Archive for September, 2012


The Answer.


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He looks very pleased with himself:

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This is Li Li. He’s a very smart golden retriever who guards his owner’s bike. And then he hops on for a ride. He barks to let him know when he’s ready:


He lives in Nanning , and in addition to tending to the bike, he also takes out the garbage and carries groceries.

As they would say in the nineteenth century, “a truly sagacious dog.”

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Amazing footage!


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The English language often makes strange artifacts.

Perhaps nothing is more strange than a common spelling for the name of this animal.

It is the largest of the eared seal family (Otariidae), and it is native to the North Pacific from the Kuril Islands to Central California.

And its name in American English is “Steller sea lion.”

However, it often spelled “stellar sea lion.”

Steller and stellar are not synonyms.

Stellar is defined as follows:

adj. 1. Of, relating to, or consisting of stars. 2. a. Of or relating to a star performer. b. Outstanding; principal.

This species, like all sea lions, lives in the ocean.

It has nothing to do the stars.

Now one might say that because the sea lion is the largest of its family that it is “outstanding” or “principal.”

But that’s not why it has that name in the first place.

“Steller”in the sea lion’s name refers to a person– a famous naturalist, to be exact.

Georg Wilhelm Steller was a Bavarian-born naturalist and physician who joined Vitus Bering’s Second Kamchatka Expedition in 1740. He had spent most of  his adult life in St. Petersburg.

Steller’s family’s original name was Stöhler or Stöller.

It has nothing to do with the stars. It’s just that the name has been translated as Steller.

On that expedition, Steller described several species for first time, and many of these animals still bear Steller’s name.

We have the extinct Steller’s sea cow, a very large northern relative of the manatee.

We also have the huge Steller’s sea eagle.

We have Steller’s jay.

Steller’s eider.

And in every case, these animals are called “Steller’s.”

Note the possessive “‘s.”

With the sea lion, it always called the Steller sea lion.

Maybe it’s because the next letter of the next word is an s that we have tended to leave the possessive off of it.

I don’t know.

But it causes a lot of confusion in spelling. Just google “Stellar seal lion.” You’ll get hits.

Therefore, it better for us to call this species “Steller’s sea lion.”

It prevents a common spelling error, and it also clearly attaches this animal to Herr Steller, the great naturalist who went on this voyage of discovery– and never returned. On his way back to St. Petersburg in 1746 , he contracted a fever and died.

The English language has perverted the name of this sea lion.

It is too common to call it a Stellar sea lion.

But it is not of the stars.

It is of the North Pacific– and named for Georg Wilhelm Steller.

That’s what its name means.

It takes less  than a tenth of a second to type an “‘s.”

Steller’s sea lion.

Not a bad name at all.




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Of dogs and hyenas

I know I posted this video last year.  I find it extremely fascinating. So here it is again:


This lecture is a discussion of the parallel evolution of the bone-crushing jaws in hyenas and an extinct North American subfamily of canids called the Borophaginae.  Canidae (‘the dog family”) has historically had three subfamilies.  The earliest dogs were  Hesperocyoninae (“the dawn dogs”).  The earliest known dog species, which was in this subfamily, superficially resembled a ringtail. The Hesperocyoninae were generally smaller animals, and many of these animals were capable of climbing trees.

It is from these primitive dogs that the two other subfamilies evolved.  Most early canid evolution happened in North America, and it is here that all three subfamilies first evolved.

As this lecture discusses, the borophagine dogs evolved to eat bones from very large prey species. They became massive creatures, the largest dogs the world has ever seen.

They thrived in North America f0r 33 million years.

But the big borophagine dogs became hyperspecialized to living on large carcasses.

And as they became more specialized, they became much more vulnerable to extinction. All it would take is for the relative abundance of certain large prey species to drop a bit, and their populations could collapse.

The extant subfamily of Canidade, the Caninae, are much more generalist in their diet. Although Ethiopian wolves live almost exclusive on a species of mole-rat, they can effectively hunt other things, and the only extant dog species that has a truly specialized diet is the bat-eared fox, which lives almost exclusively harvester termites. All other dogs are capable of varying their diet quite a bit.

And that’s probably why there are about 35 species of Caninae in existence today.

And there are no large borophagine dogs left. Some of the smaller, less specialized Borophaginae might still be around, but these animals became extinct relatively early on, as did all the Hesperocyoninae.

Now, let’s make things really confusing.

Modern hyenas are a mere remnant of what was once a fairly diverse family of carnivorans.

They evolved for the same bone-crushing abilities as the Borophaginae.

And it is likely that their hyperspecialization resulted in their demise as well.

Today, there are only four species of hyena left. One of these (the aardwolf) is a termite-eating specialist– just like the bat-eared fox. Brown and striped hyenas are mostly scavengers. Only the spotted hyena, which just so happens to live on the only continent that has anything like megafauna left, is a major bone-crushing predator.

And just as there have been the parallel evolution of bone-crushing in both dogs and hyenas, there has also been an evolution of the cursorial “wolf avatars” in both families.

There were once dog-like hyenas and hyena-like dogs. Only a single species of dog-like hyena still exists. It is the aardwolf, the little termite-eating hyena that I mentioned earlier.

