Posts Tagged ‘feral dog’

feral dog

Most feral domestic animals revert to a form that is roughly similar to their wild ancestor. You can see this quite dramatically in feral pigs. They generally evolve into a form that is about the same size and even coat type of the Eurasian wild boar. City pigeons look very much like the rock dove or “rock pigeon” that is their wild ancestor after just a few generations of breeding without human care.

Because village and pariah dogs tend to be mid-sized, it has been assumed that the wild ancestor of these dogs surely would have been on the smaller side as well. Therefore, the gray wolf simply could not have been an ancestor.

What actually drives the size of freely breeding and feral domestic dogs isn’t that they have some ancient alleles that force them into returning to an ancestral form.  The truth of the matter is that ecological niche and caloric restraints have a lot more to do with this phenomenon.

Dogs are unique among domestic animals in that they are the only domesticated form of large carnivoran. We have never domesticated any other species of large predatory mammal except for those Pleistocene Eurasian wolves that are at the base of domestic dogs.

Most domestic dogs are poorly adapted to living as predators, and they really don’t have to be. When dogs go feral in societies with extensive agriculture, they readily scavenge and hunt small prey. They dabble in various levels of omnivory.  Some dogs might be good at hunting deer, but deer are a lot harder to catch than garbage and groundhogs.

There is an extensive literature on mammal predator size and prey choice. The best known researcher looking at these issues is Chris Carbone, and in a 2007 paper called “The Costs of Carnivory,” which was published in POLS Biology, Carbone and colleagues looked at body mass of mammalian predators and their prey choices. If a predator weighed more than 20 kg, it hunted large vertebrates. If it weighed less than that weight, it hunted invertebrates or small vertebrates.

Larger predators get a much higher net energy gain by targeting large prey, and this large prey allows them to maintain their larger body size.

Feral and freely-breeding domestic dogs are not hunting large vertebrates. It is much easier for them to scavenge as mid-sized creatures. Natural selection would favor a moderate size, because any dogs that retained the large dog or large wolf alleles in the population would have a harder time feeding itself efficiently on these resources alone.

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. In Uruguay, there was a population of feral mastiff-type dogs, which are called Cimarrón Uruguayo. These dogs were introduced by Europeans as working dogs, but some of them went feral. They were able to maintain their large size because they hunted livestock and game, and they were such a problem that the government placed bounties on them.  These dogs were living in a feral existence for at least 250 years, but they were able to retain a large mastiff phenotype. The feral mastiff is now being transformed into a standard breed.

However, the general rule is that village and pariah dogs tend to be significantly smaller than wolves, but this smaller size cannot be used to deny that dogs are derived from gray wolves. This smaller size is just more efficient for the ecological niche of feral and village dogs.

And it is poor reasoning to assume that dogs cannot be wolf derivatives simply because they do not evolve back into a wolfish form once they go feral.  Dogs have been domesticated for a long time, and their domestication is quite unique.  As the only large predator we have domesticated, ecological pressures create a different sort of animal than the original wild ancestor.

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Lycaon pictus. It is commonly called the African wild dog or Cape hunting dog. Such a name suggests a feral domestic dog, which it most definitely is not. It definitely needs a name change if it is going to survive.

Lycaon pictus has an image problem.

But most of it seems to be in the name.

I remember hearing these animals called “Cape hunting dogs,” and some old nature documentaries treated them as if they were some sort of feral dog.

In colonial texts, I always see them referenced in this fashion. I remember reading The Man-eaters of Tsavo by Col. Patterson, and his discussion of the species is that they are something like a dingo. I also remember reading texts that discuss Rhodesian [sic] Ridgeback histories, and the  “Cape hunting dog” is listed as an ancestor. (I think they mean something else, but the terms are so nebulous that people often wind up mixing up African feral dogs with “African wild dogs.” It’s enough to confuse modern researchers.)

Because these animals have a range that extends beyond southern Africa, it became common to call these animals “African wild dogs.”

Another bad name.

Not only are there lots of other real African wild dogs (three species of jackal, the Ethiopian wolf, and several foxes), these animals are not related to any of the feral dogs.  One of my biggest complaints in Stanley Coren’s Intelligence of Dogs is that he thought this species could have contributed to several domestic dog breeds. The name is both generic and misleading at the same time.

You see, Lycaon pictus is a relative of the interbreeding and interfertile species in the genus canis, but it’s not that closely related to them. It is more closely related to those interfertile species than the two species of “Africa-only” jackals (the black-backed and the side-striped).

