Daughter of wolves


It’s easy to forget that our beloved pets are descended from wild species that can still be found roaming the forests and hunting down prey. After all, they’re so friendly and lovable, and put up with our molestations with good humour. And many of them barely resemble their ancestors anymore, their appearance so greatly modified through selective breeding. So it sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise or even a shock to see them engaging in behaviour that we don’t typically associate with a housepet.


Since getting all this snow, Raven has been channeling her inner Wild, and on any given walk she’ll pause many times to investigate something she thinks she’s discovered under the snow. To try to get at the perceived critter, she rears back on her hind legs, then drives her front ones down onto the target spot. The extra force punches through the layers of crusty snow underneath, exposing the tunnel network that rodents would create close to the ground. She then buries her face in the snow, perhaps whuffling once or twice, as she tries to locate the mouse she just knows is under there. This can be repeated several, sometimes dozens of times, in a location. She never finds any animals, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she is actually smelling their scent in the tunnels they’ve made.


This is undoubtedly an instinctual behaviour, drawn from her ancient Wild DNA. My assumption is that it would be more logical for her to dig to try to expose what was underneath, the way she might dig into a burrow in the ground in the summer, and that the odds would be slim she’d develop it as a learned behaviour in the absence of a teacher. We as humans tend to be very detached from our instinctual Wild side, it being buried long ago with the increasing brain size and formation of civilization.

It’s an interesting form of genetic “memory”, behaviour. Phenotypic DNA sequences act more like a blueprint, telling the construction workers which types of bricks to use and where to lay them down, but behavioural DNA is much more subtle, and presumably codes for certain ways that the neurons all fit together. At what point does a learned behaviour cross the threshold to become an instinctual and inheritable behaviour? Do some behaviours happen by random neuron-crossing, and then when they turn out to be beneficial to the organism they end up getting passed down to the next generation? Undoubtedly someone somewhere has asked these questions, but they’re not the topic for today’s post, so looking up the answers will have to wait.


I wanted to talk about domestic dogs today. Back when binomial nomenclature was first introduced, Linnaeus classified domestic dogs as Canis familiaris, their own unique breed. Relatively recent research, in the early 1990s, examined the DNA of the various Canid species to determine hierarchical relationships between the different species. Results of the research showed that dogs share 99.8% of their DNA with the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus, but only 96% with the Coyote, Canis latrans. Two humans may share 99.9% of their DNA; humans share 98% with chimpanzees. (For a really interesting statistic, humans share 50% of their DNA with bananas.) The results strongly suggested that the domestic dog was not in fact a unique species, but simply a subspecies of the wild Gray Wolf, with a genetic predisposition to accepting humans as friends and a great deal of variation in their appearance, the way eastern Asians developed black hair and Europeans evolved blond, but we’re still the same species. This reclassification was adopted by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammalogists in 1993, and the dog became Canis lupus familiaris.


There are two theories presented for how Canis lupus familiaris came to be. The first is that humans intentionally domesticated the dog, searching out and stealing puppies from their mothers and raising them in a human setting, and then selecting and breeding the most human-tolerant individuals. The second, and the one that seems to have greater popularity at the moment, is that as humans started forming more permanent settlements, and accumulating refuse at the edge of the community, wolves started to sneak in to scavenge from the waste piles. Wolves with a greater tolerance for a proximity to humans would be able to scavenge more food, and therefore would gain a greater fitness that in turn would help them win more mates and make more pups.


As they became tamer, the wolves would have been allowed to enter the camp and/or humans would have started approaching and interacting with the most tolerant individuals, much like we enjoy feeding chickadees seeds from our hands. Wolves that associated with humans would have benefited greatly over those who chose not to. Humans might have discovered they could get the tag-alongs to help bring down a wounded kill that might otherwise have gotten away from the hunter; as a reward for its effort, the wolf would have been given the innards when the animal was gutted. Around camp, the wolves might have been fed scraps that helped to keep the place cleaner. Over time, the tame wolf population became functionally separated by behaviour from the wild population, and the domestication of the dog had begun.


Using both archeological and DNA evidence, it’s estimated that dogs diverged from wolves around 15,000 years ago, although some estimates may put it as long ago as 40,000 years. By using the DNA of the world’s different breeds and “mapping” where each breed originated, it appears that the domestication of the dog occurred in eastern Asia, and presumably they traveled with humans to new areas from there. Domesticated dogs arrived in North America over the landbridge about 8000 BC (10,000 years ago), and gradually diverged into many breeds. Nearly all of these indigenous North American dog breeds are now gone, having died out with traditional practice of Native American culture, or, even before that, having been bred with or replaced by European dogs.


