Archive for July, 2016

Nearly a year after her TTA, Miley is back in action. She’s 8 years old, but she runs and looks like she’s five.

In past week, she’s dispatched a full grown rabbit and this chipmunk.

miley chipmunk

Golden retrievers never like to get dirty…


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Any time someone from the Lower 48 goes to Alaska, the instant question that comes up on return is the traveler encountered a wolf.

The answer for me is simply no, and I knew fully well there were very low odds of me seeing a wolf. I live where there are tons of coyotes, and I see one about every six months. They are very good at keeping themselves hidden from people, and from what I’ve read about wild wolves, it is even more true about wolves.

Some members of my family went to the Kroschel Wildlife Center and saw a tame wolf named Isis. (I was told that she would not stop howling during their entire visit!).

My best chance at seeing a wild wolf was at Denali, but there is a catch to that story.

Denali National Park is roughly the size of Massachusetts. It’s full of moose, Dall sheep, caribou, beaver, and porcupines.

You’d think that place would be full of wolves, but it’s not.

In fact, a place that size really can’t hold as many wolves as it does wolf prey. Because wolves are top predators, they just can’t exist in such large numbers, and that fact is true regardless if you’re talking about wolves in Denali, cheetahs in Namibia, or lions in the Gir Forest.

So even in the best of times, there would always be just a few wolves roaming the park. They would be laid on pretty thinly on the land.

But these are not the best of times for wolves in Denali.

The traditional “buffers” that have been set up near the park that prevented legal wolf hunting and trapping near the park were lifted in 2010, and the wolf population went from 147 wolves in 2007 to 49 wolves in 2015.

49 wolves over a land the size of Massachusetts.

49 is still more than the number of wolves living in actual Massachusetts, which may be 0 wolves. It may not be, though. One was killed in Massachusetts in 2008, and one or two  could be lurking somewhere in the Berkshires, where they may mistaken for big coyotes.

But 49 is roughly a third of what the population was nearly a decade ago. My chances of seeing a wolf in Denali were 45 percent in 2010. They were 5 percent in 2015.

One of the best things I did at the park was take a hiking nature tour. My tour guide was very well-informed about wolf issues, and she told us about a wolf following one of her tour groups. There was no fear involved, but when someone in the party pointed out that a wolf was following them, she was certain it was a dog. She was very surprised to see that it was a wolf, and it was close.

The wolf ran off, of course.

But she also told the story of what happened to the East Fork wolf pack. This is the famous wolf pack that Adolph Murie studied. They were the wolves that were featured prominently in The Wolves of Mt. McKinley. This was the pack to which Wags, Murie’s tame wolf belonged.

Right now, the pack exists as only a single female. Her mate was killed on state land near the park entrance. She also had a litter, but I’ve not been able to find out what exactly happened to them. (I was there just a few days after this story came out on Alaska NPR).

I understand that Alaska has to balance interests between outfitters, who want predator control and liberal predator hunting allowances, and the desire of the American people to have relatively intact ecosystems in our national parks.

I get it.

I get that Canis lupus isn’t an endangered species worldwide, and it certainly isn’t an endangered species in Alaska, where the species is still going strong.

But it seems just a little perverse that we cannot maintain those buffers once again. I came thousands of miles to see wilderness where wolves might be.

I am okay with knowing they might be. I don’t have to see them. I just need to know they are there.

We had a small enough tour group that the guide and I got to talk about wolves a bit. She talked about her cocker spaniel and how that dog was far more rugged than she looked. The dog had been on many back country trips, and she wondered how closely related her spaniel was to those wolves.

Pretty close.

But still far enough away.




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I saw several sea otters on my cruise, but I saw them from the ship while it was in motion.

So this is my best photo:


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arctic fox, swift fox kit fox

Canid taxonomy and evolution have long-stand ining debates, but one I don’t think has been discussed much is the evolution of the arctic fox-kit fox-swift fox clade.

