Why coyotes are not basal Canis

The traditional understanding of coyote evolution is that coyotes are basal wolf-like canids. This understanding comes from the hypothesis that coyotes directly evolved from Canis lepophagus in North America alone. Coyotes look and behave a lot like jackals of the Old World, and because we know that the larger wolf-like canids evolved from jackal-like ones, we just assumed that the coyote was a primitive form.

One problem with this positioning has always bothered me. Jackals tend to have proportionally smaller brains than wolves, but coyotes have proportionally larger brains than wolves. Domestic dogs have evolved smaller brains from wolves, although wolf and dog brain size comparisons aren’t as cut and dry as people think. 

No one thinks of dogs as basal forms of Canis, so it is possible for animals in this lineage to lose brain size, just as it is possible for a primitive lineage of canids known as coyotes to evolve a larger brain.

Please note that my discussion on brain size here isn’t really a discussion about intelligence, because the literature on which form is most intelligent is quite all over the map. Domestic dogs kept in Western countries in the modern way do appear to have social cognitive abilities that virtually all other species lack, while wolves are much better at working with each other to complete tasks.

But coyotes have proportionally larger brains than either wolves or dog do, and in this lineage, larger brains are generally a derived characteristic.

However, the really important data about coyote evolution is the discovery that they shared a common ancestor with gray wolves much more recently than commonly suggested. A genome-comparison study of various North American canids found that the common ancestor of both gray wolves and coyotes lived around 50,000 years ago. Because anatomically modern gray wolves replace the Mosbach wolf in the fossil record between 300,000 and 500,000 years ago, the ancestor of both had to have been a form of gray wolf from Eurasia.

The coyote is thus a jackal that has evolved in parallel out of the gray wolf lineage, which means it is not a primitive canid at all. It likely evolved this jackal -like morphology and behavior because the form of gray wolf that it derives from was unable to compete with the dire wolf, the American lion, the short-faced bear and the machairodonts as a top-level predator. It was forced to evolve a smaller body that could be fed on carrion and small prey.

We know now that there is a big difference in what prey predators target once they exceed 20 kg. Predators that weigh more than that mass target large vertebrates, while those that are smaller than that weight target smaller prey. Although coyotes do cooperatively hunt deer, they primarily feed on rabbits and mice. So by becoming smaller, coyotes were not directly in conflict with dire wolves or the other large predators of Pleistocene North America.

Only through analyzing full genomes of coyotes and gray wolves did we realize that our assumptions about their evolution were wrong. Earlier studies that looked at mitochondrial DNA alone found that coyotes fit within a basal position of the wolf-like canid lineage. However, recent full genome comparison of various wolf-like canids that looked at the role hybridization played in their evolution found something interesting. The lineage that leads to wolves, dogs, and coyotes experienced some introgression from a ghost species that was closely related to the dhole. The authors think that the reason why coyotes turn up so basal in these mitochondrial DNA studies but appear so wolf-like when their full genomes are compared is coyotes have retained a mitochondrial line that comes from that ghost species.

So the generalist coyote is a re-invention out of the gray wolf lineage. It is not basal to the wolf-like canids. It just merely resembles the basal forms in some of their ecology, in some of their behavior, and in their odd mitochondrial inheritance.

Natural History

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Happy Birthday, My Loves

Emmett turns three years old today. THREE. I’m not really sure how that happened, but it happened. Remember that little seven month old baby who fought for his brain and life through an epilepsy diagnosis with a terrible prognosis? He started soccer on Monday, is crushing preschool, and is one of the silliest, happiest, brightest three year olds I’ve ever met. I am so proud of him.

Essley turned five a week and a half ago, on December 28th. FIVE. We register her for kindergarten in a few weeks. Unreal! The little baby girl who made me a mama is a tiny star dancer (she is now in three dance classes a week!), loves art and cooking and swimming and soccer, and can’t wait to go to school every morning. She is genuinely the most social person I’ve ever met, but loves her one on one time with me too (which is truly my favorite thing ever). I am so proud of her.

I don’t share a lot of personal posts with the kids here, but I’m feeling sentimental today and wanted to publicly wish them happy birthdays. I know it sounds cliche, but these two are my greatest joys. They teach their daddy and me how to be our very best and how to appreciate the mundane, and they make it so easy to love them. Happy Birthday E and E! You are the two most incredible people I’ve ever known, and you fill me with so much gratitude. Here’s to the best year ever for you both!

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Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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Mark Derr on the Active Social Model of Dog Domestication

Mark Derr has been writing critiques of the Coppinger model of dog domestication for decades. His best known work on the subject matter is How the Dog Became the Dog, but his ideas can be read in a more succinct place at this article at The Bark (but do buy the book!).

Derr recently posted about Jung and Pörtl’s “Active Social Domestication Model” on his blog at Psychology Today.

His analysis is worth your time to read. He largely agrees with this model, but he contends that it needs to be placed in a larger framework of Derr’s own work and that on Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter, which is linked on Jung’s website.

Derr contends that Jung and Pörtl’s ideas need to be placed in this line of scholarship to which I’d also add the work of Darcy Morey and Pat Shipman. They don’t agree with each other on some important particulars, and they may have quibbles with this new model. But both scholars have been publishing outside of the Coppinger model for quite some time.

What I find most interesting is how this scholarship is pretty well-known outside of the English-speaking countries, but in the US and the UK, the generally accepted model by virtually everyone is the Coppinger model. Part of it may be that North America is home to wolves that are not particularly admixed with dogs. Indeed, they are probably the most “pure” wild wolves anywhere in the range of Canis lupus. And Great Britain and Ireland have no wolves, and there is no chance of any wolves coming back to those islands, at least by their own volition.

