Posts Tagged ‘red wolves’

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.

Advertisements

Of Lycanthropy and Dire Wolves (Canis dirus)

October 19, 2011

The fictional depiction of lycanthropic transformation is reminiscent of an oversimplified depiction of evolution. Although it seems a bizarre twist of logic, evolutionary science does support the existence of an animal that was part man and part wolf.

Man is a beast.  I think the ancient superstitious legend of the werewolf originates from a fear of ourselves or at least a fear of feral individuals within our society.  People with various mental illnesses don’t follow the rules of civilization and behave as if they were wild animals.  In modern cinema and literature the transformation of man to wolf appears as a kind of reverse evolution, depicting the man de-evolving into the most feared animal in medieval Europe–the wolf.  Of course, this doesn’t parallel the reality of evolution.  Evolution doesn’t reverse course, though occasionally retro mutations take place that begin new lines of progression.  But if evolution could reverse course in a linear regression, a man transforming back into beast would become apelike rather than as a canid/human hybrid.  On the tree of evolution primates are far removed from canids.  Despite the vast distance between the two on the evolutionary timescale, primates and canids do share a common ancestor.  Both man and wolf can trace their evolutionary lines back to a single unknown species of insectivore that diverged into two species early in the Eocene 55 million years ago, or probably earlier.  The split may have occurred as early as the Paleoecene or the Cretaceous.  When dinosaurs walked the earth what was to become man and wolf was the same animal.  According to what we know of evolution, werewolves were real and may have lived with the dinosaurs.  But they were nothing like the monsters depicted in fiction.  Instead, they were shrew-like animals, something a modern day house cat could toy with.

This is not a man wearing a werewolf mask.  He has a rare condition known as hypertrichosis.

The legend of lycanthropy may predate written language.  Both the Greeks and the Romans believed in the existence of men who could temporarily transform themselves into wolves.  The word, lycanthrope, itself is Greek: lycaos means wolf, anthrope means man.  A belief in the existence wolf men persisted in medieval Europe.  Today, we can be certain the legend was based on a number of strange factors that modern science can explain.  Then as now, serial killers occasionally terrorized society. Instead of blaming a deranged man for mutilations and murders, authorities scapegoated wolves despite conflicting evidence implicating a human.  They couldn’t comprehend that a man could be so vicious.  Diseases such as rabies and and the disorder of hypertrichosis compounded the confusion because symptoms of these conditions partly mimic the legend.  The Age of Reason ended the widespread belief in the existence of werewolves, but the legend lives on as a popular monster of horror fiction.

Here’s a skull comparison between a dire wolf and a timber wolf.  I found this photo on another wordpress blog. 

When paleo-indians encountered dire wolves they were forced to deal with a real monster.  Unlike timber wolves (Canis lupus) which originally evolved in Eurasia, dire wolves evolved in America where the large pack-hunting canids never learned to respect or fear man.  Studies of the fossil record suggest dire wolves appeared suddenly about 200,000 years BP.  They replaced Armbruster’s wolf which had been the dominant canid in America for over a million years.   It’s unclear whether dire wolves evolved from Armbruster’s wolf or another canid (C. nehringi), a little known extinct canid that inhabited South America.  Dire wolves ranged from coast to coast and from what’s now southern Canada to Peru.  They’re very common in the fossil record, suggesting they were the most abundant large predator on the continent.  In the northern parts of their range they co-existed with timber wolves.  In the southeast they co-existed with red wolves (C. rufus) and coyotes (C. latrans). 

I didn’t include an illustration of a dire wolf because at first glance, they would’ve probably looked just like a modern day timber wolf.  There were some subtle anatomical differences.  Dire wolves had a broader head, larger teeth, stronger jaws, and shorter but stouter legs.  On average they were significantly larger than timber wolves.  The average weight of an adult timber wolf is ~80 pounds.  The average weight of an adult western dire wolf was  ~120 pounds; the average of an adult eastern dire wolf was ~140 pounds.  Scientists noted a difference in size between eastern and western dire wolf fossils.  Eastern dire wolves also had longer legs than their western cousins.  Thousands of dire wolf skulls have been recovered from the La Brea tarpits in California.  Coincidentally, one of the few dire wolf skulls found in South Carolina was larger than all but one of the California skulls.  Though timber wolves average 80 pounds, some individuals do reach 160 pounds.  That suggests a really large dire wolf would’ve approached 200 pounds.  White tail deer are not large enough to sustain a pack of wolves consisting of individuals of this size.  Dire wolves required abundant bison, horses, llamas, and juvenile mammoths and mastodons.  Man and the extinction of the megafauna caused the downfall of the dire wolf.  

