Posts Tagged ‘wolves’


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This is what’s left of a Labrador that had a run-in with a pack of wolves. Yes, wolves can be cannibals.

Source for image.                                                                      

I am not anti-wolf.

I do not want them to become extinct.

But if we want wolves to return, we have to understand that the animal that probably has the most to worry about them is the domestic dog.

The relationship between wolves and dogs is complex.

Some wolves want nothing more than to hook up with dogs. (Like Romeo).

Not all wolf packs are bad about killing dogs.  Wolf researcher Douglas Pimlott had a Labrador that he allowed to roam in the forest while he was studying the Algonquin Park packs. The dog actually brought back a pair of wolves when it returned from one its evening rambles.

We have lots of stories of dogs and wolves fraternizing. The dogs of the Plains Indians often hung with wolves that were milling about their camps. And the dogs of Italian shepherds were often wooed away by randy wolf bitches.

But wolves are well-known for killing each other over territory, and because wolves usually don’t waste what they kill, they often eat interlopers.

That’s what can happen when a pack encounters a freely roaming dog in the woods.

The wolves consider it an interloping wolf, and they respond with aggression and then cannibalism.

Wolves are not furry the noble savages that they have been portrayed to be.

They are still wild animals.

They are still a biological entity.

Those of us who want a better future for wolves must portray them as they really are.

Otherwise, we will look like complete idiots when someone loses a dog to them.

Wolves do not live on mice.

And although wolves can consider dogs to be their friends and mates, they can also consider dogs to be interlopers that are better off dead.

The question of wolves will always be complex and controversial.

And the controversy largely stems from how humans present them in their minds.

Some people see wolves as evil incarnate.  They want them all dead.

Others see them as the being entirely benevolent figures.  If you kill one, it is as if you’ve killed a person from an indigenous population.

The truth is neither of these presentations is an accurate portrayal of the creature.

Ecosystems do need wolves.

And wolves have many features that might make us admire them as a species.

They share many traits with us.

They have tightly-knit families like ours.

They cooperate to bring down large game.

But just like us, they do things that are difficult to justify.

And in the case of wolves, they have the advantage of not having to justify their behavior.

Their behavior has helped them survive in so many different environments.

They have been able to colonize four different continents because of their complex behavior.

It’s just been in the past ten thousand years that wolf behavior has conflicted so dramatically with our desires.

And after ten thousand years of conflict, man nearly pushed to wolf into extinction.

Man created mythologies about what threats wolves actually posed to his person and property,

And even though wolves do kill livestock and occasionally do kill people, these mythologies were quite potent.

It has been only since about the 1960’s that wolves underwent an image reversal.

And in this image reversal that whole  new mythologies were created.

In the West, these mythologies saved them.

But in the long term, the mythology probably doesn’t serve the wolves well.

As wolves return, there will be conflicts.

And some of these conflicts will end with scenes like the one depicted above.

Those of us who want wolves to return have to understand these simple facts.

Denying that it can happen is simply being foolish and dogmatic.

And that’s exactly what the anti-wolf extremists are doing.

And they will seize any chance to make the wolf into the demonic avatar once again.

This is the battle of the straw wolves.

Each side has contrived an image of the creature.

Neither is correct.

But each side relies upon destroying the straw wolf that the other has created.

The straw wolf that has been created since the 1960’s is the one that can most easily be destroyed.

All it takes is for someone to lose his dog to a wolf pack for that straw wolf be lit ablaze.

Wolf lovers should not allow this to happen.

We should not be in the business of saving a straw wolf

We should be about saving the real one.

And the real one sometimes does things that are harmful.

We cannot save this straw wolf.

All it takes are the mangle corpses of dogs for that straw wolf to become as fictional as the one from “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The future of the wolf cannot be hitched to this straw wolf’s star.

If it is, the wolf will be the real loser in the long term.

The trouble is how do we talk about wolves honestly and openly without causing lots of conflict between the two camps.

When your feet are on both sides of the fence, those with both feet on either side can much more easily kick you.

I don’t have a good answer for this problem.

Wolves are complex.

People are more so.



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Lucullus Virgil McWhorter described “huge timber wolves” that once roamed West Virginia, killing livestock and hunting dogs and occasionally treeing an unsuspecting settler.

There are conflicting accounts of when wolves disappeared from West Virginia. In a previous post, I wrote about an account of the purported “last wolf” that was killed in the high mountains near the border of Randolph and Webster Counties in 1897.

However, I came across these accounts of wolves in the Allegheny Mountains and the Allegheny Plateau region of West Virginia.

They can be found in The Border Settlers of Northwestern Virginia from 1768 to 1795 (1915) by Lucullus Virgil McWhorter, a largely self-educated historian and naturalist, who became a celebrated advocate for the Yakima people of Washington State.

McWhorter included accounts of his own time, as well as those that came from local lore. His accounts of late surviving wolves in West Virginia are mixed in with a few stories:

Of the carnivora of West Virginia, the common or Black Bear, the Grey or Timber Wolf and the Panther [cougar] were the principal: and the last two by far the most ferocious. Owing to the many game preserves established by the different sporting clubs in recent years, the first of these animals, which, more properly speaking, is omnivorous, have increased in such numbers as to become a menace to the domestic stock in their vicinity. The panther is still met with in certain remote regions, but the wolf is practically extinct. A few are said to haunt the more obscure wilds of the Alleghenies and the gloomy recesses of the Gauley Mountains in Pocahontas County, but their pack-howling has long since ceased to be a source of dread to the belated traveler. In September 1902, Mr. William E. Connelley heard them one dark night in the deep forest between Buffalo Creek and Gauley River, in Nicholas County. The last one seen on the waters of Hacker’s Creek, was about 1854, by Mr. Thomas Boram, on the farm where I was raised on Buckhannon Run. The last one killed in that section was by Mr. Thomas Hinzman, on the head of the right-hand fork of the same stream.

