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Posts Tagged ‘wolves’

jan fyt wolf

The Revierjäger’s daughter wore a red hood when she went flower-picking in the forest. It kept the sun and rain off her freckled face.

And every day, she’d ask her father if she could walk to see Oma.

But Revierjäger knew there was danger about the forest. Two years ago, there had been a big peasant rising in the land, and when the king’s men crushed the rebellion, renegades hid out in the forest. They poached the deer and wild boar. Even after the rebels were starved out of their sylvan retreats, the game remained scarce.

The wolves of the forest found themselves without much to eat, so they slipped among the villages, lifting suckling pigs from the sows and running amok among the flocks.

The Revierjäger spent much of his time hunting down predatory wolves. He knew as well as anyone that wolves could hold back the recovery of the red stags that once roared in the rut in the green oak wood. But he also knew that wolves were a constant menace of the peasants, and their killings could spark another rising. Wolves take meat that could be sold or butchered, and bare peasant larders and coffers are the makings of revolution.

But what was worse was that a few wolves had taken to hunting people. No peasant legally owned a gun. Guns were instruments of the state only. Armed peasants could easily turn rebellious, and guns would be the perfect tools of poacher-fed revolt. They could off the margaves and the militiamen, then go deep in the beeches and drop a hind for a bit of supper.

So the wolves learned that peasants, especially young children and women, were easy prey. Every month or so, a story would spread through the villages about some child who disappeared while tending sheep or swine. Bandits or Roma were often branded as the culprits, but virtually every time, the child would disappear along a trail heavily marked by wolf tracks.

So the Revierjäger could not let his daughter go alone to see her Oma, but every sunny morning, the girl would ask her father. And every time, he turned her down. He could not risk his beautiful child’s life in a forest where wolves hunted people. Her mother had died at the hands of rebels, and their daughter was the only family he had left in this world.

Yet his guilt burned within him. Every other Sunday, he would take her to see Oma, and they would eat a fine feast of roast pork. They would visit a bit, but as the afternoon shadows grew longer, Revierjäger would summon the muster to tell the little girl that it was time to go, and they would cut back through the forest to his home cottage. Most times, she would cry piteously about the decision to leave. Great gushing tears would rush down her cheeks, which would flush as red as her hood from her anguish.

Every other Sunday was a great joy followed by a great sorrow, but he knew he had to let his daughter see her mother’s mother. She was the last remnant of his late wife’s side of the family, and he knew he must keep the family ties connected, even if he had to see his little girl cry.

So after one Sunday afternoon visit came to an end, the Revierjäger realized that he could no longer refuse his daughter her requests. As they rode home through the green wood, he knew that if the little girl asked him in the morning, he would grant her that wish to go see Oma.

He knew that there was risk involved, but he could no longer stand to see the little girl cry so much. He had to put her at risk just so that she could be happy.

Plus, no one had seen even a wolf track along that forest road to Oma’s house. It wasn’t that much of a risk, the Revierjäger reasoned to himself.

And so he made his decision. He slept little that night, but when his daughter asked that glorious Monday morning, he gave the answer that he knew he had to give. But he had some regulations:

2″You shall stay on the forest road. You must not wander from it. You will walk to Oma’s house and nowhere else. You will not speak to /strangers. And above all, if a wolf shows up, make yourself look big and tall. Lift up your red hood to make you look like a giant and shout at it. Do not run. The wolf will be on you in seconds if you do.”

The little girl stared up with her father. He expected fear to rise across her face, but instead, he saw hard resolve.

“Yes, father, I will stay on the road. I will not speak to strangers. I will go right to Oma’s house, and I will make myself look big if I see a wolf. I will be safe.”

“You must wear your hood. I feel a hint of rain in the air.”

He handed her a basket full of bread to carry on her way.

“If you get hungry, eat some this bread, but keep most of it for Oma. She will be thrilled to see you arrive with such a nice bit of food.”

In the basket, the Revierjäger placed a note to Oma. It was a note expressing his permission for the little girl to make such a journey and instructions on what to do with that bread in the basket.

And so the little girl headed down that forest road on the way Oma’s house. The Revierjäger fretted the whole time, and he was sorely tempted to follow the girl down the road. But something made him stand still, something that he could not explain.

