Dicromantispa interrupta

Dicromantispa interrupta

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Evolution of Wolf and Dog Behavior

Image by Greg Koch, USFWS

Wolves are said to hunt in cooperative packs, but that generalization is not necessarily so. First, Farley Mowat (Never Cry Wolf, 1963) taught us that wolves in the Far North of Canada and Alaska hunt singly when raising pups. Secondly, the coyote hunts singly when raising pups and sometimes doubly as a mated pair, but also as a family pack when pups are large enough to join their parents to learn how to hunt. The latter assumes (as I do) that we accept the coyote as a subspecies of the timber wolf because their hybrids are fertile.

Similarly, domesticated dogs are often said to hunt singly, but that is also an over-generalization. Stray dogs are known to band up and hunt in packs, attacking people and other animals. Furthermore, feral and stray female dogs take their young on hunts.

It is commonly written that dogs evolved from wolves that hung out at the edges of human camp-firelight. The idea is that the friendliest and most cooperative wolves were favored by early hunter-gatherer humans, creating a positive feedback mechanism that augmented natural lupine sociability.

However, suppose that early wolves were more like their Far North siblings and lived in mated pairs. Then suppose that the early wolves that found human subsidies irresistible were forced to become more sociable in order to survive at the campfire perimeter. This is not an unreasonable scenario for at least two reasons:

First, dogs have been called neotenic (immature) wolves due to the dog’s physical and behavioral characteristics being very similar to those of the young wolf.

Secondly, the fossil record does not obviously record ancient dog and wolf behavior, so we do not know what either actually did. It is often said that bones fossilize but behavior does not. However, at least some of the consequences of behavior actually can be evident in fossilized bones. For example, a research project (tinyurl.com/lgpw6du) evaluated injuries to the preserved bones of California dire wolves and saber-toothed cats and found that wolves were more prone to head and neck injuries whereas saber-tooths were more prone to spine and shoulder injuries. The researchers then concluded that this was because dire wolves hunted in packs and attacked large hooved ungulates from behind and thus were occasionally kicked in the head and dragged by their prey like modern wolves. Saber-tooths, on the other hand, ambushed and then manipulated prey with their powerful back and forelimbs into such positions that their long teeth could deliver precisely aimed wounds to carotid and jugular blood vessels. Another finding was that saber-tooths sustained more injuries, leading to the opinion that they attacked larger prey and did so alone.

Thus, some behavioral patterns can indeed be teased from old bones. Similarly, research shows that food items can be deduced from tooth wear patterns, food sources can be determined from element isotope ratios, migratory patterns can be concluded from isotopes and wear patterns, and care for the injured and aged can be demonstrated in nursed skeletons. It is only a matter of time before there are enough skeletons and sufficient interest and funding to shed light on ancient wolf and dog behavior.

Today, I read of an interesting paper (tinyurl.com/ybwf4pyn) in BBC News (tinyurl.com/y9lssctg) that expanded on canine cooperativeness, which demonstrated that living wolves will cooperate with each other more than dogs will. I was not really surprised at this finding. I have read numerous technical reports on wolf-dog behavior in preparation for the second book I started writing, so I already believed that young wolves and adult dogs were less sophisticated socially than adult wolves. However, in reading this research, I have for the first time been struck by a more radical set of questions.

Instead of dogs alone evolving toward a human-associated existence and away from a lupine culture, is it possible that ALL wild wolves living in close proximity to humans have evolved more sociability and that the dog and wolf are both evolving alongside and toward human acculturation? Are wolves more social now than before humans evolved? Are wolves more social now than before dogs evolved? Is the Far North wolf culture the primitive state and the wolf pack culture a derived state? Did the wolf pack culture evolve as a consequence of single and doublet wolves gathering around human campfires where they had no choice but to become more social? We know that humans created the modern dog, but did we also create the modern wolf?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Stone Mtn Dupont State Forest Trek

In my peregrinations to find interesting geologic features of the state’s granitic gneiss high elevations, Sunday I set off for the north side of Stone Mountain where Google Earth depicts a line of steep exfoliation cliffs, rugged terrain below the cliffs, and a mature hardwood forest. Unfortunately, the park has no official trails leading to the cliffs, but I hoped that rock climbers had some guerrilla trails I might stumble on and follow. Nope. Ain’t. The best I could do is hike up Rocky Ridge Trail (#75) from Old CCC Road and then strike out off-trail. It was an easy start, only about a 30 degree slope, and I headed a little east of north up to a saddle. From there, I wanted to angle off more to the east, but thick rhododendron contraindicated that so I continued on the previous direction to skirt it and followed the contour. Still pretty easy.