The settler pursued the wolf with rifle, trap and poison; but Doddridge claims that the rabies was the prime factor in their extermination. But some of them, at least, escaped all enemies and died of old age. When the Hurst family was residing on the Cheat River, the children going to the spring one morning found a wolf lying dead nearby with no visible marks of violence upon it. An examination revealed that it did not have a tooth in its head, and that it had succumbed to the ravages of hunger and senile decay.

Owing to the crafty nature of the wolf, comparatively few of them fell before the hunter’s aim. The strategy by which they secure their prey enabled them to flourish in vast numbers throughout this uninhabited wilderness teeming with game. Their cunning in this respect has always been proverbial; and today among the western Indians, the success of the most noted hunter is usually attributable to the skill or “power” obtained from the wolf through the occult. The young Indian whose tutelary is the wolf, will be sure to excel as a hunter.

Singly the wolf is cowardly, but when driven by extreme hunger it is then very bold. While my grandparents were living on McKinney’s Run, a wolf caught a sheep in daylight and throttled it against the corner of the house. My grandmother hearing the disturbance, ran out and chased the marauder away. When banded together in hunting packs, they are exceedingly fierce and dangerous. They overran the entire Trans-Allegheny. No one was safe alone in the woods at night, or at any time during the winter when the wolves were often in a starving condition.


Late one evening Henry Glaze was hunting on the righthand fork of Buckhannon Run, near the base of the mountain and not far from the trail which led from West’s Fort to the Buckhannon settlement; on land later owned by David Wilson, when he discovered fresh wolf sign. The State paid a bounty for the scalp of this animal, and with the view of decoying one or more of them within rifle shot, he uttered a howl so like that of the wolf that ere the echoes had ceased there came an answering cry from the woods. This was in tunn answered at intervals from several points in the forest. Elated with his success, the wily hunter repeated the cry and was answered at closer proximity. Each successive howl brought a response more numerous and from a rapidly narrowing circle. Before the hunter realized his danger he heard the swift patter of feet among the dry leaves, and hastily dropping his rifle, he had barely time to spring into the branches of a large dogwood bush. He was immediately surrounded by a cordon of hungry beasts, which, made fearless by numbers, surged and snarled at the root of the tree. Safely ensconced in the branches of the sturdy dogwood, the hunter gazed down into the green and baleful eyes of the hungry pack. The deadly fangs of a hundred froth-covered jaws gleamed and snapped in the fitful starlight. The sanguine hunter was now himself hunted. During the entire night the wolves growled and fought beneath him. Finally they began to leave, one by one. When the last wolf had slunk into the dark thickets the hunter descended and hurried to camp, content to return without wolf scalps.

At a later day, Mrs. Edmonds, who resided on McKinney’s Run, was coming home from Lost Creek late one evening, and just as she reached the brow of the ridge dividing those two streams, she was startled to find that she was being closely pursued by wolves. Escape by flight was impossible, so she took refuge in a beech tree. There she was held prisoner, until after dark, when her family, knowing the danger of the forest path, went in search of her with torches. At the approach of the lights the wolves vanished. Mrs. Edmonds then descended from her uncomfortable perch, and the party returned home in safety (pg 342-344).

McWhorter also writes about the last wolf killed in Gilmer County:

Aaron [Schoolcraft] settled in Gilmer County, (West) Virginia, and was a noted hunter. He killed the last wolf seen in that region. This wolf, a lonely survivor of his race, had taken refuge in a secluded retreat known as “The Devil’s Den,” and had succeeded in eluding the best hunters and dogs of the surrounding country. Schoolcraft eventually outwitted the wary animal and took his scalp (pg. 149).

Schoolcraft  left Gilmer County in 1852, so the wolf had to have been killed before that decade. Gilmer County is not in the Allegheny Mountains. It’s in the Allegheny Plateau region, where settlements were more densely populated.

The wolf was probably killed in the 1840’s.

So there were at least 50 or 60 years between when the last wolves killed in the lower elevations and the last “outlaws” were still running the ridges of the High Alleghenies.

Wolves certainly were a major problem for people wanting to graze livestock on the frontier, but they were definitely a problem for hunters and their dogs.

McWhorter writes about Isaac Reger, whose favorite boyhood past time was coonhunting with a motley assortment of dogs.  Born in 1782, Reger would have been hunting raccoons in the region at a time when it was still very much a wilderness area. The date of this account would have been in the 1790’s in what is now northern Upshur County:

When a boy, he [Isaac Reger] went coon-hunting one night, accompanied by two hounds, a cur, and a small fice [feist]. Most hunters kept a fice in their pack, as they proved most efficient in bear fighting. They would tree a bear when the larger dogs could not. The fice will invariably attack in the rear, and then get away before the bear can turn or seize it. Bruin can not long endure this mode of warfare, and will soon “tree.” The noisy fice also excelled in treeing the dreaded panther [cougar].

On the night in question, Isaac’s dogs were attacked by wolves, and getting the worst of it, they fled to their master for protection. The wolves pursued, fighting the dogs within a few feet of the boy, who stood with rifle ready to fire, had there been sufficient light to distinguish wolf from dog. Emboldened by the presence of their master, the dogs turned upon the wolves, and drove them a short distance, only to be forced back in turn. Thus the battle raged, the wolves often coming near, and with such violence that the dry leaves were thrown about Isaac’s feet. Finally, the dogs, badly hurt and exhausted, gave up the fight. The hounds crawled into a nearby sink-hole, where their enemies dared not follow. The cur remained close to the boy, but the fice had disappeared. The wolves hung close around, and the boy, disdaining to abandon his hounds, remained on guard until the first rays of dawn, when the wolves fled. Isaac, with much coaxing, induced the hounds to come from their subterranean retreat. The fice was never heard of afterwards, evidently having been devoured by the wolves (pg. 305-306).

Modern houndsmen often lose dogs when then they let them run in wolf country.