Chasmaporthetes, the hyena that Tseng mentions in this talk, was also a dog-like hyena. It is the only hyena to have ever made it into North America. It was also the most northerly distributed.

There are lots of questions about why this hyena made it in North America.

One hypothesis is that it actually had less of a hyena-like ecological niche, and therefore, it would not have had to compete with the borophagine dogs.

Tseng mentions that his research found that Chasmaporthetes had the ability to crush bones as well as a modern spotted hyena.

So maybe it wasn’t that different from the borophagine dogs.

Of course, the reasons why it thrived in North America are likely quite complex, and because it was a hyena trying to be a wolf in a continent filled with wolves trying to be hyenas, it still may have had very little competition after all.

So the story of dogs and hyenas is complex.

Now, it should be mentioned that dogs and hyenas are not closely related. The last time they shared a common ancestors was 43 million years ago, when their common ancestor would have been a Miacid.

Canids belong to the suborder Caniformia, which includes mustelids, skunks and stink badgers, bears, procyonids, the red panda, the earless seals, the eared seals, and the walrus.

Hyenas, despite their similarity to dogs living and extinct, are actually more closely related to cats. They are in the suborder Feliformia, which includes the cat family (Felidae) and then a whole bunch of other small carnivorans whose exact taxonomic position is still being worked out. Hyenas are most closely related to the civet family (Viverridae).Mongooses and meerkats are also relatives in the family Herpestidae, and closely related to them are the Malagasy carnivorans, which are all in the family Eupleridae. Several species of Malagasy carnivorans look like mongooses, and they are still referred to as mongooses. However, there are others, like the Malagasy civet and the fossa, that were classified in the civet family until recently. There are also African and Asiatic linsangs that were  also classified as civets, but recent genetic evidence has revealed that African linsangs are civets but the two Asiatic species are actually very primitive relatives of the cat family.

So just as hyenas are not dogs, mongooses are not weasels.

Carnivoran evolution is a bit confusing at times.

It’s very hard to keep the relationships between families straight.

Caniforms are more diverse than feliforms, which with the exception of cats and hyenas, have tended to remain small and to be found almost exclusively on the African and Asia mainland. Caniforms vary from the tiny least weasel that weighs only 2 or 3 ounces to the southern elephant seal that can weigh 8,800 pounds.

I hope this clear up some misconceptions about hyenas and dogs and of carnivoran taxonomy in general.

Most people can tell the difference between a cat and a dog.

But when someone tells you fisher cats, polecats, and ring-tailed cats are not cats and hyenas aren’t dogs, it is difficult to understand.

Evolution makes for strange convergences.

It’s one of the weird and marvelous things about it.

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Eerie quote from Carl Sagan

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Komondor vs. coyote

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There are two basic reasons:

The first is that fennec foxes don’t have the same musk glands as other vulpine foxes.

That’s actually quite a plus.  Other foxes– especially red foxes– are known for producing an odor that smells something like that of a skunk.

Fennecs don’t produce that odor.

The other is that fennecs live in packs.

They don’t live in packs to hunt larger prey, but their family groups have essentially the same dynamics as a wolf pack.

A wolf pack is based upon a mated pair that have an intense pair bond, and virtually all the other animals in the pack are their grown offspring, which stay behind to take care of their younger brothers and sisters.

This same dynamic exists with fennec foxes.

With more than two adults to forage over the desert, the young fennec kits get more attention and more food than they would get if only their mother and father were caring for them.

Humans have already domesticated one dog species that has this particularly social arrangement.

It’s actually been suggested that reason why humans domesticated wolves so easily is that both humans and wolves have similar social arrangements. Both wolves and humans may have recognized as similarity in this regard, and the two species were able to form very close relationships.

Maybe something similar could happen with fennecs.

It’s certainly true that most fennecs in captivity today are derived from ancestors that were dug out of dens.

In North Africa, people have kept pet fennecs for centuries, but it’s been only in the past few decades that anyone thought of keeping them in the West.

They are still wild animals. Not all individuals have docile temperaments, even when bottle-raised.

But it seems to me that as these animals become a bit more established in the pet trade, there will be attempts to breed them with more docile temperaments.

Although we have domesticated populations of red and arctic fox, these animals are not widely available on the pet market (for the reasons I mentioned earlier).

But fennecs could become the second canid species to become established as a domestic animals.

All it will take is a large enough gene pool of captive individuals and a concerted effort to selectively breed them to be suitable pets.

This may sound a bit far-fetched, but when I was a child, it was impossible to buy golden hamsters– even those with fancy colorations and coat lengths– that were naturally disposed to be tame.

All of the hamsters I owned bit me at least once, and most bit at least once a month.

Today, you can go to a pet store and buy hamsters that have been selected for “low reactivity.”

Hamsters have been bred away from the grumpy little things that they are in the wild.

And what’s more, pet golden hamsters derive from only a single litter that was captured near Aleppo, Syria, in 1930.

They are perhaps the most inbred of all domestic animals, but even though they are inbred, they have been able to produce just enough genetic variation to produce unique coat lengths and colors and just enough variation in temperament to produce very gentle strains.

Captive fennec foxes have a broader genetic base than golden hamsters, so it may be possible to begin another canid domestication process.

We’ve done it before.

We can do it again.







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