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Posts Tagged ‘South American wild dogs’

Modern pet hoary fox (Lycalopex vetulus) in Brazil.

I have intended to do a post on the domestication of South American canids, using several historical texts, including Charles Hamilton Smith’s The Natural History of Dogs (1840),  Charles Darwin’s accounts of domesticated culpeos in Tierra del Fuego, and as well as some other accounts from more modern sources.

However, it turns out that John Ensminger at the Dog Law Reporter has done far better job than I could ever do.

The South American wild dogs– although sometimes referred to as foxes or wolves in the vernacular– aren’t actually true foxes or true wolves at all.

It is true that they all belong to the tribe canini, which makes all of them more closely related to the true dogs in the genera Canis, Lycaon, and Cuon. 

And the best genetic evidence shows that they are monophyletic– they all derive from the same common ancestor that split off from the ancestral Canis-type wild dogs.

Many of these animals will readily approach people, probably because there has been little historical persecution of them– at least not to the extent of persecution that wolves and coyotes have experienced.

It is very likely that the ancestral wolves had similar behavior when they first encountered people, but then this was heavily selected against when man began to engage in pastoralism. It is true that domestic dogs have undergone lots of selection for cooperation with people, but wolves have experienced lots of selection for paranoia and extreme fear.

In addition to these South American domestication attempts, there is also evidence that man tried to domesticate golden jackals. John Bradshaw in Dog Sense (2011), mentions depictions of what appear to be tame golden jackals from a Neolithic site in Turkey. There was also a  recent discovery of what appears to have been a pet red fox that was buried in a Pre-Natufian site in Northern Jordan. The  Hare Indian dog may have been a domesticated coyote, though there is some contemporary evidence that it was nothing more than a coyote-like domestic dog.

People have tried to domesticate several different species of wild dog.

But only the domestication involving the wolf has ever been successful.

Why was this domestication successful and the others failures?

That’s a big question, and I don’t think we have very good answers yet.

It’s certainly true that the South American examples may have fallen apart as the result of the conquest and subsequent destruction of indigenous cultures on that continent.

But that explanation doesn’t show us why the golden jackal and fox domestications failed.

It may be that golden jackals and red foxes simply aren’t as easy to handle as tamed wolves, and it is well-known that jackals are much more aggressive with members of their own family groups than wolves are.

But that alone doesn’t explain why the domestication of wolves had so much success over the others.

African wild dogs and dholes are even less aggressive with members of their own family group than wolves are, and they actually form larger packs than have ever been confirmed in wolves.

But there is no evidence of anyone domesticating an African wild dog or the dhole, though there are accounts of British colonial officials keeping pet dholes in India.  The best known account of a tame dhole comes from the naturalist Brian Houghton Hodgson, who took in a young puppy and raised it into such a tame animal that its behavior and demeanor were very similar to that of virtually any domestic dog. Although it has traditionally been claimed that the Bangkaew dog of Thailand has some dhole ancestry, this claim has not been confirmed through any genetic evidence. It is more likely that dholes and domestic dogs are not interfertile, and Hodgson’s claim about the dhole being the ancestor of the domestic dog is something that we probably should not regard as accurate.

We don’t actually know why the wolf domestication was so sucessful. There are just so many different variables, and because the behavior of wild species may have totally changed over the years, trying to figure this out requires a lot of speculation.

But it is clear from the historical record that people have tried to tame wild dogs.

Perhaps the reason behind some of these attempts is that humans evolved a certain amount of caniphilia– a natural attraction to dogs of whatever species.  There is a lot of talk about the co-evolution of domestic dogs and humans, and it is possible that our attraction to dogs led us to try to domesticate other species.

The failure of these other domestications should be a warning to us to try to avoid overly reductionist models for how dogs were domesticated.

Dog domestication was a much more complex process than one might have assumed, and trying to come up with a unified theory about how, where, and why dogs were domesticated is really a bit of a fool’s errand.