It was also an issue in the late eighteenth century in what was then northwestern Virginia.

McWhorter writes of an early settler of Gilmer County named John Hurst who had so many problems with wolves he couldn’t keep sheep.  Hurst would later lose a dog to a pack of hog-killing wolves:

Wolves were numerous, and Hurst, for years, could keep no sheep because of their depredations. One night a band of four of them attacked his hogs and in turn were set upon by the dog. As Hurst opened the door, a powerful wolf threw the dog at his feet. The light from the open fireplace streaming through the doorway frightened the pack away. The next morning Hurst went in pursuit and trailing them about half a mile, he discovered a single wolf standing in the brush, and fired. The animal fell, when another one leaped from the thicket and ran down the hill. Reloading his gun, Hurst howled and was answered in the distance. Repeating the call, he soon had the wolf within rifle range, when it, too, was killed. In this way he dispatched a third one and then went in search of the one he saw running. He was surprised to come upon its dead body. Unawares to him, it had stood in line and beyond the wolf first killed, and the bullet had slain them both. Four wolves with three shots before breakfast was no mean achievement even in that early day (329-330).

Hurst would become famous in the region as a wolf hunter, and he liked to collect the bounty on them.

However, he knew that wolves were starting to become scarce, so he occasionally would let a bitch wolf whelp near him in order to kill her puppies, which McWhorter describes as a very common practice on the frontier:

Hurst found a cavern in which a mother wolf had her young. He did not disturb them, but just before the puppies were old enough to leave the nest, he captured them, letting the old wolf escape. This he did for three or four consecutive seasons, realizing eight dollars a scalp, the bounty paid by the state. Later, as the number of wolves grew decimated, and the injury to the live stock industry decreased, the bounty was reduced to four dollars. It was not unusual for settlers to “breed” wolves for bounty money as did Hurst; nor was it regarded as illegitimate gain. There was a large hollow chestnut tree on the farm where I was raised, from which for two years young wolves were secured by Thomas C. Hinzeman, a local hunter. This was at a later day and when the animal was nearing extinction (pg 330).

McWhorter describes the wolves of the region as being “huge timber wolves” that were gray in color.

From that description we can surmise that the native subspecies of wolf was Canis lupus lycaon, and its behavior toward domestic dogs was very similar to modern many modern Canis lupus packs. They considered dogs to be competitors for territory, and they were not above killing them.

Nothing in the descriptions of their behavior suggests that these animals were coyotes or coyote-like animals, such as the so-called “red wolf.”

Everything suggests that they were larger Canis lupus wolves that were probably quite adept at hunting the large herds of elk and bison that were once common to this part of North America.

It’s a shame that these wolves became extinct.

Except for the treeing incidents, McWhorter mentions nothing that would resemble a wolf attacking a person. And as far as I know, there were never any fatalities.

But they certainly would have been a problem for people wanting to keep livestock and large numbers of hunting dogs on the frontier.

So they were killed off.

And the land became “civilized.”

But as the agricultural economy declined in the twentieth century, West Virginia’s pasture and cropland became forest once again.

White-tailed deer bolt among the undergrowth, busily chomping it away.

The Eastern coyote– now sporting a little bit of wolf genes– is now the ersatz wolf.

The land is wild again.

But it’s not like it was before.

Maybe in a half century or so, wolves will work their way down from Canada or from the Great Lakes states and repopulate this region.

This might sound a bit fanciful, but just last year, a wolf was killed in Northwest Missouri. DNA tests revealed that it was from the Great Lakes wolf population and may have wandered down from Minnesota.

So it’s possible they could come back.

It just might take a while.

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Audubon's red wolf. Audubon described the red-colored wolves of Texas as nothing more than a color phase.

For us to fully understand the problems inherent in deeming the red wolf a unique species, we need to look at this animal from an historical perspective.

This gets complicated very quickly, for the records we do have of wolves in the American South are not as good as one might think.

European man killed off the wolves– and anything that looked like a wolf– as soon as he arrived.

Most of the historical records make mention that the wolf of what became the United States came in several color.  Yellowish, reddish, black, gray, and white individuals were all recorded, but the black individuals were always mentioned. In some areas, like Florida, it appears that black individuals comprised nearly the entire population.

William Bartram, a famed botanist from the Philadelphia area, was the first person to describe these black wolves in Florida. He would give them the name Lupus niger, which later authorities would move into Canis niger, which is an archaic name given to the supposed red wolf species.

Bartram traveled into Florida during the 1770’s, and he later compiled his notes and stories into a book called Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Usually referred to as “Travels” or “Batram’s Travels,” the book includes detailed historical accounts of fauna and flora of the a huge swathe of the Southeast. It was published in 1791,  and his descriptions of the land of Florida made his American readers quite covetous of this territory, which was Spanish territory at the time.

Bartram first describes the wolves feeding on the carcass of a horse:

Observing a company of wolves (lupus niger) under a few trees, about a quarter of a mile from shore, we rode up towards them; they observing our approach, sat on their hinder parts until we came nearly within shot of them, when they trotted off towards the forests, but stopped again and looked at us, at about two hundred yards distance: we then whooped, and made a feint to pursue them; when they separated from each other, some stretching off into the plains, and others seeking covert in the groves on shore. When we got to the trees, we observed they had been feeding on, the carcase of a horse. The wolves of Florida are larger than a dog, and are perfectly black, except the females, which have a white spot on the breast; but they are not so large as the wolves of Canada and Pennsylvania, which are of a yellowish brown colour (pg. 197).

Bartram would later go on to describe the black wolves as coming in other besides black:

I have been credibly informed that the wolves here are frequently seen pied, black and white, and of other mixed colours. They assemble in companies in the night time, howl and bark altogether, especially in cold winter nights, which is terrifying to the wandering bewildered traveller.

The idea of there ever being black and white wolves may sound a bit dubious, but keep in mind that there are coyotes with Irish spotting. These spots likely came from crossing with dogs, and this description of black and white wolves further strengthens the case that black wolves were developed through crossing with domestic dogs.