Here’s the dog family phylogenetic tree:

(Image comes from this study)

Ethiopian wolves and golden jackals are the most distant relatives to Canis lupus (which include dogs, New Guinea singing dogs, dingoes, and wolves) with which it can interbreed and produce fertile offspring.

See where “African wild dogs” are on that tree?

They are too distantly related to interbreed with domestic dogs or wolves.

But calling them “African wild dogs” suggests that they are related to dogs. It even suggests, if one gets sloppy enough, that these animalss represent a form of feral African dog.

It wouldn’t be so bad, but Lycaon pictus is an endangered species. The IUCN lists them as endangered, and the populations that do exist are fragmented. The land they live on is needed for people to raise crops and graze livestock.

When people encroach on Lycaon pictus’s habitat they unleash several threats.  One of these is domestic dogs, who are carriers of canine diseases.

People also shoot, trap, and poison them.

In the old days they were shot to protect game herds. The same rationale was used in the early days of the conservation movement to kill off wolves in America’s nation parks. Kill of the predators to save wildlife.

Today they are shot to protect livestock.

And if we believe that African wild dogs are just feral dogs, then what is to stop people from killing them?

To make things worse, Lycaon pictus requires vast expanses of territory. They need lots and lots of room to be able to hunt enough prey to survive.

Most African national parks and private game preserves are too small for them.

And then those preserves are much more interested in promoting “sexy” animals. They do a lot to promote lions and hyenas, which are major predators and competitors of Lycaon pictus.

And if the park managers believe that Lycaon pictus is some kind of  feral animal, they aren’t going to do much to promote their conservation to either their investors or their governments.

So to solve this problem, one conservation has decided that a name change is necessary to save the species.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff writes about the efforts of conservationist Greg Rasmussen in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe:

We humans are suckers for certain kinds of wildlife, from lions to elephants. I hadn’t known I was a zebra fan until I drove my rented car into a traffic jam of zebras here. My heart fluttered.

As for rhinos, they’re so magnificent that they attract foreign aid. Women here in rural Zimbabwe routinely die in childbirth for lack of ambulances or other transport to hospitals, and they get no help. But rhinos in this park get a helicopter to track their movements.

Then there are animals that don’t attract much empathy. Aardvarks. Newts. And, at the bottom tier, African wild dogs.

Wild dogs (which aren’t actually wild dogs, but never mind that for now) are a species that has become endangered without anyone raising an eyebrow. Until, that is, a globe-trotting adventurer named Greg Rasmussen began working with local villages to rebrand the dogs — and save them from extinction.

It’s a tale that offers some useful lessons for do-gooders around the world, in clever marketing and “branding,” and in giving local people a stake in conservation. For if it’s possible to rescue a despised species with a crummy name like “wild dogs,” any cause can have legs.


Wild dogs are not dogs, which split off from wolves only in the last 30,000 years. In contrast, wild dogs last shared a common ancestor with dogs or wolves about 6 million years ago. They are the size of German shepherds and look like dogs, but they don’t bark and have different teeth and toes. And although many have tried, they have not been domesticated.

“Chimpanzees and gorillas are closer to us humans than wolves are to painted dogs,” Mr. Rasmussen said.

Note that terminology: “painted dogs.” Central to Mr. Rasmussen’s effort to save the dogs has been a struggle to rename them, so that they sound exotic rather than feral.

Do-gooders usually have catastrophic marketing skills. Pepsi and Coke invest fortunes to promote their products over their rivals, while humanitarians aren’t nearly as savvy about marketing causes with far higher stakes — famine, disease, mass murder.

Mr. Rasmussen is an exception, and his effort to rebrand the species as “painted dogs” caught on. The name works because the animals’ spotted coats suggest that they ran through an artist’s studio.

Mr. Rasmussen runs the Painted Dog Conservation, a center that offers the animals a refuge from poachers and rehabilitation when they are injured. But most of all, he works with impoverished local villagers so that they feel a stake in preserving painted dogs.

Conservation efforts around the world often involve tensions with local people. But you can’t save rainforests if their advocates are 5,000 miles away, and conservationists increasingly are realizing that they can succeed only if they partner with local people.

Painted Dog Conservation does a lot of work with local people who live near these animals.  Rasmussen understands that the people aren’t as into conserving this animal because it’s not believed to be something unique.

It’s just a dog.

But if it’s a “painted dog,” it might be worth protecting.