There’s just so much that we don’t know, and so much that we do know is often quite contradictory.

But if South America had not been colonized, these domestication attempts might have been much more successful.

And we could have several different breeds from several domestic canid species today.

Just imagine that.

At some point, we will have “breeds” of tame red, arctic, and fennec fox. We already have several color strains of red fox that are derived from fur-farmed stock, and it won’t be long before domestic fennec populations begin to offer variation in phenotype from which we can selectively breed.

But if the South American domestications had been left to develop, we might be able to buy breeds of herding culpeo or pointing Pampas fox today.

It’s a bit mind boggling even to consider this possibility.

 

 

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Indigenous peoples of South America have often tamed crab-eating foxes.

This particular fox wound up going to a zoo as he matured.

Which is probably for the best.

However, from what I understand, those that the indigenous peoples kept very often returned to the wild when they reached sexual maturity, not unlike the dingoes Carl Lumholtz described.

I’ve read that the crab-eating fox is capable of producing infertile hybrid offspring with domestic dogs, but I have found no verified accounts– you know, that have a chromosome analysis.

So rumors of hybrids may just be nothing more than urban legends or a complete misidentification of the indigenous dogs of South America.

***

You’ll note that I call the offspring of this species a puppy, not a kit.

The reason is simple: a crab-eating fox, like all South American foxes, is not a true fox.

True foxes have kits.

South American foxes (and all South American wild dogs, except the Urocyon gray foxes that live in Venezuela and Colombia) are much more closely related to the true dogs of the genus Canis and its allies, Lycaon and Cuon.

Those animals have puppies, so to reflect that evolutionary relationship, I suggest that we refer to the offspring of South American wild dogs in the same fashion.

The Linnaen names of some of the genera of South American wild dogs clearly reflect this relationship.

Most South American foxes are in the genus Lycalopex, a combination of the Greek words for wolf and fox– “Lycaon” and “Alopex.”

The crab-eating fox’s name is Cerdocyon thous. “Kerdo” also refers to a fox in Greek, and “cyon” refers to a dog. The genus name reflects the mixture of dog and fox characteristics in this animal, and thous is in reference to the old genus name for the jackals, Thos.

More interesting, though, is that all of these diverse South American dogs experienced much of their evolutionary history in North America.

North America used to have a great diversity of canid species, but these animals shifted south when the  Isthmus of Panama formed.

With the exception of our two Urocyon foxes, all of North America’s wild canids are either in the genus Canis or the genus Vulpes, not unlike the majority of canids in the Old World.

South America’s diversity of canids is one of its more interesting features of its natural history.

Nowhere else in the world, except in domestic dogs, are there such diverse forms.

Where else are there bush dogs that are like dachshunds crossed with otters, maned wolves that look like red foxes on stilts, and short-eared dogs that are like nothing else on earth.

South American wild dogs are fascinating animals, just because they are so different from what we expect.

 

 


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The female is in estrus.

Although they form pair bonds, the male and female essentially avoid each other until the mating season. They share a territory until that time.

This is very different from other species of wild dog in which pair bonds are very strong.

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Click here to see the video.

Bush dogs (Speothos venaticus) are the smallest of the pack-hunting canids.

They live in South America at pretty low densities. They are widespread on that continent, but they are not that common anywhere

Yes, I know they look like the cross between an otter and a fox.

And they are famous for doing handstands to mark their territory.

But beyond that,  they also have been kept as semi-domesticated animals by several indigenous groups. They have never reached the level of the domesticated culpeo, but they have been kept as pets.

It’s not something I recommend, but it is worth considering when we talk about dog domestication.

It is likely that any number of wild dog species have been kept as pets, but only one (C. lupus) has managed to be so successful.

The vast range of C. lupus may have played some role in it, and the fact that C. lupus is a large carnivore that can both hunt the same prey that people were hunting and protect against intruders, including  other large predators that might prey upon humans.

However, we have to consider these potential domestications in order to understand how man and C. lupus became attached to each other in this way.