It also argues against these animals being red wolves as we know them now. The red wolves that we know them today. Wolves and dogs are much more closely related than dogs are to coyotes, and the black coloration that originated in dogs is far more common in wolves than it is in coyotes. And although we do see coyotes with dog coloration, these animals are not that common. However, black wolves and wolves with dewclaws on the hind legs have been reported– which are definitely derived from wolves mating with dogs.

Coyotes have much stronger reproductive barriers against breeding with dogs than wolves do.  It’s easy to find stories of male wolves coming in on bitches in heat. In the old days, a bitch in heat was great bait to bring in the male wolves to the gun. Sometimes the hunters would wait until the two had mated, then they would come in and either club the wolf to death or chop it up with a hatchet while the two were tied.

Coyotes and dogs don’t readily breed with each other. If they did, the coyote population would have absorbed far more dog genes than it currently has.

However, Native American dogs and wolves were likely exchanging genes all the time, and it more strongly suggests that Bartram’s black wolf was part of Canis lupus, rather than a coyote or close relative of the coyote.

Further evidence for this close relationship between Florida wolves and native dogs comes from a dog that Bartram observed guarding a band of Seminole ponies:

One occurrence remarkable here, was a troop of horse under the controul and care of a single black dog, which seemed to differ in no respect from the wolf of Florida, except his being able to bark as the common dog. He was very careful and industrious in keeping them together; and if any one strolled from the rest at too great a distance, the dog would spring up, head the horse, and bring him back to the company. The proprietor of these horses is an Indian in Talahasochte, about ten miles distance from this place, who, out of humour and experiment, trained his dog up from a puppy to this business: he follows his master’s horses only, keeping them in a separate company where they range; and when he is or wants to see his master, in the evening he returns to town, but never stays at home a night (pg. 220-221).

The Seminoles had learned from the Spanish how to use dogs as livestock guardians. Raising the dogs with the stock, they ensured that the dog bonded with the animals. The Spanish used large mountain dogs and mastiffs, but the Seminoles used their native dogs, which may or may not have had some wolf ancestry. This black, wolf-like dog suggests very strongly for the hybrid origin of melanism in wolves, and that the Florida black wolf was actually part of Canis lupus, along with the dog.

The Pennsylvania physician and naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton would also describe similar dogs. In an article entiled “Some Account of Native American or Indian Dogs” that appeared in the The Philadelphia Medical and Physical Journal in 1804. He aligns this particular dog with the black wolf, as did Bartram, but he points out some differences:

The dogs which are now in use among the Creeks, Chikkasah, and other southern tribes, are of different kinds. As far as I have been able to collect information concerning them, they, in general, bear a very strong family resemblance to the wolf. One kind is very similar to the Canis Lycaon, or black wolf. It is not, however, always black, but of different colours, commonly of a bay colour, and about one third less [in size] than the wild black wolf. It carries its ears almost erect, and has the same wild and sly look that the wolf has (pg. 12).

Barton never saw these dogs, but he got his information from travelers in the region. His source for this information was Bartram, whose previous description of the Florida black dog  matches this description of the Creek dogs in every way but size. Thus, both black color and spotting could have worked its way into the Southern wolf population without dramatically affecting phenotype.

Canis lycaon became a very common name to describe this black wolf, which Barton described as being quite large and common in the region where the Creeks lived in his Notes on the Animals of North America

Canis lycaon is a name sometimes used to refer to the supposed “Eastern wolf” today, but for much of its use, it referred to black North American wolves. Black European wolves were called Canis lupus niger,  but later texts, in supposed deference to Bartram, red wolves would be called Canis niger.

Nowhere do we find mention of these wolves being particularly different from other wolves. The only thing they have that is unusual is that they are very often black in color.

As I noted earlier, this black color likely originated in dogs. Black wolves living in North America today derive their black coloration from crossbreeding with domestic dogs. In Western North American wolves, this black coloration was introduced about 12,000 years ago. However, in these Eastern wolf populations there would have likely been a large number of Native American dogs running about, exchanging genes with wolves all the time.

It is theorized that melanism is associated with greater immune function, so there would have been a selection pressure for the black color in warm, humid places like Florida and much of the Eastern United States. This could explain why so many wolves in the Eastern US and the South were black. Warm and humid places are great environments for various pathogens to live, so a stronger a immune system that is associated with the same gene that gives the black coloration could be a major asset.

Okay, now that we understand that the Southeastern US was home to large black wolves that somehow got connected to so-called red wolves of East Texas, when does someone first mention the red wolf?

Well, the first text to include a mention of a red wolf in North America is John James Audubon and John Bachman’s The Quadrupeds of North America, Volume 2 (1851). This book was published after Audubon’s death, but it is from this description that we get the idea that the coyote-like animals that once roamed East Texas and Louisiana were “red wolves.” The text describes the red wolf as a color phase of wolf , not a unique species. The section is called the “Red Texan Wolf”:

This variety is by no means the only one found in Texas, where Wolves, black, white and gray, are to be met with from time to time. We do not think, however, that this Red Wolf is an inhabitant of the more northerly prairies, or even of the lower Mississippi bottoms, and have, therefore, called him the Red Texan Wolf.

The habits of this variety are nearly similar to those of the black and the white Wolf, which we have already described, differing somewhat, owing to local causes, but showing the same sneaking, cowardly, yet ferocious disposition.


