|Puffin hunting: No dogs need apply.|
Over at Popular Science, Eleanor Cummins writes that when she moved to Norway from Italy in 2003, "I discovered this incredible dog breed, the Norwegian lundehund. Locals had bred it to hunt puffins, which nest in deep crevices along the rocky shoreline. Breeders helped the dogs develop six toes on each paw to grip the sides of mountains, and necks that bend backward to make it easier to navigate narrow caves."
She then says she is working to help preserve the breed by breeding Norwegian lundehunds to Norwegian buhunds, "and the offspring really look like lundehunds, six toes and all."
The joker in the deck is that Lundehunds are not a special breed created to hunt puffins. They’re just a very undistinguished-looking small Spitz-like dog whose claim to fame is that it has six toes and a rather serious genetic disorder of the digestive tract (Lundehund gastroenteropathy) in which the dogs loses their ability to absorb nutrients from food, resulting in malnutrition or even starvation in extreme cases.
The cause of the polydactylism and the digestive tract disease are the same: inbreeding.
To be clear polydactylism is NOT useful to the Lundehund in climbing cliffs -- the extra toe is an extra elevated dew claw that is more likely to cause injury when ripped than to provide much purchase when scrambling over rocks or going into holes -- tasks working terriers do every day with normal feet and often with their dew claws removed.
The mutation that causes polydactylism is fairly common, but is so un-useful in nature that Mother Nature weeds it out through early mortality.
Humans, however, like freaks and oddities and in the case of the Lundehund, when a freak spitz dog with six toes showed up, it was easy enough for isolated Norwegian islanders to double down on that dog and inbreed a six-toed dog even as they cocked up a reason for its existence.
Though the Lundehund is supposed to be a puffin-hunting dog, puffins are typically hunted with nooses and nets on long poles -- an ancient technology -- and there is no real evidence the dogs were required for puffin hunting. They were certainly never very common.
When several waves of distemper swept through Norway's seacoast island communities in the 1930s and 40s, the Lundehund population dropped down to six dogs, of which five were from the same litter. The dog has remained heavily inbred since then, and with no real work to do, and rather plain features, this dog remains rarer than the Giant Panda, with less than 1,000 worldwide.
So, what does Puffin taste like? My old employer at the National Audubon Society tells all:
Let’s just get this out of the way: No, it does not taste like chicken. Soaked in salt water, smoked with wood chips and dried sheep dung, then boiled for two hours in a sweet malt beverage before being refrigerated and finally served, bone-in and cold, alongside a packet of butter, smoked puffin tastes briny and a bit fishy and musky-sweet in the manner of mesquite barbecue. In life, an Atlantic Puffin stands just 10 inches tall, its wings stubby and narrow; when its tiny torso is served in a paper tray, it’s difficult even to recognize as having belonged to a bird. It looks vaguely insectoid, its wings all but meatless, thin bones curving out like antennae. The breast meat is a deep mahogany and pulls apart fibrous-but-tender, like the flesh of a medium-ripe peach.
Any bird you smoke with sheep dung to improve its flavor is one I will give a pass.