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warrah

warrah or Falkland Islands wolf

Remember my post on the enigma of the warrah or Falkland Islands wolf?

I stated that we didn’t have the foggiest clue what its ancestry was, although early studies of its DNA suggested that it was derived from something like a coyote.

It has been speculated that the culpeo and the other zorros or wolf-like foxes of South America are its closest relatives.

Well, a new study was released yesterday that suggests that the warrah’s closest relative was the maned wolf. The lineage of the two species split 6 million years ago, when the ancestors of both species lived in North America.

Yes, South America might have a great diversity of wild dog species today, but all of its wild dogs descend from North American ancestors. Canids moved to South America 2.5 million years ago.

So the enigma of the warrah has been solved.

However, no one has found any North American canids that could be considered the ancestors of the warrah or maned wolf.

***

I need to say here that the maned wolf is one of the more bizarre wild dogs. In fact, I can’t think of a stranger animal for the warrah to count as its closest relative. Remember, the warrah looked like a dingo, a culpeo, or a coyote. Its appearance wasn’t that strange. It was the fact that it was located on isolated island that made people wonder about it. If it had been found on the mainland, it would have been instantly grouped with the South American zorros.

They stand over three feet at the shoulder but weigh only about 44-55 pounds. Their long legs are an adaptation to living in their grassland habitat, where the grass often grows too tall for a shorter-legged dog to see its prey.

Unlike other large wild dogs, the maned wolf does not form packs.  A monogamous pair shares a territory, but they normally are not seen together in that territory. They apparently come together only to mate.

Also unusual for a wild dog of this size, over 50% of its diet is vegetable matter. One particular species of fruit, the “wolf apple (Solanum lycocarpum) is named because  maned wolves like to eat it. In captivity, these animals have been fed like normal canids and then have developed bladder stones. Their bodies simply cannot metabolize such high protein diets.

Even more strangely, their urine smells like marijuana. Their urine contains a pyrazine, which also occurs in marijuana. It is possible that their urine gets this distinctive odor from the pyrazine.

The warrah’s only living relative is much stranger than it was!

***

Speaking of South American wolves.

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warrah

Remember my post on the enigma of the warrah or Falkland Islands wolf?

I stated that we didn’t have the foggiest clue what its ancestry was, although early studies of its DNA suggested that it was derived from something like a coyote.

It has been speculated that the culpeo and the other zorros or wolf-like foxes of South America are its closest relatives.

Well, a new study was released yesterday that suggests that the warrah’s closest relative was the maned wolf. The lineage of the two species split 6 million years ago, when the ancestors of both species lived in North America.

Yes, South America might have a great diversity of wild dog species today, but all of its wild dogs descend from North American ancestors. Canids moved to South America 2.5 million years ago.

So the enigma of the warrah has been solved.  This evidence fits nicely with the etymology of the name warrah, which is believed to have been derived from the Guaraní word for the maned wolf– “”aguará guazú.”  That tells us that the warrah probably looked more like the maned wolf than the various taxidermied specimens suggest. (However,  a better photo this specimen is definitely suggestive of something like a maned wolf.)

However, no one has found any North American canids that could be considered the ancestors of the warrah or maned wolf.

***

I need to say here that the maned wolf is one of the more bizarre wild dogs. In fact, I can’t think of a stranger animal for the warrah to count as its closest relative. Remember, the warrah looked like a dingo, a culpeo, or a coyote. Its appearance wasn’t that strange. It was the fact that it was located on isolated island that made people wonder about it. If it had been found on the mainland, it would have been instantly grouped with the South American zorros.

They stand over three feet at the shoulder but weigh only about 44-55 pounds. Their long legs are an adaptation to living in their grassland habitat, where the grass often grows too tall for a shorter-legged dog to see its prey.

maned wolf

Maned wolf

Unlike other large wild dogs, the maned wolf does not form packs.  A monogamous pair shares a territory, but they normally are not seen together in that territory. They apparently come together only to mate.