In all species of quadrupeds that are widely diffused over our continent, it has often appeared to us that toward the north they are more subject to become white—toward the east or Atlantic side gray—to the south black—and toward the west red. The gray squirrel, (S. migrulorius), of the Northern and Eastern States presents many varieties of red as we proceed westwardly towards Ohio. In the south, the fox squirrel in the maritime districts is black as well as gray, but not red. On proceeding westwardly, however, through Georgia and Alabama,a great many are found of a rufous colour. In Louisiana, there are in the southern parts two species permanently black as well as the foxsquirrel, which in about half the specimens are found black, and the remainder reddish. The same may be said in regard to the Wolves. In the north there is a tendency towards white—hence great numbers are of that colour. Along the Atlantic coast, in the Middle and Northern States, the majority are gray. To the south, in Florida, the prevailing colour is black, and in Texas and the southwest the colour is generally reddish. It is difficult to account, on any principles of science, for this remarkable peculiarity, which forms a subject of curious speculation.

This variety of Wolf is traced from the northern parts of the State of Arkansas, southerly through Texas into Mexico; we are not informed of its southern limits….

The Wolves present so many shades of colour that we have not ventured to regard this as a distinct species; more especially as it breeds with those of other colours, gangs of Wolves being seen, in which this variety is mixed up with both the gray and black (pg 241-243.).

Audubon and Bachman didn’t think that the red wolf was a unique species. It is clearly described as a color variant that popped up in wolves living in East Texas. There is no description of this animal having many unique features or even a remote suggestion of it being a separate species. That notion is entirely rejected in the text– which is probably why they call it the “Red Texan Wolf” instead of the “Texas red wolf.”

Audubon and Bachman would have also been aware that the term “red wolf” referred to another species.

It is first mentioned in Georges Cuvier Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation [The Animal Kingdom] (1817). In the text Cuvier refers to a very different animal than the one that Audubon and Bachman would have met in Texas:

Le Loup Rouge D’amerique

D’un beau roux cannelle, une courte crinière noire tout le long de l’épine. Des marais de l’Amérique méridionale (pg. 180).


“A beautiful brown cinnamon, a short black mane along the spine. Marshes of South America.”

Cuvier gave this animal the scientific name of Canis jubatus, and his description points to the maned wolf of South America (Chrysocyon brachyurus). It actually is red in color, but it does have black legs and a black mane. It’s not found in the marshes of South America. Instead, it is a creature of the grasslands and scrub forest.

Both Audubon and Bachman would have been familiar with Cuvier’s work. Audubon was a native French-speaker from Haiti, and Bachman was a well-read naturalist of his day.

Further, we know Audubon knew of Cuvier’s work from an unusual story.  Audubon shot an unusual red-crowned kinglet at his father-in-law’s farm on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania in 1812. He thought was unique enough to be declared a new species, which he called Cuvier’s kinglet (Regulus cuvieri).

I have named this pretty and rare species after Baron Cuvier, not merely by way of acknowledgment for the kind attentions which I have received at the hands of that deservedly celebrated naturalist, but more as a homage due by every student of nature to one at present unrivalled in the knowledge of General Zoology.

–John James Audubon, Ornithological Biography (1831) (pg. 288).

So it’s very likely that Audubon, who was an admirer of Cuvier, wanted to make sure that the red wolves of Texas were clearly delineated from Cuvier’s Le Loup Rouge D’amerique.

So it’s very likely that the red wolf was actually just a color phase of wolf that was common in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

And nothing more.

Wolves of all colors were heavily persecuted in the region.

In Bruce Hampton’s The Great American Wolf there is a photo of a red wolf that was captured in the Arkansas in the early 1900’s. Its jaws are bound shut with wire, and it is very likely that the dogs are about to be set on it. Wolves were so hated  that they weren’t even accorded human dispatch. Tortuous methods were very commonly used, including this macabre spectacle in which dogs would tear a wolf to pieces. With its jaw bound, it would be unable to defend itself.

However, the photo of this wolf reveals that it looks nothing like the animals currently called red wolves. The photo shows an animal with broad jaws and relatively small ears, which are being slightly pulled back against the skull. The look on the animal’s eyes is nothing but pure terror.

This photo seems to agree with Audubon and Bachman. The red wolf was nothing more than a color phase of the wolf subspecies native to the region.

And that wolf subspecies was eventually killed off until just a few remained.

But they had already started mating with coyotes as soon as the widespread persecution of their species began, and those that remained soon got absorbed into the coyote population.

In the 1970’s, animals that were deemed red wolves based upon morphology were trapped in the region, and they were bred in captivity. The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, and this was to be one of the first major attempts at saving a species.

The wolves were bred in captivity for several decades.

And they were “reintroduced” to Eastern North Carolina in 1987 at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

The  animals did fine, but then coyotes started moving in. And the red wolves started mating with coyotes.

To keep the animals “pure,” the US Fish and Wildlife Service started trapping coyotes, and that’s what they’ve been doing ever since.

This project is deemed a major success of the ESA. So-called red wolves are roaming in several reserves in the Southeast now, but the main population is in Eastern North Carolina.

In 199w, Robert Wayne released the first extensive mitochondrial DNA studies on wolves in North America. These analyses revealed that the most red wolves, both historical and living, had coyote mtDNA. This suggested that the red wolf was a hybrid species.

This finding was not well-received. The ESA is the “Endangered Species Act, ” not the “Endangered Hybrids Act.”

Ron Nowak threw a fit. He contended that red wolves were actually primitive wolf-like canids that were ancestral to both wolves and coyotes.  He proposed several ancient species for the potential ancestors of the red wolf, ending with Canis mosbachensis. Canis mosbachensis might be the ancestor of all wolves in both the Old World and the New, so the argument might be a bit moot. Other proposed ancestors of the red wolf include Canis edwardii, which was red wolf-sized that lived from the Pliocene to the Irvingtonian stage of the Pleistocene. It may be the ancestor of all wolves and coyotes.

But it’s not the red wolf that we know today.

After Wayne’s study came out, there were some other genetic studies that looked a limited parts of the y-chromosome or limited microsatellite analyses.

Wayne stated that the red wolf should be conserved. Lots of wolves have coyote mtDNA, but these animals have all been listed as subspecies of Canis lupus, not a unique species. So he suggested that the red wolf be considered an endangered subspecies. (The Eastern wolf as Canis lycaon canard hadn’t really developed yet.)