But when he made the decision to follow her, a local blacksmith came rushing up to the cottage. The blacksmith said he’d found a poacher’s camp in the far end of the forest. and any Revierjäger worth his salt knew he had to check it out. And so the Revierjäger rode off in the opposite direction to inspect the poacher’s camp.

The daughter made her way down the road until she got to the point where the trees grow thick along both sides of the road. They shaded this whole bit of land, making the whole scene dark as if it were dusk even in the sunny days of July.

A raven croaked in the canopy of the trees. The wind was still, but the air was dank even for summer.

The little girl drew her hood in more tightly to keep out the chill, and as she proceeded down the road, the sounds of the forest seemed to dissipate. It was an eerie silence that now befell the forest road

She walked on and on. Her face showing strong resolve as she marched along the forest road.

But at that point, the leaves on the right side of the road began to rustle. She stopped and stared into the forest, but the growth was so thick she could see nothing. She told herself it was nothing and continued down the road.

At various points along the trail, shadows would move in the gloom, but she could not make out their shape. She told herself it was just her imagination.

She continued on and on until she came to where a massive boulder had rolled down to the edge of the road. As she came upon the boulder, a wolf leaped upon the boulder then bounded off it, landed in the middle of the forest road, and loped toward the girl. 

The wolf’s left ear was hanging down, an old injury from an errant boar tusk, and his face was all scarred from the fighting he did with his pack-mates over the last scraps of meat they could scavenge from forest.He.

He was a ghastly, demonic sort of wolf. And his amber eyes were fixed upon the girl. She was now his prey, and an easy kill at that.

But as the wolf approached with such menace in his eyes, the girl remembered her father’s words, and she lifted up the red hood off her shoulders. She made herself look tall and powerful, and she shouted at the wolf. She marched toward him with the swagger of a sailor, and the wolf was taken aback by such a display. He tucked his tail between his legs and scurried back into the thick brush.

The girl knew she had done something powerful. She had made the wolf back down. She now marched down the forest road, confident that she had stood up to such a terrible beast.

She continued down the path to Oma’s house, but what she could not know is that the night before, a pair of wolves slipped into Oma’s bedroom. They were skilled man-eaters, and they made short work of her corpse. 

The two wolves were resting in the front room of Oma’s cottage. They growled when they heard the approaching footsteps, but their bellies were too full of meat to get them that excited. 

When the girl walked up to the house, the wolves stood and stared at her. She was shocked to see them standing there. She noticed that their muzzles were covered in blood, and they stared at her so hard and intently, that fear took over and she ran. Her decision to run was not wise, for it stimulated the wolves’ predatory instinct. They chased after her, and after only short run, they were on her. They easily tore the girl apart, but because they weren’t particularly hungry, they just rolled around a bit and moved into the shade of an oak tree that lay just beyond Oma’s cottage. 

As the pair of wolves rested beneath the oak,  a man’s form appeared along the edge of the wood.  It was Revierjäger. He had tried to track down the poachers’ camp, but he then began to worry about the fate of his daughter, he decided to walk over to make sure everything was okay. 

He saw wolf tracks in the dirt in the road. So he loaded his musket.  His years of forest experience had honed his instincts. He seemed to know that fresh wolf tracks could mean something bad had happened. He was ready for the worst.

As he came upon Oma’s cottage, he saw the mutilated form of his daughter in the lawn.  Tears shot down his face. He dropped to his knees and wept, but as he wept he saw movement below the oak at the far edge of the lawn.  There were two wolves. 

Feeling horrific rage, the Revierjäger fired his gun. One wolf fell, but the other ran before he could load again. 

The wolf fell dead and hard on the ground.  The Revierjäger had the last of his family to bury.  

But in a few days, every villager within miles would be out with every barking dog, beating the forest for wolves.

Revierjägers from all around would fill the wood with firing guns. The wolves fell hard on the ground.  Wolves were trapped with iron footholds and with pit traps.  Dogs tore them apart.

And after four months of revenge, scarcely a wolf existed in that wood.  The peasants could graze their sheep and allow their swine pannage once again.

