Posts Tagged ‘gray fox’

Pleistocene Fossil Canid Ratios Recorded in the University of Florida Database

January 11, 2012

The abundance of Pleistocene fossil sites in Florida has allowed the university in Gainesville to become a center of information for other scientists.  Scientists excavating new fossil sites use existing fossils at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History to help identify the new specimens they pull from the earth.  It’s not always easy to differentiate closely related species–the subject of this blog entry, the canids, are notoriously difficult to distinguish.  Vertebrate zoologists and paleontologists measure and describe every part of every bone and tooth when examining new specimens.  They publish this information in scientific journals and accumulate knowledge of the size limits and shape variations of a particular species’ anatomy.  If a newly discovered fossil tooth for example doesn’t fit any known pattern of shape or size, than scientists suspect they may have discovered a new species.  The more data scientists have, the better able they are to identify new species and spot evolutionary trends over time within a species.

Fossil collecting is popular in Florida, thanks to all the sinkhole lakes and caves with basal chemistry in the soil that preserves bones.  Amateur fossil collectors have many more fossils in their collections than the University of Florida’s Natural History Museum..  Many are for sale as well.  It would be a great benefit to science, if collectors made arrangements to donate their collections to the museum upon their deaths.  Many valuable specimens have been lost when their owners die and family members, not interested in the subject, lose track of where they put the old bones.

My little study is limited to canid fossils listed on the University of Florida database and leaves out the great many more in the hands of amateur fossil collectors.  I also limited this survey to the Rancholabrean Land Mammal Age (300,000 BP-11,000 BP), leaving out Armbruster’s wolf which dominated the middle Pleistocene before being replaced by dire wolves.  Nevertheless, I think there’s enough information to suggest relative canid species abundance during the late Pleistocene.  Keep in mind, I was counting on a computer screen while scrolling down, so my numbers may be off slightly.

Listed on the Florida Museum of Natural History’s database, I counted 64 dire wolf (Canis dirus) specimens, 34 coyote (Canis latrans) specimens, 1 red wolf (Canis niger) specimen, 9 domestic dog (Canis familiaris) specimens, 0 dhole (Cuon alpinus) specimens, and 55 gray fox (Urocyon cineorgenteus) specimens.

The fossil record strongly suggests that from 300,000 BP to about 11,000 BP dire wolves were by far the most common large canid being about twice as abundant as coyotes.  Red wolves were rare but present.  Gray foxes were just as common during the Pleistocene as they are today.  These neat little foxes have the ability to climb trees, a skill that saves them from their larger relatives.  There is no evidence of dholes but as I wrote in a previous blog entry http://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/did-the-dhole-cuon-alpinus-range-into-southeastern-north-america-during-the-pleistocene/ , I suspect they may have periodically colonized parts of the southeast but in numbers too low to leave fossil evidence.

Dire wolves were the dominant large canid in the southeast (and all across North America south of the Ice Sheets) during the late Pleistocene.

Coyotes probably occupied a niche similar to African jackals.

Gray foxes thrived in areas where they had access to trees and could escape larger predators.

The presence of domesticated dogs in the Pleistocene fossil record puzzled and surprised me.  I almost didn’t even do a database search for Canis familiaris and only did so as an afterthought.  Most anthropologists don’t think humans domesticated dogs until after the Pleistocene about 10,000 years ago, but the fossil evidence contradicts this.  In fact scientists recently discovered the skull of a domesticated dog in a Siberian cave that dates to 33,000 BP.  They determined  this particular domesticated dog was not the ancestor of the lineage that led to today’s dogs but instead its descendents died out.  It’s probable that there were many early lineages of domesticated dogs that ceased to exist for various reasons.  Perhaps that group of people died out or stopped keeping dogs.  The popular idea that people domesticated dogs by kidnapping and raising wolf pups is a misconception.  Scientists think it’s the other way around–dogs adopted us.  Dogs are descended from the wolves which had the least flight response.  Wolves that hung closely around human campsites for access to leftovers gave birth to pups with floppy ears, multi-colored coats, and other dog traits that differentiate them from other wolves.  The gene for tameness shares a pathway with the gene for these physical characteristics.  So it’s likely that dogs adopted people in many different geographic locations wherever wolves (Canis lupus) began occupying areas adjacent to human campsites.  Obviously, dogs either followed or were brought to Florida by the Paleo-Indians.