For most of my life, there was always a long standing debate as to whether kit foxes and swift foxes are distinct species. The current thinking is the they are distinct but closely related species with a very narrow hybrid zone in parts of Texas and New Mexico.

And for most of my life, arctic foxes weren’t even considered part of the group. Indeed, they were considered so different from other foxes that they were placed in their own genus (Alopex).  We’ve since discovered that arctic foxes have mitochondrial DNA sequences that are very similar to swift and kit foxes, and in terms of their mtDNA, they are as distinct from kit and swift foxes as they are from each other.

Since then, arctic foxes have been classified within genus of “true foxes” (Vulpes), with the arctic fox being V. lagopus, the kit fox as V. velox, and the kit fox as V. macrotis.

Broader genomic analysis has revealed that the arctic fox is actually quite closely related to the kit fox, and analysis of mitochondrial DNA suggests that arctic and swift foxes diverged only 250,000 years ago. If similar results are confirmed in nuclear DNA comparisons, it means that these foxes diverged from each other after Old World and New World red foxes split.  A recent genome-wide study revealed that red foxes from North America diverged from those of the Old World 400,000 years ago, and in recent decades, it’s generally been accepted that red foxes are the same species. (There is currently a move to split them into two species).

Now, it’s pretty obvious that a similar study needs to be performed on swift, kit, and arctic foxes, and there is actually an obvious question that one of these studies could answer:

Are arctic foxes polar-adapted swift or kit foxes or are swift and kit foxes arctic foxes that have adapted to the Great Plains, Rockies, and arid regions of the West?

Arctic foxes are found in the arctic of North America and the arctic of Eurasia.  They come in two basic phases: white, which sheds out to brown and white in summer, and blue, which sheds out to blackish gray in summer and is gray-tinged in winter.

Arctic foxes could be descendants of swift or kit foxes that wound up adapting to a polar environment, which then allowed them to access the Old World. However, there is a paleontology study that says arctic foxes evolved in the Himalayas.  I am a bit skeptical of this study, because it seems to contradict the genetic data that connects arctic foxes with swift and kit foxes of the Americas.

However, if swift and kit foxes are temperate-adapted arctic foxes, then it could be possible that arctic foxes did evolve in the Himalayas. They came across the Bering Land Bridge, and then some of them became isolated in environments that became more moderate in climate, and they lost their adaptations for changing their coat colors. After all, least weasels, long-tailed weasels, and stoats (ermines or short-tailed weasels) have some populations where the animals turn white in winter, and populations where they don’t.

It could be that this is the real difference between arctic and swift/kit foxes is they just represent divergent populations where some populations turn white and some don’t. We only think of them as separate species because they are quite geographically different from each other.

It also could be that these animals are actually more genetically distinct from each other than we’re currently thinking, but preliminary genomic analysis suggests a very close relationship between kit and arctic foxes.

And those two are much more geographically isolated from each other.

So we do know that these three fox species do form a clade within the Vulpes genus, but how they exactly fit together is a good question. Maybe they actually are more closely related to each other than Old and New World red foxes. Maybe they aren’t.

And we don’t know which type came first.

But we can answer these questions, and we can answer them the same way we figured out that red foxes in North America aren’t derived from English imports from the colonial period.

This is a study that I’m pretty sure will be done but just hasn’t yet.



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Steller sea lions on a buoy just off from the Point Retreat Lighthouse. This body of water is called the “Lynn Canal,” which is actually fjord. It was named by George Vancouver, and it was supposed to be called “Lynn Channel,” but transcription error led to it being called a canal. But glaciers made it, not canal diggers.




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Coming to terms

Viscount Gormanston's White Dog

Dogs were my greatest comfort as I grew from the teenage years into adulthood.

I always thought I’d be a dog person, and that I knew a lot about them.

That was my attitude when I started writing this blog, but as I’ve matured and as I’ve seen more of “dog people,” I’ve come to a rather disturbing conclusion:

I’m really not a dog person.