It was only last year, when the genome-wide assessment was released that it became obvious that the red wolves that live today aren’t a unique species after all. They really can’t be called a hybrid species. Instead, it might be more accurate to call them coyotes with wolf ancestry– which is not a rarity in North America.

So the historical record shows that the red wolf as we know it now never existed in the wild until after wolves had been persecuted in East Texas and Louisiana.

The wolves of the South were very likely Canis lupus subspecies, judging from their description from contemporaries. These southern wolves, which were very often black– not red–are now extinct.

Some might say that the coyote-derived impostors that have been introduced into the former range of the Southeastern wolf are merely fulfilling the same niche as the large black wolves that once roamed there.

They might be.

But they are still impostors.

The Southeast of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century no longer exists.

We can only revisit it in the words of Audubon and Bartram.

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Jacques Mallet killed what he thought was a giant coyote at Saint Simon on New Brunswick's Acadian Peninsula. Because it weighed 86 pounds, it would have been the largest coyote on record, but everyone, including Mallet, thinks this animal is a wolf. DNA tests have been ordered to see exactly what it is.

The initial report from the CBC found that Jacques Mallet was getting ready to kill his second coyote. He had been hunting the robust, deer hunting Eastern coyotes of the New Brunswick for two years now.   He’d killed one last year, and now, he was stalking Canis latrans— “the barking dog”– at St. Simon on the Acadian Peninsula.

The story that follows starts out routine but soon becomes a bit screwy:

He saw a big one, fired, dropped it, but when he came upon his kill, he was shocked at what lay before him.

The great gray canid that lay before him was massive– much larger than any coyote ever seen in these parts or anywhere else.

The CBC reports Mallet is almost certain that this animal is a wolf:

“I said, ‘Oh my God, maybe that’s not a coyote. That’s a wolf. I don’t know what it is.’ I was quite surprised.”

Wolves are officially extinct in the province. They officially disappeared in 1876, so if this animals is determined to be a wolf, then Mallet will have to give it up to the provincial wildlife authorities.

However, one should keep in mind that virtually all coyotes in Eastern North America are part wolf, and virtually all wolves in Eastern Canada have coyote mtDNA, which has led to some foolish assertions about these animals– most specifically that they represent a unique “Eastern wolf” species.

So I hope they aren’t just doing an mtDNA test.

That is almost guaranteed to result in this animal being declared a coyote.

Y-chromosome and microsatellite analyses are going to be needed to determine this animal’s identity.

But wolves are coming back in Eastern Canada and in Northern New England.  Reintroductions are not necessary.

They are going to come on their own volition.

And that’s the best way.

If wolves come into a region, they are going to know from their experiences on the way what the proper behavior is and how to avoid humans.

Wolves can be an in area and cause very few problems, as we’ve seen with Germany’s wolves.

But if they are introduced, there will always be attacks on whether one has introduced the wrong subspecies and these wolves may or may not know how to behave in a new environment. And they might start killing stock.

I’m only in favor of wolf reintroduction if it is absolutely impossible for wolves to get to a region on their own.

Mexican wolves were extinct in the wild until relatively recently, so they had to be reintroduced.

This wolf in New Brunswick suggests that wolves are more than capable of recolonizing the East on their own.

And I really don’t see what’s wrong with that.

Even if these wolves do occasionally bred with coyotes in the wild, this hybridization occurred in the past, even before European colonization. The wolves of the Western Great Lakes have an introgression of coyote genes that was estimated to have happened between 600 and 900 years ago.

Nature has created a species complex between wolves and coyotes in North America.

It’s just very hard for people to see that there is not hard edge separating these two species.

It’s muddled.

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It started with this video:


And ended up with this:


Gosh, Finding Bigfoot has nothing on these people!


The “wolves” are either Saalooswolfhonden or Czechoslovakian wolfdogs.

Scary, eh?

You might remember that this vodka company used the same advertising tactic a few years back.


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Many people don’t like that I consider dogs to be the same species as wolves.

And usually what they’ll do is accuse me of holding views I don’t have.

For example, I don’t say that the average person should keep a pet wolf. The chances of that going wrong are just too high, but it doesn’t mean that it will never work out.  I have to point to several cases of people keeping wolves and having no problems with them, most notably Wags, the tame wolf that Adolph Murie kept while studying the wolves of Denali. Wags was taken from the den of a wild pack, and she wound up becoming something like a golden retriever in wolf form. Wolves have also been trained as hunting dogs and working dogs, and at least one turned out to be a decent bird dog and retriever.

However, the chances of a human-wolf relationship going wrong are very high, so I do not recommend that people keep pet wolves without learning as a much as they can– and of course, getting the proper licenses.

The other attack I get is that I think dogs are wolves, and therefore, I must believe that we should use compulsory, alpha-based training regimes.

That’s a position I not only don’t have, it is a position I have denounced as utterly unscientific and untenable in the modern era. (See Mark Derr’s piece in the New York Times for a good explanation of why).

Now those first two are pretty easily dealt with, but a third one requires a bit more of an explanation.

This third argument requires a bit sophistication to fully understand, but it’s one that I think can be explained if we look at other cases in nature for comparison.

This argument is one that is made by Raymond Coppinger in his book on dog domestication and behavior. There is a chapter in the book in which he denounces any attempt to represent dog phylogeny in their scientific name, which is Canis lupus familiaris. Coppinger totally defends the old scientific name Canis familiaris because dogs and wolves occupy different ecological nichees.

It’s definitely true that lap dogs have a very different ecological niche than large moose- and bison-hunting wolves in Canada.

However, what about Middle Eastern pariah dogs and Arabian wolves?  Both animals scavenge for most of their food. Neither forms large packs based upon a mated pair, but they essentially  have the same ecological niche. And they do exchange genes quite a bit, although because the wolves are far less common, this gene exchange is much more limited than it might have been.