The authors of a chapter in the book The First Floridians and the Last Mastodons suggest that all the coyote fossils found in Florida are actually domesticated dog fossils, but they only knew of a handful of coyote fossils.  Apparently, they didn’t know 34 specimens had been found.  I doubt scientists made that many misidentifications.

Dire wolves succeeded in becoming one of the dominant predators in the environments of southeastern North America where they found a wealth of prey roaming the open woodlands and savannahs.  Everything from bison and horses to deer and rabbits sustained them, and a mammoth or mastodon that died of natural causes provided a feast.  Coyotes successfully co-existed with dire wolves by scavenging large predator kills and by hunting rodents.  Red wolves must have been restricted to islands and perhaps deeply wooded swamps where they could survive on deer and small game.  Their niche must have been areas with lower densities of prey as opposed to grasslands that hosted large herds of ungulates.  Following the extinction of the megafauna and dire wolves, forests replaced grasslands and red wolves increased in number and drove coyotes completely out of the south.  But after European settlers wiped out the red wolves, coyotes returned.

References:

Ovodov, Nikolai, et. al.

“A 33,000 Year Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum”

Plos One 6 (7) 2011

http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/databases/vp/intro.htm

The Dunwoody Nature Center

I attended my nephew’s bar mitzvah in Dunwoody, Georgia last weekend.  Dunwoody consists of dozens of subdivisions and plenty of shopping centers and absolutely no rural farmland.  I didn’t hold out much hope for a nice nature walk here–the traffic is terrible.  But at least the developers left a lot of trees standing.  I decided to walk from my sister’s house to a little park known as the Dunwoody Nature Center and I discovered a surprising gem.

This white oak was about 4 feet in diameter.  White oak is a common tree in Dunwoody.

From the composition of the trees left standing most of Dunwoody must have once hosted a pretty nice dry upland forest.  Too bad developers converted it into a crowded suburb.  Today, white oaks, black oaks, southern red oaks, shortleaf pines, and loblolly pines are the dominant trees.  The Dunwoody Nature Center slopes sharply down toward Wildcat Creek, the name of which is a relic to its former status as a wilderness.  The woods here are dominated by beech, white oak, sweetgum, river birch, and loblolly pine.  I was stunned to see a woodlot of mostly beech trees in central Georgia.

A mature beech tree growing on the edge of a rocky creek.  It’s surrounded by many immature beech saplings.

Fossil pollen studies show beech was a common tree in the south during the end of the Ice Age when the Laurentide glacier began melting and releasing more moisture in the atmosphere creating a climate that was still cool but more rainy than it was during the height of the Ice Age.  The presence of abundant beech in the fossil record is indirect evidence of massive flocks of passenger pigeons.  Passenger pigeons fed on acorns–in some places completely eliminating the oak seed crop…and the beech’s competition.  Although beech trees produce an edible nut, they can also spread from roots and could survive their seed being consumed by passenger pigeon flocks.  Since the passenger pigeon’s demise, oak forests have been replacing beech forests in many areas.  So I was delighted to see this remnant beech forest in central Georgia.

Wildcat Creek flows through a granite outcropping.  Here is a miniature waterfall.

Two little league baseball fields take up about half the space of the park.  The park is heavily used by dog and toddler walkers.  It’s popularity shows that the planning commission in charge of developing Dunwoody should have arranged for the purchase of more land for more parks.

When did the Fisher (Martes pennanti) Last Roam the Wilds of Georgia?

January 6, 2012

Another interesting mammal with northern affinities that used to range into what’s now Georgia is the fisher (Martes pennanti).