The rhododendrons soon forced me to alter direction toward the southeast and uphill, although still only a 30 degree slope. I was at an elevation of 2900 ft at that point, which was about what I thought would be the base of the cliff line. I tried to follow that contour but the rhodos kept pushing me slightly uphill for a quarter-mile until I encountered a low, wide rock shelter along the 3000 ft contour. This feature was at the base of a talus field that was about 100 ft in elevation below the cliff-base line. I stopped there for a moment and discovered that, alas, I had forgotten my flashlight, so I bellied down and waited until my eyes were accustomed to the dark to see what I could see. Not much. The shelter just got lower and lower from its entrance, which itself was only about 2 ft high.

I continued to hike slightly uphill on the by now 45 degree slope. Talus fields are hard to negotiate. The ground around these boulders ranges from a relatively easy 45 degrees to almost vertical, the talus fields support dense rhodos with intertwining branches, dead twigs want to jab your eyes, rhodo leaves are large and block your vision of the ground you walk on, the terrain is dark and snaky, holes between the boulders are covered with leaf packs that do not always hold your weight, and greenbriar vines are common to abundant.

Time out. My Florida friends do not understand mountain greenbriar (Smilax sp.). Florida has much, much more greenbriar than these mountains harbor, but… Florida greenbriar will prick you and draw a drop of blood or two, but if you are careful, you can walk through infested landscapes receiving only a few minor scratches from their flexible little (eighth- to quarter-inch) spines. Mountain greenbriar, however, has up to half-inch long inflexible rakers that are flattened laterally, the tips of which are way sharper than Florida greenbriar and their edges are razor sharp. All you have to do is barely touch a mountain greenbriar and you have a cut that will bleed profusely for several minutes.

Whatever, I scrambled up another 100 ft in elevation and tenth-mile through that crap to the base of the first cliff and immediately spotted an Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). As the photo vaguely shows, there were some dings on the chelonian’s carapace that looked like teeth marks from a mammal larger than a canid or bobcat. I’m guessing the turtle was attacked by a bear, but don’t really know. It seemed to have healed from the one-sided battle. I ate lunch (not the turtle) and moved on.

Continuing more-or-less along the 3000 ft contour, I inspected several more exfoliation cliffs, always seeking the path of least resistance through the rhodo thickets. At that point I was pretty tired, but determined not to return the way I came. You cannot go back the way you came, it’s a Rule, so when I came to a non-rhodo-covered 45 degree slope I began angling uphill toward a low lateral ridge that I hoped would take me to the Stone Mountain ridgeline where an official trail would take me to my ride. It almost did, but things changed after another tenth-mile to a horrid 60-70 degree slope covered with boulders, rhododendron, mountain laurel, wild azalea that didn’t have the courtesy to be blooming, highbush blueberries that didn’t have the manners to offer fruit, and greenbriar that was even more abundant than before. Sigh. Furthermore, galax grew lushly and obscured the ground, and I just knew that I was passing close by invisible timber rattlers and copperheads. Man! In places like that, you’d better not reflexively stick your hand out to the ground to steady yourself when you stumble. Grab the rhodo stems instead! I spent an hour-and-a-quarter thrashing my way through 0.8 miles in that horrible place. I could only think of my goal. Ridgelines are supposed to be drier and support shorter trees and a more open understory, and that was supposed to be my salvation. Nope. Wasn’t.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse… I couldn’t yet make it to the ridgeline, specifically up a knob along the ridgeline, because that awful knob was worse than anything I had gone through so far. Steeper terrain, denser rhodos, more greenbriar, downed logs and limbs, and everything covered with slimy lichens and slippery sphagnum moss. I had no choice but to continue through the lesser of the two evil rhodo thickets. I was out of water. I thought I was gonna die there and be found only by hungry scavengers, my wasted bones scattered amongst the rocks and rhodos, and eventually overgrown by sphagnum.