The same goes for the wolves and stray dogs of Italy. These dogs and wolves don’t hunt prey, because there aren’t many prey species about. Instead, they hang out at garbage dumps and live on that. The wolves of Italy are much more interbred with dogs than people realize. Dog genes for black coats and dewclaws on the hindlegs are working their way into the wolf population.

If we actually take Coppinger’s argument out to its logical end, then wolves themselves represent several species, even though genetically they comprise just a single species. Wolves in the high arctic hunt muskoxen, while wolves in the Middle East hunt gazelles and hares and mainly scavenge. The newly discovered African wolf subspecies (Canis lupus lupaster) isn’t even the top predator in its ecosystem, and it subsists largely by scavenging kills and hunting small prey.

Yet they are all classified as wolves (Canis lupus).

If wolves can occupy such a wide variety of ecological niches and still be considered the same species, why on earth would we not broaden it out and allow dogs to be classified as wolves?

Just as Arabian wolves are adapted to living in the deserts and arctic wolves have adapted to living in polar regions, domestic dogs are wolves that have adapted to live with humans.

I don’t know why this is so hard to accept, but there is a lot of resistance in some quarters to considering dogs a subspecies of wolf.

But that’s exactly what they are.

Now, in other species, there are different subspecies that have different ecological niches, but no one contends that they should be separated into distinct species on the basis of their differing niches.

Let me give you one that is pretty close to home.

To me, this is a fox squirrel (Sciurus niger).

Eastern or northern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger vulpinus).

It’s a big squirrel with thick tawny gold tail and belly.  They live on the border of pastures and hardwood forests, and they are more common along river valleys in West Virginia than ridgetops. Densely forested ridges tend to have mostly Eastern gray squirrels, which are smaller and usually have gray tails with white banding. In my area, these are the two most common squirrels, although one sometimes see American red squirrels (“fairydiddles.”)  The fox squirrel is the largest tree squirrel in North America, and it is from this subspecies that they get their common name. Their tales actually look like those of a red fox, and their full scientific name reflects this similarity– Sciurus niger vulpinus. This subspecies is found from the interior Mid-Atlantic states and the Appalachians north and west to the prairie provinces.

However, this is also a fox squirrel:

Southern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger niger).

This is the Southern fox squirrel, and it is the subspecies one will find in Eastern North Carolina and most of South Carolina.

They superficially look nothing like the fox squirrels I know so well, but they are considered the same species.

However, the two subspecies are quite different from each other.

The vulpinus subspecies is quite adaptable. They have been introduced to California, where they have thrived, and if you can live from Applachia to Saskatchewan, you can do pretty well no matter what the conditions are.

The niger subspecies is in decline. They are almost entirely dependent upon the long-leaf pine forests that once covered much of the Southeast. For those of you who have not been in this part of the South, most of the land is dominated by subtropical pine forests. Historically, the long-leaf pine has been the dominant pine, but these old growth long-leaf pine forests have been cut– and the land was replanted with more commercially lucrative short-leafed and loblolly pines.  The fox squirrels prefer the more open understories that the long-leaf pines provide, and the short-leaf and loblolly forests are much better suited for Eastern gray squirrels.

In states that have both vulpinus and niger fox squirels, the vulpinus subspecies prefers to live in any available oak-hickory forests, while the niger subspecies prefers to live where there are stands of subtropical pine– especially if it’s long-leaf.  In some parts of the Piedmont, these two different kinds of forest can be relatively close to each other, but as far as I know, no transitional zones between vulpinus and niger fox squirrels have been documented. They probably do exchange genes where their ranges overlap, but because niger fox squirrels are so habitat specific, there likely isn’t much of one.

No one consideres vulpinus fox squirrels a separate species from niger fox squirrels, even though they have very different ecological niches. The niger subspecies is also quite a bit larger than the vulpinus subspecies, which is in conflict with Bergmann’s rule. In other normal situations, taxonomists would at least try to consider them to be different species.

In fact, they have a better claim to having a separate species status than dogs and wolves, but I don’t think anyone would seriously consider these fox squirrels to be different species.

After all, there are several different subspecies of fox squirrel besides these two.  The most famous is the critically endangered Delmarva fox squirrel (Sciurus niger cinereus), which looks like a giant Eastern gray squirrel, which even more habitat specific than the Southern fox squirrel. They also are specialized to living in the Mid-Atlantic pine forests from Southern New Jersey to the Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It currently is found only in Eastern Shore portions of Virginia and Maryland.

Vulpinus fox squirrels are much more habitat generalists than either the Southern or Delmarva fox squirrels. They have a different ecological niche, and if one really wants to play around with Coppinger’s adamant defense of Canis familiaris, then we have to split up the fox squirrel species.

Ecological niche can be used to determine species status, but to rely upon it alone, as Coppinger does in his defense of the usage of Canis familiaris, is to inadvertently open up whole taxons to splits that are pretty hard to justify on face value.

So if one isn’t willing to say that there are multiple species of fox squirrel, we are going to have go with Canis lupus familiaris.

Sorry, folks. Dogs are wolves.  The arguments on the contrary make no sense in the light of what we know about other species.

Update: It turns out that all these subspecies of fox squirrel have only diverged in the past 14,000 years.


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This phylogenetic tree comes from a study that used a high quality draft genome sequence of the domestic dog to make important comparisons within domestic dog breeds and also to make some comparisons with their relatives.

One of the most interesting discoveries in the this study was that the genus Canis as it is currently classified is paraphyletic.

Paraphyly is a major problem in cladistic taxonomy, for the goal is to have genera, orders, and families all to reflect common ancestry.

But if one looks at the species currently classified as belonging to the genus Canis on this phylogenetic tree, there is a gap between the two endemic African jackals– the side-striped (Canis adustus) and black-backed (Canis mesomelas)– and the other species in the genus Canis– the Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), the golden jackal (Canis aureus), the coyote (Canis latrans), and the Holarctic wolf/domestic dog/dingo/New Guinea singing dog species (Canis lupus). This clade of Canis  includes the interfertile Canis, where hybridization is possible between all members.