I found this photo of a fisher carrying a dead squirrel on google images but I think it’s from the cover of an issue of the Journal of Heredity.   They had an article about genetic bottlenecks of this species created from habitat fragmentation.  Fishers require complete forest cover and avoid open fields.

Fossil evidence of fishers in Georgia comes from Ladds stone quarry in Bartow County.  Ladds is a collapsed and eroded cave system that yields fossils of warm climate species such as giant tortoise, Florida muskrats, and rice rats; and c0ol climate species such as bog lemmings and meadow jumping mice, besides the fisher.  The warm and cool climate species may or may not have occurred during the same climate phase–the quarry operation may have mixed fossils of different ages together.  But asymmetric compositions of species are common in most other Pleistocene fossil sites, so no one is really sure.  The fossils found here are at least 10,000 years old.  I suspect they date to the Sangamonian Interglacial–more than 100,000 years ago for reasons I discuss in my blog entry, “The Giant Chipmunk (Tamias aristus).  Kicked up Version of the Eastern Chipmunk?” https://markgelbart.wordpress.com/2011/01/20/tamias-aristus-the-extinct-kicked-up-version-of-the-eastern-chipmunk/

The fossil material of the fisher found at Ladds consisted of a couple of fragments of cheekbone with teeth attached and a partial jawbone.  This proves that fishers occurred in Georgia thousands of years ago during the Pleistocene.  What is not known for sure is how recently they lived in state.  There is fossil evidence of both porcupine and fisher from the Law’s archaeological site ins northern Alabama which dates to about 1700 AD, and from the Etowah Indian Mound Site in Bartow County which dates to between 1100 and 1500 AD.  This doesn’t prove fishers lived in Georgia that recently.  Indians traded fisher pelts and porcupine quills, and they could have originated from their known historical range.  However, it’s quite possible fishers had a more southerly range within the last few hundred years and were trapped out by Indians selling pelts to newly available European fur markets. 

Historical range of the fisher.  They may have ranged further south but were uncommon and trapped out early after European contact.  During the Ice Age just about their entire modern range was under miles of glacial ice, so of course they once ranged further south in pre-historic times.

Ecological studies show fishers require continous tracts of mature forest, and they completely avoid open areas.  In New England now that fur trapping has gone out of style and forests are growing back, fishers are recolonizing states where they’ve been long absent.  They’ve got a long way to go before they reach Georgia though.

Fishers prey on squirrels, rabbits, mice, and birds.  Studies of their dietary habits have yet to find fish in their scat, so their name is misleading.  They’re one of the few carnivores that commonly prey upon porcupines, but they occasionally die from injuries suffered when they mishandle the spiny rodents.  They kill the porcupines by biting their faces off, not by flipping them over as is falsely believed.  Fishers will kill small house dogs and cats, but I don’t believe reports that they attack German Shepherds.  Fishers only weigh 10-15 pounds and would have a size advantage over smaller cats and dogs but a big dog could shake a fisher and break its back.  Scientists studying Canadian lynx report two cases of fishers feeding upon radio-collared cats.  I don’t believe a fisher can kill a full grown lynx.  In one instance there was no sign of a struggle in the snow which tells me the cat was already dead.  A fisher doesn’t have a powerful enough bite to kill a large animal instantly, precluding the possibility that it ambushed a sleeping cat.  I think the cat died of either sickness or starvation.  Likewise, a find of bobcat in fisher scat was probably from a kitten or an already deceased cat.  The following youtube video shows a fisher struggling to kill a gray fox.  Bobcats and lynx are much more powerful than gray foxes.  The former regularly preys on gray foxes.  (Note: The fox in the video is a gray fox, not a silver color phase of a red fox.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=txdoUgli2FQ

When I visited the Silver Bluff Audubon Center a month ago, I heard a cry that sounded like the distress call of the gray fox from this video.  At the time I didn’t know what it was and thought I was hearing a bird I couldn’t identify.  Maybe I was hearing a gray fox being attacked by coyote or bobcat.