Also unusual for a wild dog of this size, over 50% of its diet is vegetable matter. One particular species of fruit, the “wolf apple (Solanum lycocarpum) is named because  maned wolves like to eat it. In captivity, these animals have been fed like normal canids and then have developed bladder stones. Their bodies simply cannot metabolize such high protein diets.

Even more strangely, their urine smells like marijuana. Their urine contains a pyrazine, which also occurs in marijuana. It is possible that their urine gets this distinctive odor from the pyrazine.

The warrah’s only living relative is much stranger than it was!

***

Speaking of South American wolves.

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critter

The mystery wild dog from yesterday was a culpeo (Lycalopex culpaeus), the largest of the South American “foxes,” which are more appropriately called “zorros.” They are actually far more closely related to the genus Canis and its allies. In recent years, it has been commonplace for the genus for the South American “foxes” to be referred to as Lycalopex, which is derived from the Greek words for wolf (Lycaon) and fox (Alopex).

This particular culpeo is performing the deed for which they are famous– begging for food. They are also not above stealing food or robbing hen houses. They are considered sheep-killers in their native range. They also have recently been found to  prey on South American camelid crias, which may be one reason why domestic llamas typically hate dogs with a passion.

The name for this species is derived from culpable, the Spanish word for guilty. (It is not pronounced the same as the English word “culpable.”)

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short-eared dog full body

The answer to yesterday’s “Name the Species”  is the short-eared dog (Atelocynus microtis). As far as I know, it is the only naturally occurring species of water dog. These animals have very webbed feet, which much more webbed than any domestic breed used in the water.  One way to think of this animal is as a cross between an otter and a dog. It spends a lot of time in and near the water, and its diet includes lots of fish, frogs,  and crabs.

Now it looks like a leggier version of the South American bush dog. However, its closest relative is the crab-eating fox(Cerdocyon thous). If the small-eared dog is the otter-dog, then the crab-eating fox is the mink-dog. It eats animals that appear along the banks of the rivers. In Venezuela, it is a creature of the Llanos, where it can be seen catching crabs in the floodplains.

Now the crab-eating fox is quite common. Native peoples know this animal well, and many have domesticated them and kept them as pets. South American wild dogs are closely related to the genus Canis and its allies, and the crab-eating fox is rumored to have crossed with a domestic dog. That’s far more likely than the a domestic dog crossing with a vulpine fox.

The short-eared dog, by contrast, is not well-known even by native peoples. It is not widely hunted, nor is it widely described in native folklore. Where it does exist, it exists at very low densities. As a result, we know very little about them.

The dogs give off a musky odor and can raise their hackles. The bitches are 1/3 larger than the dogs and do not have hackles or the musky odor. In all other dog species in existence, the bitches and vixens are smaller than the dogs.

What I find more interesting is that the short-eared dog can be rather short-haired. When nature creates a creature that can live in or near the water, evolution created a short-haired animal. This photo really shows the texture of the short-eared dog’s coat. Shorter hair is more practical in the water, for it doesn’t get bogged down, allowing the animal to swim more efficiently.

So the short-eared dog was the identity of the last “What is the species?” post.

And it didn’t hurt that wordpress automatically generated a link to an earlier post of mine that features a rare video of the short-eared dog.

South America has the greatest diversity of wild dogs species in the world, and it is really amazing how many unusual dogs can be found there. The short-eared dog is certainly one of them.

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Darwin's fox or Darwin's zorro


Darwin’s fox or Darwin’s zorro lives in the Chiloé Archipelago and Nahuelbuta National Park. It is considered critically endangered species that is adapted to the temperate rainforests of its Chilean homeland. It suffers from habitat loss, for the forests adjacent to the Nahuelbuta National Park are heavily logged. It is also persecuted because local farmers think the animal is a threat to their poultry. However endangered it is now, the Darwin’s fox was first documented through a specimen collected by Charles Darwin (which is why we call it the “Darwin’s fox.”)

