home and snapped some photos.  It was late March in 2012, and it was a true rare find.

Foxes that are any color other than the typical red are extremely uncommon in the UK, so when these photos were published, speculation about where it came from were rampant. One theory was that it was one of the Belyaev “domesticated” foxes, which were then being sold as pets. Another suggestion was that it was a fur farm escapee. The problem with that theory is that fur farms had been banned in England and Wales since the year 2000, and those last remaining fur farms were mink producers, not fox producers.

Just a few days after John Moore took the photos, the black fox was found dead on the highway. Its body was sent to Anglia Ruskin University for genetic testing to determine why this particular fox was black.

Genetic testing revealed something quite unusual about it.  The vixen was found to have two genetic mutations related to fur color that were similar to those found in raccoon dogs.

Raccoon dogs are very closely related to foxes, and in Russia, they are commonly bred in fur farms that also contain (silver) red foxes and (blue) arctic foxes. Because of the similarity between this fox’s fur color genes and those of a raccoon dog, it was given as evidence that this animal was a Belyaev fox that had been turned loose.

It would make some sense. After all, this vixen was estimated to have been 18 months old, and she was apparently so unwise around roads that she soon met her demise on the highway. Further, her coat was much thicker than a typical English red fox. Maybe someone with more money than sense had ordered up one of these famed “domesticated” foxes, and soon realized they aren’t that awesome to have as pets.

And the poor thing got turned loose to live with the wild English foxes, which is about as a humane thing to do as turning out a cocker spaniel into Alaska to go live with the wolves.

So this logic is easy enough to follow.

The issue that seems to be ignored in all of the discussion about what this fox was is whether it is actually possible for a raccoon dog to hybridize with a red fox.

Ignore what you’ve read in various texts about raccoon dogs. They are actually quite close related to the true foxes. Genome-wide analyses have revealed that they are close enough to the other Vulpini to be classified with them.

They are quite unusual as wild dogs go. They can “hibernate,” which means they just sort of go to sleep during the worst of the winter (but it’s not really “true hibernation.”) They also have masks, and rather superficially resemble actual raccoons. It was not unusual for taxonomists to classify them as a sort of Old World raccoon species. We now know they are actual dogs, but the idea of them being sort of dog-like procyonids certainly captured more than a few imaginations.

So the notion that these animals could hybridize with red foxes would seem far-fetched.

But maybe they have.

The Soviet Union was really interested in fur. Historically, Russia has been a nation of fur-wearers. Furs drove them east and north into new territories, and when fur farms became a possibility, improving fur stains became an important goal. This goal went on in earnest during the Stalin years, and Belyaev, a Mendelian, was driven from his initial research post to accommodate Lysenkoist methodologies. He went to a research facility in Novosibirsk,  where he conducted his experiments on silver foxes.

The Soviet ideology believed that nature could be bent to serve mankind. Socialism in one country meant quite a bit of scarcity, even in the largest country in the world, and it was hoped that the new Soviet science could use native flora and fauna to produce abundance. This abundance would soon provision their citizens, and the Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would be possible. Then this ideal would spread to other countries of the world, leading us to a new socialist future and then full-on communism.

It never really worked out, and we all know of the ecological catastrophes that happened as a result of these plans, including the introduction of raccoon dogs to Eastern Europe.

But they made some sense with in the logic of that system.

And if some enterprising Soviet fur farmer wanted to try something different, he might try crossing his silver foxes with raccoon dogs. Maybe he did in the years following the war, when scarcity was the rule, and getting new blood for foxes and raccoon dogs would have been an ordeal.

But this still doesn’t answer the question.

The fact that someone might try crossing the two species is interesting enough, but the question is whether one can produce viable offspring. And the next question whether any of the offspring would be fertile.

I have yet to find the answer to those questions, except that I am aware that red and arctic fox hybrids are sterile.

And those two species are much more closely related to each other than raccoon dogs are to red foxes.