At the worst, I detest the politics of dogs, but I also detest certain cultural memes that go along with them.  The ideas that we have people who somehow communicate with them in one correct way or that getting absolute obedience out of a dog is somehow a sign of one’s connection with them are ones that I find most troubling.

The truth is that I’ll never be one of those people or will ever be someone who pretends to be.

I’ve come to terms with the simple fact that I admire good dogs like I admire art. I can witness their genius, but I’ll never paint anything that doesn’t look kindergarten scribbles.

It’s hard to come to terms with this reality, but it is also liberating in a way.

I don’t have to pretend to know what I don’t know. I don’t have to feign respect for rather odious institutions.

I’ve come to appreciate the wild dogs more. These are the creatures that are every bit as genius as the tame ones, and they breed and propagate outside all the fancy systems and clubs that we have contrived for our own amusement.

I actually don’t know how dog people maintain friendships. It’s pretty much a constant row over some bogus piece of esoterica, and I don’t know how anyone thrives in such a social milieu, much less why anyone would want to join it.

I know I’ve written a few of these pieces lately, but I think this will be the last one.

I’m closing the door, and it’s finished.

I’m tired, and there are more interesting things to write about.

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This is Admiralty Island, which is not far from Juneau. It is known by the Tlingit as Xootsnoowú, which translates as “Fortress of the Bears.”

It is home to 1,600 brown bears, which I didn’t see while whale watching. This island has one the highest densities of brown bears anywhere in the world, and it is the highest for North America.

These aren’t just normal brown bears, however.  This is where things get really interesting.

About ten years ago, it turned out that many brown bears from Admiralty Island and the neighboring islands of Baranof and Chichagof had mitochondrial DNA that is similar to the polar bear.  This caused quite a bit of a sensation, because if these brown bears really were closely related to the polar bears, then we might have found the place where polar bears evolved from brown bears. This was also at the time when there was a growing body of evidence that polar bears evolved very rapidly and relatively recently from brown bears.

A later nuclear DNA study revealed that the similarities between these brown bears and polar bears were the result of ancient hybridization. The genomes of these brown bears is roughly 1 percent polar bear, but 6.5 percent of the X chromosomes come from polar bears.

These islands and Ireland are both places where polar and brown bears hybridized at the end of the last glacial maximum. Polar bears got stranded on islands, which became great brown bear habitat. Male brown bears mated with polar bear sows, and the offspring were fertile. However, they bred back into the brown bear population in such a way that they are almost entirely brown bear in ancestry.

As the arctic is warming, polar bears are finding themselves stranded on land for longer periods during the mating season, and brown bears (mostly grizzlies) are wandering north. Several hybrids have been killed in recent years, including one from this year.

Polar bears could very likely become extinct as a result of climate change, but their genes could still live on in the brown and grizzly bears that manage to hybridize with them during this transition period.

I wish I had been able to see one of those bears on Admiralty Island,  but I am just glad I got a photo of the island itself.

Whales were calling. Not bears.



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I’ve never been whale watching in my life. The only wild whale I’ve seen was a dead pygmy sperm whale in North Carolina, so this was quite an experience.

These are all humpback whales, which come to Alaska to feed on the vast of krill and baitfish that are themselves fed on the vast phytoplankton blooms that happen as a result of long days of sunlight and the nutrients of glacial silt. They go to Hawaii to have their calves and breed, but those warm seas are totally devoid of whale food. So they come up to Alaska every summer to fatten themselves up. Hawaii is pretty much devoid of orcas, which kill whale calves, so those waters are the nursery. But the nursery is in a sea of famine.








There were many, many humpbacks swimming near the boat. I wish I had a photo of the one that came closest to the boat. I think it came within maybe 60 feet of the boat, and the first thing you could see is this massive black form coming up from the gray sea. Within just a few seconds, the great form appeared above the surface, spouted, and slipped back under.

I wish I had been able to get photos of that whale. It was really impressive.

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I believe these are mew gulls, and they had three chicks that wandered among the landscaping rocks and spruce trees at the lodge at Denali National Park.










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