This is now playing on Netflix:
These wolves really do remind me of coyotes, right down to their consumption of fruit when it’s available.
This is now playing on Netflix:
These wolves really do remind me of coyotes, right down to their consumption of fruit when it’s available.
I’m currently reading John Lane’s excellent book, Coyote Settles the South. It 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.
Any time someone from the Lower 48 goes to Alaska, the instant question that comes up on return is the traveler encountered a wolf.
The answer for me is simply no, and I knew fully well there were very low odds of me seeing a wolf. I live where there are tons of coyotes, and I see one about every six months. They are very good at keeping themselves hidden from people, and from what I’ve read about wild wolves, it is even more true about wolves.
My best chance at seeing a wild wolf was at Denali, but there is a catch to that story.
Denali National Park is roughly the size of Massachusetts. It’s full of moose, Dall sheep, caribou, beaver, and porcupines.
You’d think that place would be full of wolves, but it’s not.
In fact, a place that size really can’t hold as many wolves as it does wolf prey. Because wolves are top predators, they just can’t exist in such large numbers, and that fact is true regardless if you’re talking about wolves in Denali, cheetahs in Namibia, or lions in the Gir Forest.
So even in the best of times, there would always be just a few wolves roaming the park. They would be laid on pretty thinly on the land.
But these are not the best of times for wolves in Denali.
The traditional “buffers” that have been set up near the park that prevented legal wolf hunting and trapping near the park were lifted in 2010, and the wolf population went from 147 wolves in 2007 to 49 wolves in 2015.
49 wolves over a land the size of Massachusetts.
49 is still more than the number of wolves living in actual Massachusetts, which may be 0 wolves. It may not be, though. One was killed in Massachusetts in 2008, and one or two could be lurking somewhere in the Berkshires, where they may mistaken for big coyotes.
But 49 is roughly a third of what the population was nearly a decade ago. My chances of seeing a wolf in Denali were 45 percent in 2010. They were 5 percent in 2015.
One of the best things I did at the park was take a hiking nature tour. My tour guide was very well-informed about wolf issues, and she told us about a wolf following one of her tour groups. There was no fear involved, but when someone in the party pointed out that a wolf was following them, she was certain it was a dog. She was very surprised to see that it was a wolf, and it was close.
The wolf ran off, of course.
But she also told the story of what happened to the East Fork wolf pack. This is the famous wolf pack that Adolph Murie studied. They were the wolves that were featured prominently in The Wolves of Mt. McKinley. This was the pack to which Wags, Murie’s tame wolf belonged.
Right now, the pack exists as only a single female. Her mate was killed on state land near the park entrance. She also had a litter, but I’ve not been able to find out what exactly happened to them. (I was there just a few days after this story came out on Alaska NPR).
I understand that Alaska has to balance interests between outfitters, who want predator control and liberal predator hunting allowances, and the desire of the American people to have relatively intact ecosystems in our national parks.
I get it.
I get that Canis lupus isn’t an endangered species worldwide, and it certainly isn’t an endangered species in Alaska, where the species is still going strong.
But it seems just a little perverse that we cannot maintain those buffers once again. I came thousands of miles to see wilderness where wolves might be.
I am okay with knowing they might be. I don’t have to see them. I just need to know they are there.
We had a small enough tour group that the guide and I got to talk about wolves a bit. She talked about her cocker spaniel and how that dog was far more rugged than she looked. The dog had been on many back country trips, and she wondered how closely related her spaniel was to those wolves.
But still far enough away.
Warning: Pretty graphic footage.
Klara, the Swedish elkhound/Jämthund, managed to survive the attack, but she was pretty severely injured.
The way moose (“elk” in every other part of the world but North America) are hunting parts of Scandinavia is that a barking elkhound encounters the quarry and then it spends as much time yapping at the moose to keep it from running off. This give hunters an opportunity to locate the moose and then kill it.
There are often brags about these dogs barking at moose for days on end, but with the growing population of wolves in Sweden, all this barking does arouse their territorial instincts. The fact that these barking elkhounds are often some distance from human hunters furthers the risk.
This is precisely the problem that bear hunters are encountering in the Great Lakes States, where there is long tradition of letting hounds run black blears. Baying hounds arouse territorial wolves and even the stoutest bear hounds have been massacred in these encounters.
So with wolves expanding their range, it’s very likely that conflicts with owners of hunting dogs are going to increase.
Which makes conservation issues that much more complicated.
It’s very popular for people to deny dogs their proper classification according to molecular cladistics.
It’s popular because to accept that dogs are a type of wolf and actually belong to Canis lupus means that one has to deal with all sorts of political baggage that goes along with it.
Does it mean that Cesar Millan is right? Not at all.
Does it mean that I can go out and keep pet wolves? I wouldn’t recommend it.
But just because those two concepts are bogus doesn’t mean that the classification of dogs as part of Canis lupus is invalid.
This idea of dogs not being wolves was popular in the era of pre-cladistic classification. Cladistic classification is a way of organizing taxonomy to reflect evolutionary relationships. Paleontologists and anatomists spend hours classifying creatures using morphological characters, and there is a lot of debate, especially in paleontology, about how extinct organisms should be classified.