However, in Germany and Russia, wolves are admixed with dogs, and in the case of Germany, it is not at all impossible to see wolves living near large urban centers.

So they have a much more practical understanding of what it is like to live near wolves that have quite a bit of gene flow from domestic dogs, and they are less likely to buy into models that see dog and wolf as fundamentally distinct entities.

North Americans are much more accepting of a dichotomy model, and we have a hard time with gene flow between Canis populations. Our laws want hard and fast species, but the thing about Canis is that none of them are hard and fast species.

So it is easy for North Americans to posit that wolves are unable to be domesticated, because modern North American wolves (for the most part) are reactive and timid predators that do kill both dogs and coyotes they find on the trail. They do, but they also do the same with other wolves. And sometimes they mate with those wolves, just as they will mate with dogs and coyotes.

The Coppinger model requires an assumption that all wolves living in history and in the present are these shy timid ones, but that’s not what the historical record shows. And it is certainly not what is seen on Ellesmere or Baffin Island, where the wolves have never been persecuted by man.

The Coppinger model requires us to create the gray wolf as a Neanderthal dog in which it is big in size, big-brained, and meant to hunt only large prey, and posit the dog as the modern human with a smaller brain and more flexible diet.

We need a model that can place the origin of dogs before the Mesolithic, and this Active Social Model goes along way in that direction.

Natural History

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New Year’s Resolutions

From the good folks at Yappy. (In case you’re wondering, my resolution is to cook at home more often this year. I make homemade food for the dog, but more often than not, I feed my kids via DoorDash. That’s going to change this year.) Until next time, Good day, and good dog!


Doggies.com Dog Blog

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Azawakh Joins the AKC Hound Group

The American Kennel Club (AKC®), the world’s largest purebred dog registry and leading advocate for dogs, announced today that the Azawakh (pronounced Oz-a-wok) has gained full AKC recognition. This new addition to the AKC registry became eligible to compete in its group on January 1, 2019. “We’re excited to have the Azawakh join the AKC […]


Doggies.com Dog Blog

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Need A Pawtner to Help with Your New Year’s Resolution?


It won’t surprise you to hear that “Getting more exercise” is among the most popular New Year’s resolutions. It also won’t surprise you to hear that 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February.

But don’t be discouraged! People who exercise with their dog buck that trend. And while your pup may not be allowed in the gym, she may be the perfect outdoor walking or jogging partner. Just be sure she’s ready for the workout—especially if you live in a place where it’s cold this time of year.

Check with the vet.
Just how you should consult your doctor before you jump into a new exercise routine, consult your vet about your dog. Ask for advice—based on your dog’s age, breed, or health—to keep your dog safe. Even if she’s cleared, keep an eye on her during walks and runs for signs of exhaustion, like heavy panting, trouble breathing, serious lagging behind or disorientation.

Ease into it.
Again, just like us, dogs shouldn’t go from couch potato to distance runner right away. Start at a slower pace on shorter routes and stay close enough to home that you can cut out easily if you need to. Always have water on hand, even on short strolls.

Be mindful of the weather.
Each dog is different, based on breed, background, and, frankly, their preference. Just know they can’t retain heat the way we do. A coat may help, but be sure it fits well, and still watch your dog for cues that indicate she’s too cold. Plus, snow and ice can be hard on dogs’ paws. Be sure to clean them well after each excursion to remove all salt from between their pads.

As your resolution becomes routine, make sure your dog is getting enough healthy calories to make up for what she’s burning. If you’re not sure about amounts, consult your vet.

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Siegfried Farnon (Robert Hardy) on the problems of keeping pets

It all makes sense, except for those barking retrievers and that fawn whippet that was Robert Hardy’s own beloved dog.

Natural History

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Our Mexico Trip

Our Mexico Trip

Those of you who follow me on Instagram and Facebook know that we just got back from a glorious (and I mean glorious) trip to Mexico. For the past 12 years, the band my husband Stage Manages for a living has co-headlined a festival called Holidaze that has now been held in Jamaica, Mexico (Tulum and Puerto Morelos), and the Dominican Republic. This year, they returned to Puerto Morelos and it was genuinely blissful for us to get to spend 5 days in the sunshine with so many of our closest friends.

Last year, Essley started throwing up 4 hours before we were to leave for the airport, so the kids and I had to stay home, which was admittedly devastating for all of us. But I think it made us appreciate this year more. (Side note: Essley coughed so hard she vomited the night before we left again this year, and Emmett picked up a cold down there that caused him to cough so hard he vomited on the flight back. I couldn’t make this stuff up.)

Instead of going on and on about the details of the trip (and really, aside from fun in the sun with friends of all ages and lots of music, there aren’t a lot of details), I thought I’d just share some of my favorite photos from the trip, as seen above. These aren’t high quality photos by any means – they were all snapped with my phone. But they certainly do show you how much we fun we had.

Are any of you traveling soon? Who else has been to Puerto Morelos?

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Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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Christmas Guard Dog

Until next time, Good day, and good dog!


Doggies.com Dog Blog

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How to condition a German shepherd

Materials needed:

  1. 1 German shepherd that likes other dogs.
  2. 1 whippet that likes other dogs and is friends with German shepherd.
  3. Ball.

Instructions.

  1. Throw ball for both dogs.
  2. Whippet will beat the German shepherd to the ball.
  3. Whippet will decide to run a victory lap, and the German shepherd will chase him.
  4. No German shepherd alive can catch a whippet, so they will run a whole lot more than if you just threw the ball for the German shepherd.
  5. Repeat once the whippet gets done with the ball and delivers it to hand.

Natural History

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