But no! After only another fifteen minutes and a tenth of a mile, I broke out of the thickets growing on and surrounding Hateful Knob and onto the ridgeline and AN OPEN UNDERSTORY!!! Hallelujah! And to make matters even better, there was a vague trail leading along the ridgeline exactly in the direction of my parked pickup. I followed the trail west for another half-mile and 20 minutes to the official mountaintop, gaining another 600 ft of elevation. There, I was rewarded by scenic views that I could not have cared less about and lowbush blueberries sporting a few ripe fruit, which I gobbled down to quench my thirst. Wild blueberries are sweeter than ag blueberries despite being smaller. Heh, most of the people I run into on the mountaintops are afraid to eat them, and I shamelessly pander to their fear (“No! Wait! Don’t eat that wild fruit! Let me save you!”)

After that, I grudgingly took the well-beaten trails back down the hill, but only because you can’t go back the way you came. Seriously! Total time was 5:25 and total mileage was 5.9. It was not a death march like some of my off-trail hikes, but it was hard, maybe the hardest trek I have done since moving here. The friend who accompanied me last weekend wearing a 40 lb pack will doubtlessly be glad that she was not with me today and wearing another heavy load.

So Tom, bring Jimmy and the gang up from Florida sometime and we’ll go out and play!

Note: I would have added a Google Earth pic of the route I took, except that for some unknown reason my Garmin software won’t hand off the track to GE. It used to do so easily, so I’m going to call Garmin soon and see if this can be remedied. If so, I’ll update this missive.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Snakes as Cockroaches

My main phobia is katsaridaphobia, the fear of cockroaches. Can’t stand ‘em. Heart goes all a-flutter. I become a drama king.

Oh, I know they are among the cleanest of animals and they certainly won’t contaminate me. Too, they don’t carry diseases that can affect me. And I am fully aware that they do their darndest to help clean up the kitchen and my hairbrush – without eating too much of the good food, either – and are thoughtfully discreet enough to come out only when I am in bed and blissfully unaware.

It is my mom’s fault. She would get platter-eye syndrome at the very sight of a roach and try to corner it so it could be more easily smashed with a rolled-up newspaper. And then, having no alternative escape route, the poor little bug would take flight and head directly for momma’s face. It could have been funny but for the blood-curdling screams. After all, I was young and impressionable, but come to think of it, momma never did learn not to corner them.

I do the best I can to overcome this great tragedy in my life. I once thought that catching and handling cockroaches barehanded would do the trick, but no… Learn to accept them? Tried that, but no… Fumigation? Admittedly, that has become a sad fact of my life.

Reactions to my katsaridaphobia vary widely. Some people – generally my fellow sufferers - fully support me. Bless them. Conversely, roach lovers get all agitated up, remind me of things I’ve known for 50 years, forget that I am sensitive, hassle me, and even try to save me. Roach scientists just patiently wait for me to calm down and then eagerly ask if I collected a sample. Sierra Clubbers rant on my foggers. The Cockroach Fuhrer comes out of the woodwork and threatens my mice (how many of you remember the Cockroach Fuhrer?). The horror.

Snakes are the cockroaches of a dear friend of mine, so I fully sympathize with her feelings. She will always have my support.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Cottonmouths are not what they sometimes seem!

In one of herpetologist Dr. Bruce Means’ books – I forget which one – he details how he deciphered what actually occurs when it appears that a water moccasin, or cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous), attacks a person on shore. It is too longish a little story to place within a Facebook reply, so I am going to paraphrase it here for ready reference. Obviously, you should read Bruce’s books rather than rely on this or any other second-hand account of his adventures, not just to keep the facts straight but also because his books are fascinating!

While walking along the edge of a lake one day, a cottonmouth suddenly came downhill straight toward Bruce moving about as fast as a fat serpent can go! Startled, Means jumped back and watched as the snake dove into the water and disappeared. Whew! THAT was a close call! But Bruce had beaucoup experience with snakes in general and water moccasins in particular, so the appearance of an attack didn’t wash. Giving the situation some thought, he concluded that the snake was actually just trying to escape but that he was inadvertently blocking the route to its refuge. Hmmm… How to test this?