We would have to go back a long ways to find any trace of east-Asian wolf in Raven’s pedigree, but the behavioural instincts of her wild counterparts have been faithfully passed down from one generation to the next, across centuries. They cause her to punch holes in snow, chase deer across meadows, sniff other dogs’ bums and circle three times before lying down. (Okay, I’ve never actually seen her do the last one, but it’s a dog stereotype.) Her mama never had a chance to teach her these things, and we certainly haven’t, so they must be inherited. Although, I wonder what sort of bedtime stories Mama Dog tells her youngsters…


I couldn’t find a good Creative-Commons-licensed photo of a wolf or coyote exhibiting this behaviour, but here’s another canid, in an appropriately wintery scene:

"Pounce" by EricMagnuson on Flickr

Edit: Ken/Randomtruth of Nature Of A Man offered this great capture of a coyote mid-pounce. You can read about the encounter at his blog, here. Thanks, Ken!

"pounce! got her in mid air" by Randomtruth on Flickr

Sunday Snapshots: Raven on thin ice

Raven and frozen pond

We’ve had a string of below-freezing nights and cool days that have frozen over our standing water. At lunchtime today Raven and I walked back to our little pond. I was surprised to find, by breaking the ice at the edge, that it was already frozen to nearly a 3/4″ (2cm) thickness. It wouldn’t support my weight, but it seemed thick enough to hold Raven up. I kept expecting the ice to crack and for her to fall in, but she never did (I wouldn’t have been worried; it’s less than a foot deep, and she’s a water dog). It sang as she walked about on it and tugged on weeds and branches frozen into its surface, though, a high twittering like a flock of little birds. I took 140+ photos – but I’ll limit it to 18 here…

Raven and frozen pond
Really want that stick...

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Trying instead to get those grass tufts.
Raven and frozen pond
Guess she'll settle for a hunk of ice.

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Ooo, but what's that?
Raven and frozen pond
Not so certain about the ice.
Raven and frozen pond
Always likes a challenge

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
On the trail of something

Raven and frozen pond

Raven and frozen pond
Ripples of vibrations transferred through the ice

Fall edition of the Cute & Fuzzy


If you’re a pet owner, then you’ll understand when I say that I take more pet photos than I know what to do with. A little like being a parent (I assume, not being one myself), whenever your pet is doing something cute, you feel this irrepressible need to document it. Awww, look at that cute way Fido is sleeping, I need to take a picture.

Okay, so Fido was pretty cute. And now you have a photo. What to do with it? Well, you post it to your blog, of course! This is my purging of the cute and fuzzy that has collected on my hard drive over the last couple of months. And who doesn’t like a bit of cute and fuzzy now and then…


That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard in weeks!


Arms and legs entwined. Brotherly love, I hope.


Raven sitting patiently for me while I photograph a mushroom. I usually have to command her to sit if there’s something particular I want a photo of, because she has a knack for dashing right through the middle of whatever it is and either ruining or disturbing it.


For whatever reason, it’s mushrooms that she most likes running through my photos of. She’s been doing this since she was a puppy. Fortunately, she’s very good about sitting and waiting until I release her.






Sitting at the window watching me set up my moth trap.


This is the largest bit of water Raven now has access to. It’s less than a foot deep, not quite the lake Raven had to swim in at the last house, but she likes to splash in it nonetheless. At this time of year the water is pretty vacant, but we’ll need to keep her out of it come spring.


Like all dogs, Raven has a propensity for rolling in all things stinky. Last week I noticed her out in the long grass rolling in something in that way she only does when it delights her nose so. I figured at first she must have found a pile of scat, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I went over to investigate. When I got there I couldn’t see anything, but she kept looking at the ground. Eventually she reached out and pawed at the grass… and exposed a garter snake, sluggish in the cold, not even trying to bite. Presumably she picked up on the musk the snake releases as a defense – which is incredibly smelly, I must admit.


Glaring at me for photographing her in such a compromising position.


She sleeps on the loveseat in my study at night, but for whatever reason feels the need to rearrange the blankets I use as a slipcover before she goes to bed. Most mornings I just find one blanket on the floor, but last week I came in to a total dismantling of the couch. Merlin, who likes to sick his paws between things and feel around, was playing in the cracks between the seat cushions.