So maybe the black fox of Bassingbourn really wasn’t a hybrid or of distant hybrid ancestry. The similarities in her genotype could have simply been the result of the fact that both red foxes and raccoon dogs share a common ancestor. This fox simply retained a few genes that she held in common with the raccoon dog.

I think that this is a bit better explanation, but the British press took the suggestion that she might have been a hybrid a bit too far. Virtually every mention of this fox online or in print says that she was a hybrid.

I wish, though, that more research had been performed this fox. If she really were the result of a hybridization on a Russian fur farm, it would be possible to detect this hybridization with more analysis of her genome.

The fact that she had just been killed when her body was donated to science meant that lots of different tests could have been performed.

If she really had been derived from hybridization between these two species, this would have been a major discovery.

I don’t think anyone would have expected it.

But Occam’s razor tells me that she wasn’t derived from hybrids.

As much as I’d like her to be, my educated guess is she wasn’t.

And the British press had a lot of fun with it.











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I would hope they would have used red dachshunds to avoid accidentally shooting the dog when it comes out of the hole:


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Raccoon dogs are an invasive species in Europe.  These golden retrievers take care of business.


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The Japanese raccoon dog should be considered a distinct species from those on the mainland. It has a very different chromosome number.

The raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) is a native of Asia.  The Soviet Union introduced raccoon dogs from the Russian Far East into several of its European and Caucasian Republics, and it is now well established in parts of Europe.

However, the exact taxonomy of raccoon dogs is quite fiercely debated.

There is some debate as to whether it should be classified as a basal canid that doesn’t belong to the Canini tribe (all true dogs and South American wild dogs) or the Vulpini tribe (all the true foxes) or whether it is actually a very primitive vulpine. I lean toward classifying it as a primitive vulpine, a classification it shares with the bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis).  The gray and island foxes (genus Urocyon) are true basal canids and belong to neither tribe, but the classification of these three species varies quite a bit in the literature.

But even more hotly contested than its position in the dog family’s phylogenetic tree is how many species of raccoon dog actually exist.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m very skeptical of splitting species. For example, I have real issues with the current classification of the island fox, which lives on the Channel Islands of California, as a distinct species from the mainland gray fox. It has the same chromosome number as the mainland gray fox (2n=66). They are likely still interfertile, and their introduction to the islands may have occurred only through human agency.  Native Americans may have brought pet gray foxes to the islands, where they lived in semi-wild existence. Over time, they evolved into a slightly different kind of gray fox, which is smaller and somewhat tamer than those found on the mainland.

However, the Japanese subspecies of the raccoon dog (N. p. viverrinus) has a much different situation from its mainland relatives than the island fox has from the gray fox.

For example, the Japanese raccoon dog has much fewer chromosomes than the two mainland subspecies.  The mainland subspecies has 2n = 54, while the Japanese raccoon dog’s 2n=38.

That’s not a trivial chromosome difference.

Now, the ancestral raccoon dog colonized Japan just a little bit earlier than the island fox colonized its islands, but evolution has worked very differently in the case of the Japanese raccoon dog. No one has provided me any conclusive data that island foxes should be considered a distinct species, but this very wide chromosome number difference between Japanese and mainland raccoon dogs really sticks out.

Why on earth would anyone be so cavalier about calling island foxes a species and totally poo-poo the notion that Japanese raccoon dogs are?

That’s the decision of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Canid Group’s Canid Biology and Conservation Conference in 2001. This same group readily accepts the island fox as a species, but the Japanese raccoon dog has to be a subspecies.

Now, it’s likely that different panels of scientists are coming up with these decisions, but the cognitive dissonance between the decision to recognize the island fox as a unique species and deny the raccoon dog is more than a little bit troubling. Nie (2003) performed a chromosome map analysis on a Chinese raccoon dog, a Japanese raccoon dog, and a domestic dog and found that the Japanese raccoon dog really was quite distinct from the Chinese specimen.

Thus, the Japanese raccoon dog should be considered a distinct species (Nyctereutes viverrinus).

And it already has a fine common name to distinguish it from the mainland species. The Japanse call it the tanuki.