Ahah! He got it! He began wearing snake boots – just to be safe about it! – as he took his walks around the lake, and being also intellectually armed for the next encounter, he sacrificed his body as bait to test his hypothesis in the finest tradition of inquiring minds. Sure enough, the same thing happened on another day, but this time he was scientifically prepared if not emotionally detached, and this is what he saw on this second rodeo:

The cottonmouth suddenly found a giant predator (Bruce) standing directly on top of its well-worn path leading from its comfy sunning spot to its aquatic habitat. Panic set in! Desperately, the snake launched itself toward safety, blundering right between Means’ legs. Paying no mind to the giant’s snake-booted limbs, it continued pell-mell into the water and had its escape. “Whew! The giant didn’t get me THAT time!” 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Detection of Advanced Fusion in Distant Planet Atmospheres

Consider the possibility that a sentient species on a planet in another star system acquires advanced fusion technology. That is, they can not only fuse hydrogen atoms together to make helium and useable energy, but also gold for self-enrichment or rare and heavy metals for machines like cars, planes, and space ships. After some period of time, their fusion industries might overweight their atmosphere in these heavier metals relative to pre-industrial background levels. If we construct sensors that can measure elements in distant planetary atmospheres, then would this be a way to detect advanced alien civilizations?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Seahorse Key Rookery Abandonment

There’s a mystery a-cooking in the cays of Cedar Key. 

A long-time major seabird rookery on Seahorse Key was suddenly abandoned this spring and the cause is currently unknown. It’s all over the north Florida online news. Now comes word that seven raccoons have been trapped and relocated from the island, and the trapper believes that eight or ten raccoons were on the island when the birds fled. However, raccoons are not known to be a serious predator of rookeries, and broken eggshells found under the nests showed no sign of destruction by raccoons.

The trapper noted that these raccoons were sleek and robust and just sat and looked at him from the cages, whereas in his (and my) experience, trapped raccoons are snarling, snapping, lean wild beasts. This indicates that these particular raccoons were subsidized by humans, and together with the eggshells, were not the cause this avian catastrophe.

I camped at a state park in west Florida in the late 1970s and saw about 20 (maybe 30) raccoons and feral cats come out of the woods when the sun set and a full moon rose over the campground. Laying in my sleeping bag in the pickup truck bed, I looked out the windows of the camper top and watched them forage around the campground, kind of like watching an African savannah wildlife show on TV. Unabashed pilferers, each worked the campsite independently, investigating every camper nook and cranny like a regiment of army ants blanketing and repeatedly gleaning a patch of ground. I watched as a raccoon broke into a neighbor's ice cooler (park signs gave fair warning). One animal even tried to dig up through the steel bed of my pickup truck as I lay above it admiring its tenacity while at the same time being astonished that park staff didn't trap them out. It would have been easy to trap them out. Alas, I didn't get out and see what these scavengers would do if I walked through them; maybe they would have just sat there and watched me.

It doesn't take long to trap 10 campground raccoons and run them over to an island in the middle of the night. My best guess is that some dingbat finally got tired of them stealing from a backyard zoo (county park, farm, shelter, trash dump, hoarder...), and not wanting to kill the poor wittle things, got a holding cage and a couple of traps and a boat. 

OTOH, if you like raccoons and collect them over a period of a few years in a big backyard cage, and then get tired of having them around but can't bear to kill the poor wittle things, well then, dumping them on an island where they can't find their way back home might seem to be an option to the thoughtless.

We found a set of raccoon tracks on nearby Atsena Otie Key in 2010:

How did that raccoon get there? I just assumed it swam there, or accidentally drifted over during a storm. Seahorse Key is much further from land than Atsena Otie, so a raccoon would have to like swimming over feeding shallows against tidal currents at night. Raccoons swim just fine, although they are not strong swimmers. But I don’t know…

What if some backyard zookeeper is periodically trapping a mess of raccoons and dumping them, first on this island and then on the next? Heh, even the Seahorse Key trapper is relocating the ‘coons somewhere. I wonder where? Another island? Another stewpot?

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Are Texas Warthogs Coming?

As you may know, the USDA has been working on a national plan to control feral swine (hogs, pigs), and I did my civic duty and gave them my two cents worth. Now comes a blurb from the news media that warthogs are on the loose in Texas and, oh by the way, that’s old news. Here’s one example: tinyurl.com/ncpgwa8.