Ollie likes to climb in things. Like my art portfolio. Fortunately I only keep hard canvases in there and not anything on paper.


Or my overnight bag. I must’ve had a comfy sweater packed into this one.
Helping with the Thanksgiving decorations.

Today at Kingsford – Raven, waiting

Raven, waiting

Here, Raven waits patiently for me to finish photographing the dead snake that we found on our walk Sunday afternoon. She’s become very patient with me and my photography habit, despite that it delays her from her walk, or other activity (in this case, she was waiting to go swimming). I snuck in a photo while she wasn’t looking.

Speaking of patiently waiting, my Miscellany post will have to wait till tomorrow. Yesterday our internet was “broken” (our download quota exceeded, the transfer speed slows to the point that a snail out for a casual stroll will still move faster), so I put off trying to do anything until it was back to speed, in the interest of preserving all of my hair. Today we were out preparing the third and final MAPS site, Rock Ridge (check out Dan’s work blog, Frontenac Birds for more about all that), and finally arrived home late this afternoon, exhausted. I had entertained the thought of actually getting some work done this evening, but I’m afraid my brain’s the thing that’s “broken” now – it’s just not operating at its normal capacity at the moment. Tomorrow we’re off for our very first day of MAPS banding, and I’m excited! Even through my haze of exhaustion. A good night’s sleep will be just the thing, and tomorrow will be an easier day physically, not to mention shorter – we should be back by early afternoon, and following a good nap I should be feeling back to my usual self. I’ll also have lots to talk about, I’m sure!

Monday Miscellany

Country road in spring

It’s amazing just how fast the trees leaf out once they start. Just two weeks ago I was noting the late afternoon sun glowing through the sprinkling of leaves on the saplings across the road from the house. Now, I can barely make out the neighbour’s house, which was so apparent in winter. By June, I won’t be able to see it at all. All manner of plant life has greened up or is hard at work at it. Some shrubs are completely leafed out, while the tall ash trees are only just starting. Like the creeks that start tumbling over their rocky beds at spring melt, once spring arrived, time seems to have picked up speed and is rushing by.

Blue Jay

We’ve had a fair bit of rain over the course of the last week. It seems to have gotten all the wet out of its system now, however, and we’re forecasted to have mostly clear skies the rest of the week (whether it remains that way remains to be seen). Although all that rain was undoubtedly part of the reason behind the green explosion, the animals were less than happy about it. This Blue Jay, for instance, was looking a bit bedraggled as it visited the feeders one afternoon.

Mink Frog

The rain has made the ground near our dock rather soggy. As Dan was flipping his boat over one day last week to try to locate a leak that had gotten worse over the winter, he disturbed this guy from the pool of water around the boat. I spent a lot of time debating the identity of this guy. The bright green upper lip and speckled underbelly should make it easy to ID, I figured. I think that it’s a Mink Frog, Rana septentrionalis, but it could also be a Green Frog, Rana clamitans. I couldn’t figure out a definitive ID characteristic that would rule one out based on the photos I have. A Mink Frog would be a “lifer” for me, a species that I’d never encountered previously. In Ontario they tend to be found further north than the GTA where I grew up, but we’d be at the southern edge of their range, here. They’ve been recorded over in the Park. I’m leaning toward Mink because of the small eardrums, dorsal ridges that terminate halfway down the back, and lack of strong barring on the back legs, but I get the impression these are all somewhat variable features.

Water bug, Belostoma sp.

Before Dan flipped over his boat, he bailed out some of the water. And sitting in the water was this guy. I believe it’s a water bug in the genus Belostoma. It was rather large, about an inch long, and quite active within the container Dan had scooped it into. This group of water bugs are among those where the female lays her eggs on the male’s back in the spring. He “broods” the eggs, keeping them clean of fungus, protecting them from predators, and making sure they’re well oxygenated (by doing “push-ups” at the surface of the water). I’m not sure if the lack of eggs on this one means it’s a female, or just a male that hasn’t been laid on yet. I did notice, however, in examining the photos on my computer, that it’s sporting a bunch of red mites.

Bolitotherus cornutus

I found this strange beetle clinging to a piece of driftwood beside my moth trap one morning. I wasn’t sure if it was alive, as it fell off the wood when I touched it, and sat with its legs curled under it. I set it on a shelf in a vial for a couple of hours as I sorted through my trap and photographed the moths I’d caught. When I returned to it, it was sitting in a different spot in the vial, and its legs appeared to be out. As soon as I picked up the vial again, however, it fell over and its legs curled underneath it again.