But the Revierjäger had a life to put together again. And everyone knew about the horrors of wolves in the deep forest. They would tell their children, who would tell their children, and so the fear was known long after the last wolf howl rose from the oak wood in that region.

Some of their descendants would come to North America, and they would kill every wolf and coyote they saw, simply because they knew what happened when wolves were allowed to live upon the land. They never saw a wolf attack anyone, but they knew that they would, simply because that is what they were told. 

 

 

 

 

 

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black coyote

For most of my life, scientists believed that the present era was still the Holocene.  Glaciers retreated with a global warming trend around 11, 650. Man went from being the apex predator over much of the world and became the apex consumer. Agriculture allowed our populations to expand, and we started to give up our wandering ways and became “civilized.”

It was generally believed that the past few centuries are but a continuation of this age, but now a growing number of scientists believe we have left the Holocene and entered into the Anthropocene. Several scholars have issues with this new distinction, but I think it is quite useful. In this era, human activity is the main factor affecting climate and ecology, which is why the age is named for the Greek word for human (anthropos).

The best argument I’ve seen for when this era began is 1610.  In this scenario, the era is dated to when European disease and conquest killed off enough Native Americans and enslaved and enough African had been enslaved to allow forests to grow back in former agrarian fields.  This process started in 1492, but by 1610, enough of those trees had grown to remove enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to push the planet into the Little Ice Age.

Darcy Morey and Rujana Jeger have a great model for understanding dog domestication as a change in trophic strategies.  In the Pleistocene ecosystems, most wolves were mesopredators, playing second fiddle to an ecosystem full of cave lions, machairodonts, large bears, and cave hyenas. When these wolves hooked up with people, though, they hitched their wagon to the species that often behaved as the apex predators in the ecosystems.  When humans switched to agrarian lifestyles during the Holocene, humans became apex consumers, and dogs joined us as beneficiaries of being allied to that apex consumer species.  During the Holocene, many wolves became apex predators, as the cave lions and other large predators became extinct.

I’ve always liked the framework that Morey and Jeger derived in this paper, but now that we’re entering into a new geological age, maybe we need to look at the change in trophic strategies of wolves in this new age.

Morey and Jeger don’t have a good framework for what happened to wolves in the Anthropocene, but across Eurasia and North America, wolves were gone from many human-dominated landscapes by the first decades of the twentieth century.  They existed only in isolated areas in Western Europe, and in the  lower 48 states of the US, they lived only in Minnesota and in an isolated region in East Texas and Louisiana, where the taxonomically controversially red wolves were located.

Large pack-hunting wolves were really in quite a bit of trouble.  In the United States, the coyote population began to expand out of its Western core range into the Great Lakes States. They eventually made to New England and the Maritimes of Canada, and they hybridized with relict wolves and the expanding population of domestic dogs.  Coyotes eventually colonized all the Eastern states, and as they did so, they largely became the apex predators in many parts of their range.

But in the 1960s, attitudes about wolves began to change. Many nations protected wolves, and there were often introduction plans in the works.  By the early decades of the twenty-first century, wolves were making significant comebacks in Germany and Italy. The wolves in Italy were often living very much like stray domestic dogs, living large at garbage dumps. Wolves live near large cities in Germany, and how these wolves are going to adapt to living in such human dominated environments is going to be a major question for researchers.

And in throughout Eurasia, we began to see that domestic dogs were mating with wolves.  Indeed, it is now estimated that a majority of wolves in Eurasia have relatively recent dog ancestry. 

Similarly, as coyotes expanded in North America, their genes began to work their way into the wolf population.  Yes, coyotes in a large part of the US have wolf ancestry, but we also have discovered that wolves across North America have coyote ancestry. Indeed, one interesting thing about these genome comparisons is that coyotes and wolves are much more closely related than we initially gleaned form mitochondrial DNA analysis. The calculation is that the gray wolf and the coyote last shared a common ancestor around 50,000 years ago.  This recent common ancestry has a taxonomic implication, which is that coyotes are themselves a divergent form of gray wolf in much the same way domestic dogs are.

In the Anthropocene, the wolves that have done the best have been the domestic dog and the coyote. The domestic dog’s ability to ingratiate itself into human society or live very nicely as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter on the periphery of humanity is a great gift.  The coyote can live as an opportunistic scavenger/hunter as well, and it also can live very nicely as a mousing fox or pack up and hunt deer.