Well, maybe in Texas it’s old news. I follow the feral hog situation because of my involvement in the Emerald Pendant project, but never once ran across warthogs in my literature review. Evidently, most if not all of these burrowing barrows escaped from high-dollar sitting-duck hunting reserves, although a few may have also been released by exotic-pig faddists. Apparently, it is not common enough to be widely perceived as an invasive-exotic threat, and may not even be reproducing in Texas yet. What is its potential to become an over-abundant pest? Well, the leopard and the lion and the Lango have all been unable to control them in Africa, and their cousin, the Eurasian boar, well, you know…

The common warthog is a savannah grazer, which means it prefers grasslands to forests and focuses on eating graminoids, but also eats roots, tubers, berries, nuts, crops, insects, eggs, and carrion. For sure, it will eat any herp it runs across. These are exactly the same foods that feral hogs eat. The warthog lives in sounders, like feral hogs, but unlike them is said not to occupy territories. If the latter is true, then warthog sounders could be more difficult to trap with the whole-sounder approach than feral hogs. One obvious biological error in the article cited above is the idea that warthogs are not nocturnal like feral hogs. Actually, hogs are indeed naturally diurnal, but become nocturnal where humans hunt them. There is no reason to believe that warthogs would not similarly adapt the shroud of the night. The warthog can occur in densities of up to 77 per km2, or 1 per 3.25 acres, but a more typical density is 1-10 per km2, comparable to American feral hogs.

The warthog’s gestation period is 5-6 months, far longer than that of the feral hog, so while the latter can have two or more litters per year at 4-8 young each, the warthog has only one litter of 2-4 young per year. If warthogs become established and strong control efforts are used on them, would the number of litters per year and number of young per litter increase in the face of significant control pressure? Research shows that feral hogs become more fecund when hunted and trapped, so warthogs could easily follow suit. The genes are almost certainly present in warthogs, as humans have bred super-fecundity into domestic pigs, dogs, sheep, and chickens, among others. Warthog birthing occurs at the start of the rainy season, which happens at variable times throughout the warthog’s native range in Africa, so it would probably adapt to American rainfall seasons.

On the bright side, drought and hunting with dogs can extirpate the warthog locally. Furthermore, the warthog does not have subcutaneous fat and its hair is sparse, so the warthog suffers in the cold; hence, the burrows. However, sparse hair and absent fat layers are possibly controlled by a single or few genes each, and if one (set) is the only thing keeping warthogs from breeding in the US today, then a single mutation could be a game-changer. Environmental stresses can force mutations.

There are two species of warthogs in Africa: the common and the desert, or Ethiopian. I don’t know which one is on the hoof in Texas, but the native landscape of the desert warthog is arid brushland and thickets, which sounds a lot like the Texas Hill Country. Regardless, there appears to be potentially suitable habitat in Texas and Mexico for both species.

The prospects for extirpating warthogs from Texas appear favorable. First, outlaw their importation, breeding, keeping, and hunting. Second, send in specially trained professional exterminators/hunters using every reasonable trick in the book (e.g., hunting with warthog-trained hunting dogs, Judas warthogs, whole-sounder trapping, and aerial surveys and shooting). Third, fold warthog concerns into national and state monitoring and public education campaigns.

Perhaps the USDA should focus a sufficient chunk of its national swine control resources on warthogs before they become as abundant and destructive as feral swine. USDA could fund genomic research on the potential for mutations that enable subcutaneous fat and/or denser hair. Research into the likelihood of warthogs acclimating to a nocturnal lifestyle may be warranted, although I think that can be assumed. Cage experiments could be done to see if warthogs can over-winter and reproduce in parts of America that rarely if ever freeze, such as north Mexico and the southern-most tips of Florida and Texas. Would warthogs burrow more deeply in American freezing zones than in no-freeze African zones, and if so, would that protect them sufficiently here? How deeply does fencing have to be buried to keep warthogs from successfully digging under and out? Even if the warthog is not territorial in arid and semi-arid environments, perhaps it would become so in wetter climates like east Texas and south Florida. Are there any other non-African locales where warthogs have been released, and if so, what has been the experience of local control efforts? The Mexican government might want to participate in any or all such research.

I reject the argument that their current status in Texas indicates that we should not make a meaningful effort to extirpate warthogs right now. I believe that their shaky toehold plus our experience with feral swine give us reasons enough to nip warthogs in the bud.

USDA spent a million bucks on an experiment to control feral pigs in New Mexico. Let me say that again, “A million-dollar experiment…” I think it was worth it, too, and believe that a program to eliminate warthogs from Texas costing less than a million bucks might be a bargain in the long run. I would also support passing the cost of warthog control onto Texas sitting-duck hunting reserves, as they are certainly the fount of the problem.