Thursday, August 19, 2010

Coffee and Provocation

  • I Want One of These:
    I want one of these, and you will too. Want, want, want, want. Now! And link comes with video goodness too.

  • Wrong Kind of Earth Dog:
    Cavers recently rescued a coon hound that slipped into a cave and was trapped there for three days while his owner stood vigil. A nice story that ends well, and not the first "hound underground" story we have featured on this blog. See here and here.

  • Compassion Fatigue for Coyotes:
    Coyotes are starting to get a bit out of hand all over the East Coast. Nova Scotia? Roger that. Florida? Yep. New York? Check. New Jersey? Yep. There too.

  • Small Is Beautiful:
    Four people and a dog live in a 180-square foot house they built themselves. Check it out!

  • Ted Nugent, the Shooter of Pen-raised Farm Animals:
    Ted Nugent, the shooter of pen-raised farm animals, has now been nailed for hunting over bait. A previous post about this numb-nut can be read here.

  • Someday the Ants Will Kick Our Ass:
    By weight, there are as many ants on earth as people. And yes, the ants are plotting world domination. Read all about it here.

  • Hobbits Replaced by Sheep:
    In New Zealand, the film set constructed for the Hobbit village in the Lord of the Rings has been taken over by sheep. Check out the terrific pictures. Nice!

  • Cougars are Moving into Wisconsin:
    Yes, the native American lion continues to expand east and west. We now have more wild lions in America than in all of Africa. South Dakota is increasing its season, while in Red Bluff, California, they have them coming down Main Street.

  • Elk are Coming to Virginia:
    Elk are already in Kentucky, and some have walked over the border into Virginia on their own, but formal stocking and introduction to the Commonwealth will begin in 2012. Nice!

  • A Tepid and Tenuous Voice of Reform:
    Jemima Harrison interviews Professor Sheila Crispin, the new chairman of the Independent Dog Advisory Council which was formed on the recommendation of the Bateson report. Oddly, Ms Crispin seems to be a bit out of her depth when it comes to canine health issues, and she does not seem altogether sure as to what her group's mandate is supposed to be. One would think the Bateson report, and the others (RSPCA, APGAW) commissioned and produced in the previous 18-months would have given her a clear agenda for action and a sound education to boot, but she appears to be starting off a bit flat-footed. Hope springs eternal, but a realist keeps his expectations low. We shall see.

See the first link to get the meaning of this old Tintin panel from Red Rackham's Treasure. Notice Snowy (Milou) the terrier in the front seat. Yes, Tintin was a terrierman!. I grew up reading Tintin.


Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Cougars in Wisconsin? I can top that; leopards have been detected in rural Devon, UK!

PBurns said...

Pretty skeptical here, Dan! The UK is run over with fox packs and lurchers, and both would tree a big cat in quick order. Indeed, they have, whenever a big cat has escaped in the past.

Planted hairs are easy to do, and it's been done here in the U.S. (Google lynx) by the USFWS anxious to test whether the labs are doing adequate testing.


Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Well, I do admit to some skepticism myself, but I was there when those hairs were discovered, and in addition to those there were a number of sightings of large black cats in that specific area, plus a number of reports of deer carcasses up trees in the area. That particular area isn't hunted over by any foxhound pack, and it isn't exactly lurcher country, either; you don't get many hares round there and you certainly don't get any lampers and organised hare coursers out there. That sort of thing tends to happen in the big open fields; Devon round that way has embanked field boundaries, which makes even seeing into fields a sod to do, let alone getting in for a spot of coursing.

On balance I'm prepared to believe that the UK has a low population of big cats, left over from the 1976 release event. What happened was that in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, owning a big cat was something of a status symbol with some people to the extent that the Government felt that legislation on the matter was needed. A law imposing licences on the keeping of dangerous wild animals was enacted, instantly making the ownership of these animals much more onerous and expensive. As a result of this, it is thought (obviously, without much evidence here) that quite a few exotics were simply released into what passes for the wild in the UK by their owners to fend for themselves.

Many were recaptured, some were killed on the roads, most probably died quietly or were shot and buried by farmers (as happens even now, or so the unsubstantiated rumour goes). A few might have survived and set up a small breeding population; the release event was only thirty years or so ago, so you only need a couple of generations of big cats to account for specimens being around now. This population doesn't therefore need to be long-term viable and probably isn't, but only needs to be a feral one tailing off slowly.

Judging by the reports, which seem almost exclusively seem to be of Labrador-dog sized black (or very dark) animals, the origin of the population was south-east Asian leopards, probably traded through the Chinese animal markets. Melanistic leopards are vanishingly rare in the wild, so the ones seen here are probably extremely inbred, being the offspring of a very few founders. This probably explains the extreme lack of aggression that accompanies most of the reports; people have even accidentally trodden on these felids and received nothing worse than a single scratch.

