Archive for January, 2013

Jackal love


Black-backed jackals are highly monogamous animals.

You can really see how strongly this pair has bonded in this video.

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The problem with cats

cat with hakapik

I do realize that there are problems for someone like me writing about what feral and free-roaming cats do to an ecosystem.

I am not a cat person.

At least, I’m not a domestic cat person.

I have no problem with our native wild cats, be they Canada lynx or jaguars.

But if I start writing about the ecological effects of feral and free-roaming cat predation, I get called a cat hater.

Well, I don’t have a good defense for that. I really don’t like domestic cats.

There, I said it. I don’t like cats. (Maybe I like an emotionally shallow animal. I don’t know).

My reason for disliking cats isn’t why I have issues with free-roaming and feral cats.

There are two very good reasons for my problem with cats:

One is that they are an introduced species that breeds very rapidly.

And two is they are the epitome of what has been termed the mesopredator release hypothesis.

Mesopredators are small “B-list” predators that would normally have their numbers checked by larger predators in the ecosystems.

Of course, if domestic cats were native, their numbers would have been checked by native predators like cougars and wolves.

But now that both cougars and wolves are gone from most of their range, the cats can breed up in pretty large numbers.

Wolves and cougars don’t normally target small prey– why would a 150-pound cougar climb a tree to raid a robin nest? It would be a complete waste of energy for the amount of calories available.

But domestic cats will readily climb trees to raid bird nests.

Contrary to Farley Mowat’s book, wolves really don’t waste time hunting mice and voles, but cats hunt mice and voles for fun.

And what’s more, a recent study has revealed that cats kill billions of birds and small mammals in the United States every year.

That’s as much as 15 percent of the entire bird population in the country!

And feral cats, the animals we’re supposed to trap, neuter, and release, kill more native wildlife than domestic ones.

In the United States, we have as many as 164 million cats, and as many has 80 million of those are ferals, the vast majority of which cannot be tamed and serve no greater purpose other than to kill native wildlife and spread disease.

So what’s the solution?

Cats that are owned should be kept indoors or in enclosures outdoors. That sounds like a common sense solution, but of course, it’s attacked because you’re not allowing your cat “freedom,” which really means you are okay with your cat having the freedom to get FIV, hit by car, or killed by a coyote or fisher.

But fer feral cats, the solution isn’t even that pleasant.

it’s not nice at all.

Hannah Waters at the Culturing Science blog lays out the problem, which the authors of the aforementioned study tactfully avoid:

So the obvious answer then is that, if we value biodiversity and wildlife and can manage to overcome our predilection for cute cat faces over cute bird faces, cat populations should be controlled through humane killing, just like many other invasive species.

But the funny thing is that no one suggests that. In compulsively researching this blog post, I read many papers showing that trap-neuter-release doesn’t work, or studies showing that, in computer models, euthanasia reduces cat populations more effectively than trap-neuter-release. But then in their concluding paragraphs, after providing evidence that current methods aren’t working, the action steps proposed by the authors are: (1) all pets should be neutered and (2) owners should be be better educated so they don’t abandon their cats.

The thing about cats is they do readily breed on their own in the wild.

Considering how little cats are removed from the Libyca wildcat, they having been selectively bred for very long, and indeed, it’s likely for most of the history with us, they have been animals that lived in a sort of semi-domesticated status. Feral cat colonies, as they exist, are likely the source for most of the domestic cats we have in homes today, and these colonies likely existed for thousands of years in the Old World before most people ever thought of keeping them as pets.

But in the US, these colonies are all under 400 years old. No native mesopredator has ever been able to build up in such vast numbers as the domestic cat. I guarantee you that there are not 160 million raccoons or gray foxes in the United States, and though they certainly are taking their toll on native bird and small mammal species, there is no way native mesopredator release issues equal those of the domestic cat.

If this were any other species– say. a raccoon dog, which is a nasty introduced mesopredator in parts of Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe– people would be okay with killing them.

But as soon as you say that the only effective way to deal with the feral cat problem is humanely killing them, you might as well be the reincarnation of Hitler.

Indeed, there are some people, who even call themselves environmentalists, who contend that there are no invasive species and that we shouldn’t killed any animals for any reason.

That’s a recipe for mass extinction, because the only animals that are going to survive are those that have been able to live with human civilization. At its most extreme, we could wind up with a country in which the main predator in the ecosystem is the domestic cat, which feeds on house mice, English sparrows, European starlings, and pigeons.

That’s not what we need.

And that’s not a future we should look forward to.


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A postman with a good relationship with a dog?


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Deer track


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Frozen turtle

What happens when a certain dog leaves a stuffed toy out in the snow:


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dingo reflection

The recent discovery that dogs have evolved some adaptations to assist in the digest starches has set off a whole wave of speculation about what this means for the domestication of the species.

Some are thundering about the old Raymond Coppinger theory on dog domestication, which posits that the dog evolved from the wolf during the early days of agriculture. According to this theory, the dog is a self-domesticating animal that evolved solely from wolves losing their fear of humans in order to scavenge from our trash heaps.

The logic here is that starches were only a big part of the human diet only when we began to farm, and if dogs have these adaptations, then it must mean that they were domesticated in agrarian societies.

The problem with this logic is twofold.