Gene flow among wolves, coyotes, and dogs has made these entities much more fuzzy than we once thought they were. Dog genes are working their way into both the coyote and wolf population.  Strange pelt colors are popping up in the wild animals. The black coloration in domestic dogs was conferred onto the North American wolf population during the Holocene, but this same mutation for melanism has entered the coyote and Italian wolf population in very recent years. Dogs have introduced dewclaws on the hindlegs to some wolf populations, and I have seen photos of Eastern coyotes that have those hind dewclaws as well, which likely were introduced through breeding with domestic dogs.

Coyotes in the East are evolving larger size to become better predators of deer, but becoming larger and more effective ungulate hunters will have a trade-off. As carnivorous mammals grow larger, they become more and more dependent upon large prey to survive.  Very large wolf-like coyotes will lose their ability to live well on small prey and garbage.

So in the Anthropocene, dogs remain allied to the apex consumers. Some coyotes operate as apex predators, and some wolves live as opportunistic scavengers.

And as these creatures adjust their trophic strategies in a much more predator tolerant world, the pseudo species barriers that exist among wolves, coyotes, and dogs can break down. Hybridization among these creatures is likely to be a major feature of their continued evolution, a definite feature and not a bug.

These canids  thus make the leap with us into this human dominated age, an age that is experiencing a mass extinction of amphibians and great retrenchment of large sharks and big cats.

Yet they are still there. Evolving as the winds change. Winds that we ourselves are changing and are only now starting to understand.

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Charles Darwin was an early proponent of humans belonging to a single species. The concept was not popular in Darwin’s imperialist nation, where many of the best and brightest were dead certain that “lesser peoples” of the empire were entirely different species. Monogenists versus the polygenists this was the debate by even those who accepted Darwin’s controversial thesis that species evolved through natural selection and that humans evolved from African great apes.

We know now that the monogenists won out. Only the basest racist frauds believe that humans represent multiple species deriving from distinct evolutionary lineages. The only exceptions are that we do have evidence that humans have trace amounts of other extinct humans in their DNA, such as Neanderthals and the Denisovan hominin.

The monophyly of a species is a concept that should be axiomatic. Much of the “rewriting” of taxonomy and systematics comes from us discovering that a clade is either paraphyletic or polyphyletic, but what does sometimes happen is we do run into situations where we have thought species were really distinct but now we think of them as being subspecies. Black-tailed and mule deer come to mind, as do Cape and African forest buffalo. We have to combine them in a single species to retain its monophyly.

I think something now must be done with gray wolves and their closest kin. In recent years, it has become difficult to retain that domestic dogs and dingoes remain distinct species from the Holarctic gray wolf, especially if we wish to keep the species monophyletic. But I think now a good case can be made that coyotes belong to the same species as Canis lupus. They diverged from a common ancestor only recently, around 50,000 years ago, and the much debated Eastern and red wolf “species,” which appear to be hybrids between coyotes and gray wolves can also similarly be folded into Canis lupus. Whether there was a coyote sister population in the Eastern forest that gave rise to red and Eastern wolves is a moot point. That “forest coyote” population is no more distinct from gray wolves than those of the West are.

Further, we do have evidence of continued gene flow between gray wolves and coyotes. Eastern coyotes have wolf ancestry, and many also have wolf ancestry that comes from domestic dogs.

This new way of describing Canis lupus forms has some benefits. One is that we can come up with a strong legal foundation for the protection of red and Eastern wolves without them being distinct species. Their hybrid status is no longer problematic. We no longer must strain credibility talking about them being ancient North American wolves. Instead, we just go the Endangered Species Act’s statute language which defines an “endangered species” as being a “subspecies” that requires conservation action. We currently protect the Florida panther as an endangered species using this definition, and what is more, the Florida panther was given genetic rescue when Texas cougars were released into its range. The Florida panther exists as a hybrid that holds onto alleles of a population that no longer exists in its pure form, and in the case of red and Eastern wolves, one can very easily make this case.