However, like yourself I am very skeptical as to how big the population is. If there was a substantial population, fox hunts would regularly report running and treeing them, as would impromptu bobbery packs of pet dogs. I would also expect much more comment on their presence, and more bodies being found, plus more evidence such as these animals breaking into pheasant pens and subsequently being shot. There honestly can't be very many of them in the wild; most of the reports must either be misidentified domestic cats, or exotic hybrids of little cats and domestic cats. Interestingly I asked the hair specialist who identified the leopard hair what the hair from one of these exotic x domestic cat hybrids looks like; he said that it is indistinguishable from the wild exotic, which is most intriguing given that many of these hybrids are over 90% domestic cat in genetic heritage.

That would seem to indicate that the hair morphology is governed by a single set of genes which are strongly linked and retained when a coat which resembles that of the wild exotic is selected for (the breeders of exotic x domestic hybrids are after an animal that looks exotic, but behaves domestic, so they select for exotic-looking animals from the progeny).

However, like yourself I'll believe the stories completely only when a body turns up.

Seahorse said...

Love the Hobbiton pics! Next time we build, I swear we're going to have a round something to walk through or look out. It would really set off that 180 sf home.

Coyotes are a huge concern, and I'm planning my protection scheme as I ponder my move into established coyote country (hello LGDs!).

Ted Nugent is a wanker of the first order.


PBurns said...

Being there when the hair were discovered does not mean the hairs were were not planted, and it also does not mean they were positively identified by someone doing DNA work with a decent matching sample.

Who did the ID??

Lars Thomas does not appear in any list of big cat fur authorities I can find, and no DNA lab is listed, nor does Lars Thomas appear to be an expert on DNA or Big Cats.

American wildlife biologists are the best in the world, and we do not work with "found" pieces of hair and fur like this (too likely to be planted), but instead work with rub pads spread with castorem, etc. See >>

There are, without a doubt, some stray Savannah cats about (they look like common house cats and are easy to smuggle in, house coverty, and release into the wild), but no large cat has ever been released or escaped in the UK without being found and killed or captured in 48 hours.

The notion that there were "released" cats in the UK is entirely speculative, and ignores the fact that: 1) you need two released cats; 2) they have to be the same species, 3) they have to be opposite sex, and 4) they and their progency have to never be caught in 30 years.

Impossible. And the evidence is in the lack of evidence.

"Beast of..." stories in the UK go back a long way (Hound of the Baservilles, etc.) and speak to the lack of true wilderness and big predators in the UK. Your biggest predators eat worms! Here in America, where we have wolves, coyotes, bobcats, lions and bears, no one jumps at shadows too much.


Karen said...

I have zero tolerance for "vermin" like racoons, possums & the like. Last week I was driving through my neighbourhood (a suburb of Toronto) and witnessed a coyote eating out of a garbage can! Cities should have trap & destroy programs in place. Problem solved

And PLEASE bring back the bounty on coyotes.

Seahorse said...

I'm with Tintin. I'll buy one of those cool sharks when they can truly DIVE! That's what I thought they were missing when I viewed the video earlier today. Definitely cool, but I want a little more for my 60k pounds. ;)


Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

Now you've got me paranoid!

Lars Thomas was introduced as working for the University of Copenhagen (department not specified, or I cannot remember it), and at this particular meeting was for reasons never particularly clearly articulated being followed about by a Danish TV crew. One reason might be the perpetually skint organiser, a Mr Jon Downes; wave money under his nose and he'll let anybody film anything. Your point about planted hair is well founded and the whole approach being taken by the people at this meeting (somewhat incongruously called the Weird Weekend) was to go looking for evidence, rather than the approach someone with my experimental biology approach would take, i.e. make something happen (and castoreum, catnip and musk on a lot of rub strips would have been my first port of call).

Over the last few years there have been numerous sightings of a presumed big cat in the area of Huddisford Woods near the village of Woolsery, Devon, and were someone planning a spot of hoaxing it would have been easy to predict that any hair sampling would take place there and go to that wood and plant a lot of hairs on pretty much every prickly bush near the access tracks inside the wood (a Forestry Commission plantation) so as to ensure that a few could be found. Lars did say at the time that the hairs he had were quite old and had been in the environment at least a week, and were somewhat degraded but were definitely leopard.

Now that I think about it, I did also hear a little bit of muttered doubt as to the competence of this Lars Thomas, as in "He seems to find an awful lot of leopards", and now that I go looking, I cannot seem to scare up any reference to him other than this meeting and a few other bits and bobs; certainly not any published work. Having said this, the surname of Thomas seems to be a common Danish one so I may be missing a few papers by a not very well published scientist; he's certainly no Doug Kell in terms of amount of published work.

DNA testing was again being carried out by this Lars Thomas, and once again some healthy skepticism is necessary here. Not only must the repute and skill of the tester be questioned, but the exact technique being used must also be known. If you have enough sample to be able to amplify it using PCR without fear of contamination, then it is these days possible to sequence quite large volumes of DNA quite quickly, but even if this is done the problem still remains of how many reference samples and sequences there are in public repositories.

All in all, I confess to a certain amount of skepticism regarding the results. At the very least some rub strip sampling is needed; if this works then a camera trap would be my next port of call, followed perhaps by seeing if the animal can (in the best traditions of Victorian biology) be shot to provide a specimen.