The first is that dog remains– which no one argues actually are of dogs–have been dated thousands of years before agriculture. I am thinking of the dog discovered at the Bonn-Oberkassel site and another that was found in the Kesserloch Cave in Switzerland. Both of those remains are 14,000 years old, and they clearly predate agriculture by thousands of years.  In addition to these two dogs, two dogs that were contemporaries of these Central European canines were discovered in Bryansk region of Russia. These two Russian dogs looked a lot like what we’d call mastiffs or mountain dogs.

And never mind that we have several possible dog remains that are even older than these. The Goyet Cave dog of Belgium and the Razboinichya Cave dog of the Altai Mountains are two canid remains that show signs of domestica tion that both date to over 30,000 years ago.

But most amazing of all has been the discovery of 31,500-year-old skulls of what appear to have been dogs in the Czech Republic. These skulls, which were found at the Předmostí, clearly had something to do with people. for one was buried with a bone in its mouth.

All of these discoveries put dog domestication well into the very distant past– long before we had massive trash heaps and long before we ate lots of bread. The dog is the product of wolves tamed during the time of the hunter-gatherers, not of the earliest farmers.

The other problem with claiming that dogs were derived from self-domesticated scavengers is that lots of animals scavenge off of people, including many populations of wolves.

Yet none of these animals– including the wolves– has become more like a dog simply through scavenging. If scavenging was all that it took, then the black-backed jackal would have been the ancestor of the domestic dog. These jackals have been scavenging off of our species long before wolves did, but even though they readily live in villages and often act as guard dogs to warn of the approach of leopards, they show no signs of domestication. There are no spotted or drop-eared black-backed jackals.

And there are no genetically tame raccoons, European badgers, spotted hyenas, or bears.

But all of these animals readily scavenge off our waste.

The only way the Coppinger domestication theory works is to ignore large chunks of science, but that is precisely what so many science journalists do.

The Coppinger theory is a very neat little package that attempts to make simple what was an inordinately complex move.

Almost everything we know about dog domestication is contradictory. We have competing archaeological and genetic evidence, and all that anyone can actually agree on is that the wolf is that the primary ancestor of the dog, the domestication happened before agriculture, and the domestication happened in the Old World.

Mark Derr takes to task some of the speculation that was generated from that study:

By every genetic and archaeological measure, wolves became dogs in the company of hunting and gathering people at least thousands of years before the advent of agriculture. There simply is no way around that.

Derr thinks that humans would have fed wolves cooked grains from wild grasses, which could have accounted for the selection pressures that would have caused dogs to develop the adaptations for consuming starches.

I am a bit skeptical that humans would have been collecting that much grain to feed dogs, but there are cases of hunter-gatherers doing just that. In How the Dog Became the Dog, Derr discusses a study of a site in China. Using isotopic analysis of human and “dog” remains from that site, the researchers found that the humans were growing broomcorn millet to feed both themselves and their dogs.

My bone of contention with this study is that it didn’t include large enough sample of dogs from a variety of breeds. There were no “primitive” breeds included in the study, and there were no dingoes.  Even among the dogs studied, there was variance of how many copies of the amylase-production gene the dog had, which suggests that some dogs are better adapted to a diet rich in grains and starches than others. It would be interesting to see if dogs like dingoes, which lived for thousands of years on a continent with no agriculture, have more copies of the gene than wolves do.

The really interesting part of this study was the discovery that dogs have evolved a tolerance to eating grains and starches.

The unfortunate part of the study is that it caused so much speculation about a theory of dog domestication that is largely contradicted by virtually all the other evidence we have.

In discovering that dogs can eat bread, the researchers threw Raymond Coppinger a bone.

Coppinger is a figure like Lorenz, but unlike Lorenz, who eventually gave up on his hypothesis that most dogs were derived from golden jackals, Coppinger continues to adhere to his self-domestication through neotenic scavenger hypothesis.

Never mind that there are really big holes in the logic behind it.

It is an easy theory to explain between the margins of news copy.

It’s much harder to say that things are much more complex than that.





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The winter world

Yeah, we’re in the midst of an arctic blast. I have busted out the muskrat ushanka to cover my ears, but Miley doesn’t seem to mind the cold and snow.

it snowed

winter world


Miley in the Snowy Forest once again





miley loves the snow 051





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I didn’t catch them on camera, but I did catch them calling.

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chihuahua vs skunks

This photo, which was obviously staged, appears in Harold Elmer Anthony’s Mammals of America (1917).

The dog’s breed is listed as an “Irish terrier,”  but it looks like no Irish terrier I’ve ever heard of.

It looks a lot more like a Chihuahua, and it might be an early American Chihuahua.


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Treed opossum, 1917

opossum treed 1917

This photo comes from Mammals of America by Harold Elmer Anthony. This book was published in 1917, so it unfortunately refers to the opossum hunter as a “Southern Darkey.”

Of course, African Americans living the South often hunted opossums for meat, and they relied upon good treeing dogs to assist them in their hunts.

This dog appears to be of a farm shepherd type, but just as often, they would rely upon their curs or feists to tree the marsupials, which they usually captured alive.   To get the opossum out of the tree, they would shake the tree to make it fall out.

The opossum would then be brought home in a burlap sack and then fed table scraps for several weeks to make the flesh taste better. Opossums are known carrion eaters, and it was commonly believed that the carrion diet tainted the meat.

After a few weeks of being fed table scraps,  they would slaughter the opossum.

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