Currently, most taxonomists who use cladistic classification pay much more attention to molecular data. DNA tells us much more about common ancestry than we could ever get from bone or fossils. And yes, there are surprises.
We know now that dogs are nothing more than specialized offshoot of the Holarctic wolf. Canis lupus today exists in four lineages: the Holarctic wolf, the South Indian wolf, the Himalayan wolf, and the African wolf (which had previously been recognized as a form of golden jackal). We also know that dogs were domesticated in Palearctic somewhere, so they actually do derive from some form of Eurasian wolf.
This form is probably extinct, because the best nuclear DNA studies have shown that dogs are not derived from any extant wolf population.
If we are to adhere to cladistic classifiation, Canis familiaris is an invalid taxon.
So is Canis dingo. In fact, because dingoes fit within East Asian domestic dogs, the common scientific name Canis lupus dingo is also invalid. They are also Canis lupus familiaris, though definitely distinct ecomorph.
Some people get really worked up with this classification stuff, because the world of dogs inherently political. If you say a dog is a wolf, people jump to conclusions about some endorsement about feeding or training.
Politics be damned. Classifying organisms according to how they evolved is a much more important exercise than these tempests in a teapot that constantly swirl around the world of dogs.
I’m not saying that a golden retriever is the same thing as a large Alaskan wolf, but those two animals share more characters and more DNA than either shares with a coyote or a black walnut. If a golden retriever came in heat in the Alaskan bush and she ran into an unattached male wolf, they would breed and produce fertile offspring.
Indeed, many dog breeds have documented wolf ancestry. These include many arctic and boreal breeds like West Siberian laikas and Alaskan malamutes, but wolves have also been crossed into such unlupine breeds as Plott hounds, otterhounds, and griffon Nivernais.
Similarly, the black coloration in North American and Italian wolves originated from crossing with domestic dogs. It’s also not unusual for people to come across Italian wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs, which also is a diagnostic trait for crossbreeding.
When someone denies the phylogeny of domestic dogs, they usually do so rocking back on their heels as if they were somehow the most super-rational person in the world. Only a fool would deny that a dog isn’t a wolf!
But it is these people who are in denial. Most of the ones I’ve seen either own little dogs that really don’t look or act much like wolves or they cannot think skeptically about Raymond Coppinger’s work.
Most people, I’ve discovered, have a very hard time thinking of organisms according to their clades. Part of that problem is that it’s very hard to think of humanity as the last survivor what was once a diverse lineage that came out of same stock that gave us chimps and bonobos. If we were to adhere to cladistic classification, chimps and bonobos would have to be placed within our genus. We would either have to become part of Pan, or they would become part of Homo. The only reason this isn’t done is that this sort of classification would mess up the scientific names of all the transitional forms between our last common ancestor with chimps and bonobos and ourselves, and there actually are pretty big differences between the Australopithecines and Homo erectus. Dogs and Holarctic wolves differ no more than 0.01 percent in their nuclear DNA sequences. Humans and chimps differ about 5 percent.
Of course, a dog is much more a wolf than a human is a chimpanzee. A dog is also much more a wolf than a human is the last common ape ancestor between humans and chimps. Dogs and wolves still exchange genes over the vast spaces of Eurasia and North America. They once did so far more often, when far more wolves lived near far more people and domestic dogs.
We live in a time when dogs are bred in closed registries, and too many dog people think of their favorite breeds as almost being distinct species unto themselves. Most dogs never see wolves. Most wolves never get to see free-roaming domestic dogs.
They could become separate species, but it would take a while. Even now, full reproductive isolation doesn’t exist in certain species in the genus Canis. Wolves mate with coyotes, which has caused some taxonomic wars with North American admixed canids like the so-called red wolf, and African wolves in Senegal have been known to breed with golden jackals.
Our species once existed with other human species. We could cross with neanderthals. We could cross with the Denisovan people. We are now alone, but dogs and wolves are still around with other species with which they can hybridize.
We are the species that does the classification, but we are the last survivors of our lineage. We used to think of Africans and indigenous Australians as distinct species from Caucasians. We did the same with people from Asia and indigenous Americans. We now know that, even though some of us are admixed with other extinct human species, we are all actually the same species and that the vast majority of our ancestry– no matter who we are– came from a single origin in East Africa.
We really aren’t that diverse. We’re really common, but when compared to chimps, we’re not that diverse at all.
But Canis lupus is a pretty diverse species, especially when you include African, South Indian, and Himalayan wolves to the species. Wolves are quite diverse in phenotype, ranging from 25-40-pound Arabian wolves that live on carrion and small game to 130-pound Alaskan wolves that live on moose. When you add domestic dogs to that classification, phenotypical diversity becomes even more explosive.
When you start thinking about wolves this way, they become something quite amazing. It’s really hard for us to think of pugs and arctic wolves as being the same species, but when you realize they are, it’s stunning what can happen through the forces of evolution through natural and artificial selection.
And when you put it into the context of the rest of life on this planet, it becomes humbling.
It all comes from these same processes.
That’s what amazed Charles Darwin.
And that’s what should amaze us.
So stop the cheap phylogeny denial.