The problem with going this route is that coyotes themselves do not experience many protections in the United States or Canada. Most states have a very open hunting season on them year-round, and some places have bounties on them. Eastern coyotes are hard to tell apart from what are called Eastern wolves and are even harder to tell apart from red wolves. There is an overlap in phenotype that comes from both forms having similar hybrid origins.

Further, because red wolves living in the North Carolina recovery range are all derived from 19 individuals, and wild wolf-like canids have inbreeding avoidance behavior, it is quite common for red wolves to pair up with Eastern coyotes. Much energy has been devoted to killing off and removing coyotes in red wolf recovery zones, including the euthanasia of crossbred puppies, but it seems that this won’t work long-term.

Recently, researchers at Princeton discovered that the coyotes of Galveston Island are quite closely related to the red wolves in the recovery program. The authors think that many southeastern coyotes might hold the alleles of these red wolves, but I think a better explanation is that we simply under-estimated what the coyote’s range was in the United States at the time of contact. John Smith described the “wolues” of Jamestown as not being much larger than English foxes, and I initially thought he was talking about gray foxes. But then I read original text, and the gray fox is described in complete detail, including the fact that it lacks the red fox’s odor. Henry Wharton Shoemaker, the naturalist and folklorist who chronicled much of the lore of Pennsylvania’s wildlife, wrote about a “small brown wolf” that lived along the Susquehanna River, which made a yipping howl that resembled that of the prairie wolf or coyote. Shoemaker postulated that these small brown wolves were the same species as the coyote, but very few scholars have taken his speculations seriously.

Perhaps, there were coyotes living in the forest alongside Eastern wolves and a endemic Southeastern form of wolf that was very often melanistic. All three exchanged genes, and all three were killed off for their furs and for bounties without any regard to what they were. It was only when settlers in Indiana noticed that some of the wolves in their area were quite small that they began to wonder if they were a distinct species. Later explorers into the West began to call them prairie wolves, which was their name until Americans adopted the Nahuatl-derived name for them.

The most important bit of text I’ve read in any of these North American wolf taxonomy papers is one in a response paper to another one that still argues for multiple species of wolf in North America. The authors write that “[the] genetic differentiation between red wolves and other North American [wolf-like] canids is comparable to the amount of genetic differentiation found between different continental human groups, which of course are not considered to be distinct evolutionary lineages.”

And at that moment, we are back to Mr. Darwin’s debate with the polygenists. He was right to oppose their claims back then, and maybe when it comes to North American and Eurasians wolves, dogs, dingoes, and coyotes, one should be a monogenists.

That’s where I am planting my flag. I think that is where it will all end up once we’ve sorted it all out.

I find the idea of gray wolves representing a phenotypically and behaviorally diverse species awfully intriguing. This diversity is greatly exaggerated in the domestic form, but this diversity is also reflected in the wild, where we have 15-pound coyotes and wolves that weigh 130 pounds.

It may even be that the African golden wolf, which is derived from the ancestor of the gray wolf and coyote mating with the ancestor of the Ethiopian wolf, may be close enough to extant gray wolves that we might also regard it as part of this very diverse species. It would be a coyote-evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, for the coyote likely evolved in its smaller and more generalist form from the ancestral Eurasian gray wolf because it could not compete as a pack hunter in a North America dominated by dire wolves. African wild dogs once ranged over almost the whole continent of Africa, and they could have provided competition for that niche that would force these ancestral gray wolves to evolve in something like an African coyote.

The recalibration of the evolution of Canis needs to be done with light of the knowledge that gray wolves and coyotes aren’t so genetically distinct from each other. We need new papers that look at he full genomes of golden and Himalayan wolves to get an idea of when they may have split from the rest of the gray wolf swarm. It may be very well be that they all belong to this wide-ranging phenotypically diverse species that over parts of four continents

Yes, this is controversial, but I think it is parsimonious. So many scientists now have no problem thinking that pugs and Yorkshire terriers are Canis lupus familiaris, so why is it so difficult to think of coyotes as being Canis lupus latrans?

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We don’t really think of antlers as being practical weapons. No species of deer that has them has them year round, and in only one species, caribou/reindeer, do both sexes have antlers.