Interestingly, the appearance of dire wolves coincides with the evolution of the larger Smildon fatalis from the smaller Smilodon gracilis, indicating an arms race of sorts between the two.

***************************************************

A comment on last week’s nudie photo

I thought the hypothesis I discussed in my last week’s blog entry would be of interest to members of the fossil forum, so I posted a thread about it.  I wanted to kick my hypothesis around and see what they thought of it.  A moderator pulled the thread because my blog, which I linked, had a photo of a naked woman.  He remarked that they like to keep the fossil forum “kid friendly.”  Of course, they have the right to control the comment on their website, just as I have the right to moderate my own.  But I don’t agree with the value system behind their reasoning.

The thread was pulled on a Saturday.  It occurred to me that violent college football was on television all day.  Football is a sport where men break each other’s bones on a regular basis, and a significant risk of inflicting permanent brain damage is high.  Society is ok with exposing kids to violence, but the image of a beautiful naked woman is somehow not “kid friendly.”  Violence is good; sex is bad.  I don’t get it.

A few years ago, people were freaking out because of Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction.  For some reason parents were furious because children might have accidentally viewed a woman’s breast.  The same thing happened once when an intro for Monday Night Football included a sexy seductive woman.  Yet, they’re ok with big defensive lineman clobbering quarterbacks in a game.

I’m a big Georgia Bulldog fan.  David Pollack was one of my favorite players, but I found his religious values somewhat twisted.  He refused to participate in his selection as  a Playboy all-American because of his religious beliefs.  He wears a wristband with the quote of “What would Jesus do?”  Well, I’m pretty sure Jesus wouldn’t knock the shit out of a quarterback.

Our society considers it acceptable to expose children to violence as entertainment but rejects exposing them to images of naked women.  Our society has a twisted value system that teaches kids violence is good but sexuality is dirty and bad.  I don’t agree with the notion that viewing images of naked women is in any way harmful to children.

Irrational Anti-Wolf Hysteria in the Rocky Mountains

July 21, 2011

Photo of Yellowstone gray wolves from google images.  Note the color variations within the same pack.

The timber wolf (Canis lupus) is a beautiful animal well adapted to hunting big game.  It’s an ancient species having first evolved in Eurasia about 1 million years ago.  They crossed the Bering Landbridge and became widespread in western North America at least 300,000 years ago.  Based on the number and distribution of fossil specimens, dire wolves (Canis dirus) outnumbered timber wolves during most of the Pleistocene in the southern regions and lowlands, and apparently, timber wolves never penetrated the southeast, perhaps because red wolves (Canis rufus) were already present and occupying a niche not directly in competition with dire wolves.

The extermination of wolves from Yellowstone National Park and many sparsely populated regions of the west was an ecological disaster.  Elk and deer overpopulated the range, forcing National Park officials into the awkward position of having to shoot elk inside National Parks.  Canadian wolf populations rebounded, and they began recolonizing Montana and Idaho naturally in the early 1990’s.  Scientists reintroduced wolves back into Yellowstone National Park in 1995, improving the quality of the ecosystem.  Wolves now number between 1300-1600 in the northern Rocky Mountains.  Idaho held a spring hunting season on wolves in 2010 that led to the deaths of 188, not counting the puppies that starved to death following the deaths of their parents. 

The furious anger of irrational wolf haters pressured the Idaho Fish and Game Department into planning annual hunting seasons on wolves that will begin this upcoming fall, unless a lawsuit stops it.  The Idaho Fish and Game Department itself showed a bias in favor of killing wolves with the leading questions they asked on a pre-hunt survey such as “”Should wolves be managed to protect public safety?” instead of questions I would ask such as “Should wolves be slaughtered so their puppies will starve?”

The hatred of wolves is not based on reality or facts and seems most vocal among hunters who believe humans are the only animals on earth with the God-given right to kill other animals.  Although the Idaho Fish and Game Department only wants a sustainable “harvest” of wolves, many militant anti-wolf fanatics insist that wolves should be completely exterminated.  According to them, wolves “destroy all wildlife” and are causing big game populations to collapse.  It doesn’t occur to them that wolves are wildlife.  Hunter “harvest” statistics don’t support their erroneous beliefs.  I researched this and discovered how wrong they are.