You may note on this blog, I’ve usually called them by their scientific name or the direct English translation of that name. Lycaon pictus means “painted wolf.” Lycaon means wolf in Greek. Pictus means painted in Latin.

I think this is actually a better name than “Painted Dog.”


Well, I know they aren’t wolves as we understand them.

But neither is the South American maned wolf.

And what about the extinct the Tasmanian wolf?

Or the hyena the Namibians and South Africans call a Strandwolf?

Or the the little termite eating hyena called the aardwolf?

It seems to me that there are lots of things we call wolves but really aren’t.

The maned wolf is more distantly related to the real wolves than the Lycaon pictus is.

And the maned wolf does not have the same social structure that characterizes both Lycaon pictus and real wolves.

It seems to me that we could get away with calling this animal the “painted wolf” far more easily than we could by calling a marsupial carnivore a “Tasmanian wolf.”

And there is another thing:

North Americans and most Europeans view wolves rather strangely.

Where we once believed them to be the epitome of all evil in the wilderness, we now believe them to be the symbols of our wild heritage.

Calling Lycaon pictus a “painted wolf” would at least get people thinking about it in those terms.

Just look what has happened to the animal formerly referred to as the Simien jackal.  DNA studies told us that it was actually closely related to the wolf and coyote, and its name was changed to “Ethiopian wolf.”

People now care about it because they think of it as a wolf.

It doesn’t matter than more recent studies have found that the golden jackal is more closely related to the wolf and coyote line than the Ethiopian wolf is.

People want to conserve wolves.

They don’t want to save the jackals or the feral dogs.

It’s unfortunate, I know.

But words have power.

And so do symbols.

The wolf of Eurasia and North America has been saved largely because the symbols it represents have changed in the public imagination.

I don’t see why the symbolism of the wolf can’t be used to save Lycaon pictus.

Calling them painted wolves would certainly elevate their status in the developed countries, and it might even help generate revenue (in the form of ecotourism and various foundations) that might be used to save this species.

Whatever we call it, Lycaon pictus needs some rebranding.

But maybe not.

There are Australians who are trying to save the dingo, which is a feral breed of domestic dog!

But Australia is a much more affluent place than many African countries, and it might be easier to get people excited about something like this if their bellies are full and they have money to spend.

So a rebrand is necessary.


Before the dingo people assail me:

I am classifying the dingo with the domestic dogs for a very simple reason.

They all descend from domestic Asian dogs, not wolves. All dogs, including the dingo, descend from wolves, but their direct ancestors were domestic dogs.

I do not deny that they are pretty wild animals and are not typically suitable as pets.

However, dingos are currently listed as Canis lupus dingo. I have some issues with this classification.

I believe there are two main reasons for its subspecies status– to keep people from owning them and to ensure that governments and individuals will do all they can to preserve them as native Australian wildlife.

I certainly don’t disagree with those objectives.

But I think we need to be careful about assigning it a subspecies status.

Where does it stop?

Couldn’t we say golden retrievers a unique subspecies of C. lupus?

I guess it’s just the taxonomic lumper in me coming out.


You note that I don’t use the name Canis familiaris for domestic dogs.

I think it’s a pretty stupid name.

We call domestic pigs Sus scrofa domestica because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild boar (Sus scrofa).

We call the domestic horse Equus ferus caballus because it’s derived from the Eurasian wild horse (Equus ferus).

Because most domestic ducks (save the Muscovies) are derived mallards, we call them Anas platyrhynchos (no subspecies given).

I don’t get why there is so much resistance to calling domestic dogs Canis lupus familiaris.

I think it may have to do with the long held belief that domestic dogs couldn’t possibly be wolves because wolves are evil.

I am sure this thinking has tinctured a lot of discussion about dogs and their origins.

And Darwin didn’t help.

Darwin believed just about every wild dog played a role in developing the domestic dog.

It’s not true, of course.

Then Konrad Lorenz posited the theory that some dogs were derived from wolves and others were derived from golden jackals.

So far, we know of only one dog that has direct ancestry from jackals: the Sulimov dog.

Now, there are differences between dogs and wolves, but wolves themselves are pretty diverse animals.

In their wild forms, they have come in so many different forms and ecological niches throughout their natural history.

In their domestic forms, these differences can become even more greatly magnified.

The cognitive adaptations that dogs have to live with people are interesting and worth noting, but how are these different from the Arctic wolf’s white pelt or the Arabian wolf’s large ears?

Why can’t we just accept that C. lupus is a very magnificently diverse species and domestic dogs are part of it?

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