We tend to think of antlers as being used to attract the opposite sex and for ritualized combat between conspecifics, usually just competing males during the rut in all species but caribou/reindeer. In that species, the females retain antlers well into the winter, which they use fight for preferential feeding areas, a great asset in feeding the calves they carry through the long northern winters.

But we don’t normally think of them as weapons to be used against predators. After all, predators are a problem that plagues deer all year, not just during the rut, and if they were widely used in fighting off predators, one would think they would evolve to hold onto them permanently or at least for longer periods of the year.

Well, a recent paper in the journal Nature examined how these factors work with regard to elk living in Yellowstone, where wolf predation is a significant factor in elk survival.

The authors found that bull elk that lose their antlers relatively early tend to be in better physical condition than those that retain them, and those that lose their antlers early tend to grow larger antlers than those that retain them, simply because they have more time to grow their new antlers in the coming year.

The authors found that there is a massive trade-off for how long elk hold onto their antlers. Those bull elk that lose their antlers are preferentially targeted by wolves. Yes, even though they are in better physical condition than those that retain them, the wolves go for elk that lack antlers as weapons.

Predation from wolves could be driving elk in Yellowstone to hold onto their antlers longer, and it could explain why elk in general hold onto their antlers long after their breeding season.

This study has some interesting implications, because wolves could indirectly be selecting for smaller antler size in elk, simply because the elk that lose their antlers sooner tend to have bigger racks in the following year. Further, because the elk hold onto their antlers longer when they are in poorer physical condition, the wolves could be selecting for weaker elk that are much poorer foragers than they might otherwise be.

These questions were not addressed in the paper, but I’m sure the questions did arise as the researchers looked at their data. More work is going to have to be done, but it is clear that wolf predation is a lot more complex in how it selects for fitness in the elk population than we might have assumed.

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atila and the wolf
Photo by Tanja Askani.

In paleontology, a group of scholars exists largely on the fringe of the discipline. No matter what evidence is provided, they find some way to pump out a paper that says that birds cannot be dinosaurs. An established scholar or two will the publish and beat them down, but there is still an idea in the public mind that there is a debate between dinosaur experts about whether birds are a specific type of theropod dinosaur.

These scholars are known as BAND (“birds are not dinosaurs”), and they do get the attention of the popular press, even if ignored by the mainstream scholarship.

I’ve noticed in that in all my years writing about dogs and their taxonomy that there is a similar group in this sphere as well.  The difference is this group had the backing of one of the leading authorities on dogs in the world, Raymond Coppinger.

Coppinger was certain that dogs had to be classified as Canis familiaris, based upon a very crude ecological species concept. Village dogs that scavenge off human civilization hold a different niche than pack-hunting wolves, ergo, they are different species. Never mind that if we applied that same standard strictly, Arabian wolves, which scavenge a lot and don’t often hunt large prey, would be a different species from arctic wolves or any of the moose, elk, or bison-hunting wolves we have in North America.

If we are to adhere to cladistic classification, though, it is virtually impossible to create arbitrary species for dogs. The reason is best summed up in this paper that compared genomes of many wolves and a few dogs that have origins on different continents. The authors concluded:

 [W]ithin the Old World clade, wolf and dog represent sister taxa. Therefore, suggestions that the dog or dingo are a separate species (Canis familiaris) (e.g., Crowther et al. 2014) would cause gray wolves to be a polyphetic taxon; and consequently, our results support dogs as a divergent subspecies of the wolf. This result has societal significance as legislation in some countries and regional governments consider wolves and dogs as distinct species restricting the possession, interbreeding, or the use of vaccines and medications in wolves or dog–wolf hybrids if they have only been approved for use in dogs. In this sense, analysis of evolutionary history informs law and veterinary practice, as dog lineages are nearly as distinct from one another as wolves are from dogs, and the justification for treating dogs and wolves differently is questionable.

That pretty much should end this discussion. What these authors found and has been discovered in other papers is that dogs descend from a ghost population of gray wolves, Eurasian gray wolves, to be exact.