Hunter “Harvest” Record from Wyoming Fish and Game Department for Selected Years

…………………………………..Elk …………………………..Deer

1994…………………………….24,534…………………………………….44,488

1996……………………………..20,612…………………………………….NA

2001…………………………….22,772…………………………………….47,943

2009……………………………22,971……………………………………..53,267

Note the elk “harvest” has remained steady in Wyoming, despite the reintroduction of wolves.  Deer “harvests” show a noticeable rise.  People spent an estimated $35 million in Wyoming just to see wolves, so their reintroduction has been beneficial economically as well as ecologically.

Hunter “harvest” table from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks from selected years

……………………………………….Elk………………………..Deer

2001……………………………….20,578………………….111,783

2004……………………………….23,313…………………..119,266

2005………………………………26,201…………………….115,238

2010……………………………….24,744……………………94,730

Again, elk populations show no signs of collapsing.  Deer show a slight decline in the most recent year but this may be due to a severe winter.

According to the Idaho Fish and Game Department, in 2010 the elk population there was above management goals in 10 districts, within management goals in 13, and below management goals in 6.  Since wolves recolonized the state, the elk population has declined from 125,000 to 100,000, but “deterioration of habitat” is considered a greater factor than wolves, especially in districts where wolves are getting blamed.  There has been no economic loss due to a decline in big game tags issued.

Clearly, there is no collapse in big game populations in areas wolves have recolonized.  In any case I’ve asked some of these wolf haters how wolves could be increasing in numbers, if the population of their prey was supposedly collapsing.  A dearth of game would cause wolves to starve and decrease in numbers.  I’ve yet to see an answer to this logical point  that makes any sense.  One man insisted that after wolves exterminate elk they’d gobble up everything else including people–an ecological impossibility.

Many ranchers hate wolves as well.  However, losses of livestock to wolves is minimal.  In 2007 in Idaho ranchers lost 53 cattle, 170 sheep, and 8 dogs to wolves.  This out of a population of 2.2 million cows, 235,000 sheep, and probably hundreds of thousands of dogs.  For cattle this can be calculated to a loss of something like .000002%.  Infinitesimal.

Wolf haters also have an irrational fear that wolves will attack people.  The chances of this happening are remote–in North America there have been about 25 reported attacks of wolves on humans in recorded history.  In Europe and Asia documented wolf attacks on people number in the thousands.  In the Old World only the nobility were allowed to hunt and wolves didn’t learn to fear peasants; but in America where more people have guns in an egalitarian society, intelligent wolves did learn to avoid people.  Contrast these 25 reported wolf attacks in all of American history with 34 people killed by domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) in the U.S. in one year, and the estimated 4.7 million dog attacks annually.  Yet, no rational person is calling for the extermination of domesticated dogs.

I’m not opposed to hunting for food. In my irregular series on this blog about my imaginary life living in Georgia 36,000 years BP, I hunt deer, elk, peccary, and bison for most of my meat (see the March archives for my most recent post on this).  But I’m disgusted with the attitude of many hunters today, and this certainly includes wolf haters who are all hunters unable to stand seeing other animals kill their game.  Direct TV offers 2 hunting channels.  More often than not on the hunting shows I’ve watched, hunters giggle like demented sadists after they’ve killed an animal.  When it comes to politics, the overwhelming majority of hunters are twisted fascists.

July 26, 2011 anti-wolf rally Federal judge Donald Molloy could once again halt a much needed wolf control hunt. - Sportsmen Needed To Protest Latest Wolf Hearing In Montana!

The controversial judge ruled against wolf haters in 1 case.  Freedom of speech does not include terroristic threats.  Whoever fashioned this sign should be arrested. (Note: the link to this photograph originally featured a picture of anti-wolf nuts hoisting a sign threatening Judge Molloy who ruled that wolves should remain protected.  Instead the photo on the embedded link was replaced with this asshole carting 4 dead wolves.) 

The above sign illustrates the intolerant hostility wolf haters have for people who oppose their point of view.  This sign is all one needs to know about these people.  They’re not nice guys.

Incidentally, one of these wolf haters who runs a ridiculous anti-wolf propaganda site known as save the elk.com was arrested recently for…felony poaching of an elk.  How ironic.

Another irrational fear wolf haters share is their belief that the federal government is going to take their guns away from them.  The way they carry on, one would think they were afraid the federal government was going to take their penises away.

References:

Idaho Fish and Game News 22 (2) August  2010

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Hunters “Harvest” Tables

Wyoming Fish and Game Department Hunters “Harvest” Tables