I pulled out my trusty Kaufman Guide to Insects (I love that book, have I mentioned that?), and there it was at the bottom of page 193: Bolitotherus cornutus. Looking it up on BugGuide.net reveals its common name to be Forked Fungus Beetle, or sometimes Horned Darkling Beetle. The two horns are projections from its thorax, and are used in “battle” with other males to win females (I’m not sure the purpose of the orange “hairs”). They are associated with bracket fungi of hardwoods such as maple and beech. The Kaufman guide makes a note that they are adept at “playing dead”, so I guess that’s what my beetle was doing whenever I disturbed it. Was pretty convincing!

Unidentified bracket fungus

While out with Raven today I encountered this bracket fungus projecting from the side of a stump. Just recently I had read over at Huckleberry Days about Dryad’s Saddle, Polyporus squamosus, a stalked bracket fungus that appears about now, so I thought, “Aha! A Dryad’s Saddle!”. I took a documenting photo and returned home. I pulled out my mushroom guide just to confirm and look up a couple of life history details about the species, and now I’m not convinced that it’s Dryad’s Saddle after all. All the photos I can find on the web for the species show it being concave where it attaches to the stalk, rather than convex like my fungus. I searched through the guide a couple of times and poked about the ‘net, but couldn’t come up with an identity.

Bee fly

Very close to the same spot, I stood and watched this bee fly hovering at several Spring Beauties at the side of the road. It was much oranger than previous individuals I’ve seen, and I wondered if it was just a dark Bombylius major, the species I’ve seen before, or a different species. I gather the half-light/half-dark wing markings are fairly distinctive, and seem to only be shared by B. major and B. mexicanus. It’s hard to make out the specific pattern of dark, but I’m leaning toward B. major.

Crab spider?

I have no idea what this spider is. Not being insects, they’re not usually treated in much depth in the usual insect guides, although Stephen Marshall’s Insects doesn’t do too badly. It looks like it might be a type of crab spider, but I’m not sure. I’d knocked it off the branch of a tree onto a white sheet when I was out looking for beetles (as per a post by Ted of Beetles in the Bush that suggested if you go around thwacking some branches in the spring, it’s possible to discover some beetles you might not normally encounter). I’ve only gone out the once and thwacked half a dozen branches before I was disrupted by the arrival of a real estate agent who was coming to take photos of the house, and then it rained much of last week. Now that the weather is nice again I plan to give it another try.


A few animals from a little closer to home… with the nicer spring weather the cats have been allowed to go outside in their harnesses to sit in the long grass, enjoy the sunshine, and watch the birds. They’re tied to the deck with short 10-foot leads, so they’re not really a threat to anything except perhaps the odd bug. Both for the safety of wildlife and the cats themselves, I never let my cats roam about outdoors, so this is about as outdoor-cat as these guys will get. They enjoy it, though. Despite the chipmunk who thumbs its nose at them by foraging on fallen seeds under the birdfeeder five feet away.

Fish eats cat, fish spits up cat

Fish eats cat. Fish spits up cat.

Water dog

Since late winter, when the snow was just starting to melt, Raven has been taking an increased interest in water. At the first start of ice breakup, she’d paddle her feet in the shallows of the lake, but it’s taken her a while of gradually working up to letting her feet leave the security of the ground. Even when she started doing that, she’d only push forward half a body length, and then quickly turn around to paddle back. After once or twice of that, she wouldn’t go after sticks that were further out anymore, she’d just look at you and whine. We’d taken her out in the boat a couple times and “thrown” her overboard, and she’d paddle back to shore just fine, but was reluctant to go in of her own accord.

Then, a couple days ago, it was like she had an epiphany. We’d thrown a couple of sticks for her just out of reach from where her feet could touch bottom, and she’d pushed off to grab them, but turn quickly back around. She showed a bit of willingness to go a bit further, and so we got her to do two body lengths, and then three. Then Dan suggested throwing the stick way out and seeing if she’d go for it. So I tossed it four or five meters out, and she struck right out to retrieve it.

Water dog

Within the course of five minutes, she was suddenly paddling all over the place like a bonafide water dog. Not only that, but once she realized she wasn’t going to drown if her feet left the bottom, she discovered that hey – I actually like this! Now when we take her down to throw sticks for her, she’ll jump right in the water and start paddling out before you’ve even tossed the stick out. Quite a change from the puppy who was reluctant to even get her feet wet last fall!