Lots of other experts agree with this assessment. Darcy Morey, an archaeologist with a great expertise in the study of Pleistocene wolves and early domestic dogs, has the address for his website as “dogsarewolves.com.” He and Rujana Jeger have formulated a conceptual framework of dog domestication that is quite unique. Basing their model upon trophic strategies on behalf of the wolves and shifting perceptions of humans, the authors contend that wolves that became dogs attached themselves to people. These early humans were often already acting as the apex predators in the ecosystem of the Pleistocene, and the wolves that did join up with people were able to take advantage of this niche.  Pleistocene wolves were not operating as apex predators in a faunal guild that included machairodonts, cave lions, cave bears, and Pleistocene spotted hyenas, but when those animals became extinct, the wild wolves became the apex predators of Eurasia.  The wolves that hooked up to people joined humanity in agricultural societies and joined us as apex consumers. When humans began to domesticate other livestock,  wild wolves were seen as competitors and killed off.

The idea that dogs are not wolves does have some currency, especially if you’re quite stuck on Southeast Asian origins for domestic dogs. Vladimir Dinets believes that wild Canis familiaris was some kind tropical Southeast Asian canid that was related to but not descended from Canis lupus.  There is still a massive debate as to where dogs originated, and it should be noted that there are as many good papers that have concluded European or Central Asian origins as have suggested as Southeast Asian origins.

The reason you would go for wild Canis familiaris in Southeast Asia as the ancestor is that Southeast Asia is one of the few places in Eurasia that never has had gray wolves living there. In these schools of thought, much emphasis is placed upon Canis variabilis a possibly being the wild ancestor. Of course, Canis variabilis disappeared from the fossil record 300,000 years ago, and no serious scholar thinks dogs diverged from wolves that early.

The real problem is the genetic closeness between wolves and dogs, and that same genome comparison study mentioned earlier shows a significant gene flow between wolves and domestic dogs. Up to a quarter of all Eurasian wolf genomes likely have some dog ancestry, and in East Asian wolves, the dog component of their genome can be as high as 20 percent. In European and Middle Eastern wolves, the dog component can be as high as 25 percent.

The only thing that keeps dogs from swamping the Eurasian gray wolf population with dog genes is the reproductive and territorial behavior of wolves. Wolves generally allow only one female to raise her pups. Wolves generally kill dogs that wander onto their territories, and they will kill dogs that are in territories they wish to claim.

But dog genes are getting into the wolf population at pretty high rate in Eurasia, a much higher rate than you would think of for two distinct species.

A lot of the people who have a hard time recognizing dogs as wolves are tired of bad dog training advice that is based upon bad wolf science.  They might also be tired of claims from the raw feeding community that say we must feed dogs like wolves.

But just because people misuse the classification does not infer that the classification is wrong.

Cladistically and genetically, dogs represent a now extinct population of Eurasian gray  wolves.  If these terms mean anything, then dogs are Canis lupus familiaris.

These theorists are always going to have a reason to say that dogs are not wolves, just like the BAND theorists.  Indeed, it may be necessary to refer to them as DANW (Dan-double u), for they are they are coming up with reasons to avoid classifying dogs as wolves, no matter how much genetic or archaeological evidence is presented.

In the grand scheme of things, classifying dogs has little effect on our practical understanding of them, but this continuous phylogeny denial makes the dog world seem oddly out of step.

No one would miss a beat if you called a Hereford a domesticated aurochs.  A pekin duck a domesticated mallard? No problem.

But if you say dogs are wolves, which they clearly are, then you’re anti-science.

I’m not, though. You’re the one rejecting cladistics for your special classification model.

I’m adhering to the same model that would be accepted with any domestic species and its wild ancestor.

You’re just rejecting it because you think that’s what the science says. Maybe, but it’s hard to argue with DNA.

But they do it on Maury Povich every day, so why not?

Update: A more recent study that examined the genomes of gray wolves from across their range revealed that 62 percent of all Eurasian wolves have some dog ancestry. That’s much higher than the genome comparison study mentioned above. 

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I’m so glad these taxonomy issues are being raised on a popular science Youtube series:

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This is “Mr. Ethiopian wolf,” pretty much the world’s leading expert on the species:

There is a very interesting discussion in the Q and A portion about the introgression of dog genes into Ethiopian wolves and why that’s not necessarily always a bad thing.

The current research is working toward a full genome sequence of the Ethiopian wolf, and if they are like coyotes and “Holarctic” wolves, I bet there will be some surprises in store.

 

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