The two endemic African jackals cannot cross with any other members of the genus. Let me repeat that:  there are no black-backed jackal or side-striped jackal hybrids with domestic dogs or any other dog species. Some people claim that pariah and village dogs from Africa have ancestry from these jackals, but no genetic evidence has been provided to confirm the existence of these hybrids.

If one follows that phylogenetic tree, the gap between the two groups of Canis is filled with two species. These are the so-called “hunting dogs,”  which we call the dhole (Cuon alpinus) and the African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). The most common hypothesis about the origin of these dogs is they are both derivatives of an extinct wolf-like dog that was called Xenocyon lycaonoides. There is some debate about whether both of these dog descend from them, but the bulk of the literature suggests that they derive from this species.  Xenocyon filled the same ecological niche as wolves eventually did, but it was not part of the wolf lineage.

The conventional thinking on Xenocyon is that it evolved into the dhole and African wild dog species, but there is at least one study that suggests that the African wild dog derived from a different lineage. I am a bit skeptical of this study because it was based upon tooth morphology. Tooth morphology is one aspect that has led us to believe that African wild dogs and dholes are related, but one should keep in mind that tooth morphology once led us to believe that dholes and African wild dogs were closely related to the South American bush dog (Speothos venaticus), which we now know is part of the South American canid clade.  If these tooth adaptations can evolve from that such disparate lineages, I don’t see why they couldn’t have evolved from unrelated lineages in the past.

Whatever the exact ancestors of the dhole and the African wild dog, they create a gap in the phylogenetic tree between the interfertile Canis and the endemic African jackals.

That means that we have to make Canis monophyletic.

The easiest way to do this is to get rid of the genera Cuon and Lycaon.   The African wild dog becomes Canis pictus (the painted dog) and the dhole become Canis alpinus (the mountain dog).  I don’t recommend going with Canis lycaon to denote the African wild dog. This name has been bandied about for the proposed but now largely falsified Eastern wolf species, and using this name for the African wild dog would just make things very confusing.

If Cuon and Lycaon are no longer unique genera and the species within them are reclassifed as Canis, the entire genus becomes monophyletic.

I would recommend this recourse.

However, one could keep Cuon and Lycaon if one created a unique genus for the black-backed and side-striped jackals. Several genus names have been proposed for jackals, but I don’t know if we have a good system for coming up with one. The study that suggests that Xenocyon and the African wild dog suggests that we use the Lupulella for these two jackals, which would connect with what have been called primitive jackals that were living in Northwestern Africa during the Pleistocene. These primitive jackals had morphology that was very similar to the modern raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides). Black-backed jackals in their current form trace to the early Pleistocene in East Africa, so they likely didn’t derive from these primitive ones in Northwest Africa. And it is unlikely that side-striped jackals evolved from them either, for it is a newer species than the black-backed jackal and is usually considered a sister species with the black-backed jackal. Indeed, it is also possible that side-striped jackals derived from black-backed jackals that were adapted to living in dense forests.

The skull morphology of the ancient Lupulella suggests that it may not have been a jackal at all, but it may have been a dog derived from the raccoon dog lineage that just happened to have some features in common with modern jackals.

Raccoon dogs and bat-eared foxes are currently considered basal foxes.  At one time, they were both considered basal to the entire dog family, but now the only odd-ball basal canid species are the gray foxes in the genus Urocyon. It is at least as likely that the extinct Lupulella species were jackal-like derivatives of the raccoon dog lineage, and combining modern black-backed and side-striped jackals with these species is not well-advised.

Therefore, the best course of action is to move the African wild dog and the  dhole into Canis.

However, I do think we need to create subgenera within Canis to denote phylogenetic relationships. These subgenera should create three clades: one for the interfertile Canis, one for the hunting dogs, and one for the two endemic African jackals.

This is perhaps the best way to do away with a clumsy paraphyletic genus.

And one should understand that the genus Canis is not the only paraphyletic clade in zoology. The truth is we have lots to figure out about the exact evolutionary relationships that exist between different species.  There are some species, like the South American red brocket deer (Mazama sp.), that likely contain several different species from very distinct evolutionary lineages that have been combined within the same species based upon nothing more than superficial reasons.

With Canis, fixing this problem is pretty easy. However, it might be difficult to get the scientific names changed to reflect phylogeny properly.

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This video mentions something really important.

It’s called the ecology of fear hypothesis.

In this hypothesis, fear plays the vital role. If a prey animal has to be afraid of a predator in a certain area, its behavior will change.

This is perhaps best described in study that examined the role coyotes play in keeping domestic cats out of areas where birds nest. Coyotes do kill cats, and when cats figure out that coyotes might be stalking in the brush, they avoid the brush. Because they avoid the brush, the birds can nest in the brush and not be eaten by cats.  The birds are able to nest and produce offspring– only because they are afraid coyotes might be stalking in the exact same area where birds like to nest.

In Yellowstone, elk browse on aspen, willows, and cottonwood less when they have to worry about wolves. The aspen forests have started to regenerate, which is great news for riparian areas. These improved riparian areas are good for a wide range of wildlife. Beavers return to eat the willows. They make ponds, which are good for lots of other wildlife, and the trees are great for songbirds.

So ecosystems benefit because wolves scare the hell out of elk.

Of course, they also protect the trees through taking a certain number of elk every year, but it is through this ecology of fear that the really protect the trees from the browsing elk.

The ecology of fear hypothesis is an important part of William Stoltenburg’s Where the Wild Things Were,  which is one of the best accounts of what scientists currently know about the role of predators in the ecosystem.

Predators do play a role in ecosystems.

And they don’t just do it through killing prey species.

They also do it by making the prey species fear predation.

And that fear has real ecological ramifications.

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