Darwin describes his encounter with the unusual fox on San Pedro Island in the Chiloé Archipelago:

“In the evening we reached the island of San Pedro where we found the Beagle at anchor. In doubling the point, two of the officers landed to take a round of angles with the theodolite. A fox (Canis fulvipes), of a kind said to be peculiar to the island and very rare in it, and which is a new species, was sitting on the rocks. He was so intently absorbed in watching the work of the officers that I was able, by quietly walking up behind, to knock him on the head with a geological hammer. This fox, more curious or more scientific, but less wise than the generality of his brethren is now mounted in the museum of the Zoological Society.”

Charles Darwin The Voyage of the Beagle

Where wild dogs are not persecuted, they are often tame and curious animals. Indeed, the warrah or Falkland Island wolf was also quite tame and easily dispatched. Even wolves from North America, which had not yet suffered persecution by Westerners, were rather curious and unafraid of man. Lewis and Clark were able to kill at least one wolf by attracting it with a piece of meat and then stabbing it with a knife. You would never be able to do that to a wild wolf today, but historically, where they have not been persecuted, they are often curious animals. (There are no wolf populations today, however, that have no undergone at least some persecution, although those of the High Arctic are those that have experienced it the least.) That’s probably why hunter-gatherers were able to domesticate wolves so easily.

The Darwin’s fox is not a true fox of the genus Vulpes or its allies. (The Arctic fox and the fennec have not traditionally been seen as vulpine foxes, and are place in their own genera. However, the Arctic fox is very closely related to the swif fox, and the fennec is very closely related to the red fox and the Reuppell’s fox.) The Darwin’s fox and all South American foxes are not that closely related to these animals. Instead, they share a common ancestry with the true dogs, the genus Canis and its allies. All South American wild dogs are related to the true dogs, and because of this relationship, it is not exactly accurate to call any of the smaller animals “foxes.”

I prefer to call them zorros, which is Spanish for fox. Calling them zorros also prevents confusion in another way. The Darwin’s zorro’s closest relatives are the culpeo and the “South American gray fox.”  The latter has a terrible name.

Remember, there is another species called the gray fox. It’s a primitive wild dog that is native to North America. Some call it the North American gray fox, and that would be fine. However, its range extends through Mexico into Central America. There are populations of that animal in Colombia and Venezuela, which are South America. So are these also South American gray foxes?

I prefer to call the primitive animal the gray fox, even though it’s also not really a fox, and the South American animal the chilla fox or the gray zorro.

But things get even more confusing. At one time, the Darwin’s fox was considered a subspecies of the chilla. It was only when its DNA was compared with the chilla and the culpeo that it was declared a full species. Even today, one can find the Darwin’s fox listed as a subspecies of chilla in some taxonomic manuals and even peer-reviewed literature.

It is a very good book, if you’re into wild dogs.

And to make matters worse, the Darwin’s fox is in a lot of trouble. The areas around Nahuelbuta National Park are being clear cut. Settlers are moving into the lower valleys, and whenever the Chilean winter is harsh in those higher elevations, the foxes move down into settled areas, where they are often killed. So fully understanding that this species is a full species was very important.

If you would like to read more about Darwin’s fox, check out Holly Menino’s Darwin’s Fox and My Coyote. The book is about scientists studying three species of wild dog– the Darwin’s fox, the island fox (a relative the primitive gray fox), and the Eastern coyote. Two of these animals are endangered– the Darwin’s fox and the island fox. The coyote isn’t even remotely endangered, but it fits into the story because it is quite different in what we know about them. The scientists who are studying the two endangered species have to find out all sorts of information as quickly as possible. Species protection is riding on scientists’ ability to fnd out as much as they can about them. However, the process is long and tedious, and it’s very likely that while finding out as much as they can, the scientists will see their species disappear. The coyote scientists, however, are much more concerned with coming up with a management plan. Their animal isn’t endangered, and they have the leisure to come up with all sorts of more esoteric data about them.

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