The evidence for this animal being a unique species is much stronger than exists for all the proposed new species of wolf that have been bandied about over the years. The Eastern wolf and red wolf of North America are actually wolf and coyote hybrids, and the genome-wide analyses have failed to find the uniqueness of Indian and Himalayan wolves, which were also proposed to be separate species based upon their ancient mtDNA lineages.

The tanuki shows that speciation can happen rapidly, especially when we’re talking about isolated island populations.  But just because an animal is stuck on an island for a couple of thousand of years doesn’t mean that it will evolve into a new species. The mutations and chromosome fusions that happened with the Japanese raccoon dog didn’t happen with the island fox.

But because they did happen with the tanuki, we ought to be more open to considering it a unique species.

The only thing that will settle this argument is if an in depth genetic analysis is performed, as was the case with the clouded leopard. There are now two species of clouded leopard, but until one of these analyses was performed, the exact taxonomy of the raccoon dog will be fiercely debated.  It is unlikely that the mainland and Japanese raccoon dogs are as genetically distinct as the mainland and Sunda clouded leopards, but having such extreme differences in chromosome number might mean that they are no longer chemically interfertile.

And if they aren’t, why on earth would we call them the same species?

Genome-wide analyses might even show that these two species split much earlier than is normally posited. The raccoon dog is considered  one of the most ancient extant evolutionary lineages in the dog family. It is possible that there were once many species of raccoon dog, and it might be that the Japanese raccoon dog, instead of evolving from the mainland species, is actually relic population of a species that has since gone extinct on the mainland.  The raccoon dog lineage may have included jackal-like animals, for specimens of a so-called primitive jackal that lived during the Middle Pleistocene in Northwest Africa were found to have skulls and dentition that resemble those of a raccoon dog.  Instead of being an ancestor of any living jackal species, perhaps this animal is actually a type of raccoon dog that evolved into something like a jackal.

Raccoon dogs are much more complex animals than we might realize. They may not be as charismatic as wolves are, but their evolutionary history and taxonomy have many questions that have yet to be answered.

But the bulk of the evidence suggests that at least two species of raccoon dog exist.

It’s just tough to change this paradigm.

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Raccoon dog puppy

(Source for image)

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Despite the comments on this video, there are no raccoons in Finland.

This animal was introduced as a fur-bearer to the former Soviet Union (Latvia, which is now an independent country on the Baltic). It is native to Asia, not Europe.

However, there are raccoons in Central and Western Europe. They were introduced by the Nazis to Germany. The Soviets also turned out raccoons in the Caucasus and in Byelorussia/Belarus. Neither of those populations is found in Western Europe.

So blame the Soviets for the raccoon dog.

And blame the Nazis for the raccoons.

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Raccoon dogs are strange dogs. When I say raccoon dogs, I’m not talking about coonhounds. I’m not talking about “Ol’ Blue.”

I am talking about an unsual canid that was originally found only in Asia, but  the Soviets introduced them to Latvia after World War II. Their range expaneded rapidly to encompass a wide range of Europe.

This species is one of those primitive dogs, like the gray fox. And like the gray fox, the raccoon dog can climb trees. However,  it is not as good at it as the gray fox is.

These dogs go into a kind of hibernation during the coldest months of the winter. They go torpid during this time period, just like the true raccoon.

In parts of Europe, especially Germany, both introduced raccoons and introduced raccoon dogs live in the same forests. But they are not that closely related.

If you would like to see one bayed by a Finnish hound, check out the video below:

These animals are a bit of pest in parts of their range. They kill lots of small animals and destroy ground bird’s nests.

Raccoon dogs can be kept as pets in some European countries. However, these are fundamentally wild animals, and they don’t have all the nice traits that make domestic animals so easily to deal with.

The raccoon dog is a strange animal. We don’t have them in North America, so when people see pictures of them, they think they are large raccoons. Or if they hear the term “raccoon dog,” they think of Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s really just another species of wild dog, albeit a rather strange one.

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