Recently I had to put together a display about the family Canidae and thought I’d share some of the very cool things I discovered with you all. Being a big fat dog lover myself, I’m forever fascinated with this family, which is in the Order Carnivora (from the Latin for “to devour flesh”), which also includes cats (Felidae), bears (Ursidae), and a smattering of other righteously cool predators.
The words “canid,” “canidae,” and “canine” all have roots in the word “canis,” which is Latin for “dog.” Also, “caninus,” meaning “of the dog.” The word “canine” refers to “pointed tooth.” (I heart etymonline.com!)
Yellowstone wolf pack in 2001. Via National Park Service.
Canids are wolves, dogs, foxes, jackals, coyotes, and a few other strange species that I had no idea existed. They’re found all over the world and are identified by some (mostly) common features:
1. They’re long-bodied and typically long-legged (for speed and hunting over long distances).
2. Most sport a “dew” claw, a vestigial toe that doesn’t touch the ground while standing up.
3. Bushy tails and long snouts.
4. Canids are digitigrade, meaning that they walk on their toes.
5. Many are loners, but the Canidae family is known for having social hierarchies and living in packs, which defend set territories (as opposed to being nomadic).
6. The baculum. Also known as the penis bone. (You’re just going to have to clicky the Wiki linky.)
Somewhere between 60 and 30 million years ago, there was this group of rad little predators called the Miacids. They were small and fed on small things, but they were the humble beginnings of our larger predators today: canines, felines, and even bears. Miacids would be total trouble makers today judging by this artist’s interpretation of one called Tapocyon.
Over the next 10 million years, miacids split into what would become the cat family and the dog family (and a bunch of others, but I’m keeping it simple here). Wolf ancestors and fox ancestors split somewhere around 7 million years ago, and wolves split from coyotes around 2 million years ago.
I honestly had no idea just how many canid species there are in the world. There are 32 subspecies of Gray wolf alone (13 of which are now extinct or thought to be extinct) – meaning that they’re all Gray wolves, but with regional differences. Here’s NaturalWorlds.org’s list of all the canid species, and it’s worth a click just to scroll down and see how many exist. Again, canids comprise wolves, coyotes, dogs, jackals (at least four species), foxes (a dozen species of those), raccoon dogs (five species there), the maned wolf, African wild dogs, and a few others.
Raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are found in eastern Asia and face a lot of slaughter for the fur trade. They’re omnivores and are one of the only canid species that can climb trees! Um, and, well, Iwantonerealbad.
The Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) is also sometimes called the “Red Fox on Stilts” for obvious reasons. It’s not a fox or a wolf, however; it’s something entirely all its own. Maned Wolves are native to South America and are omnivores as well. They hunt, but fruit makes up an important part of their diets. Funnest Fact about the Maned Wolf: its pungent pee smells like cannabis!
The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Painted Dog, is an African native and the only species in its genus. This canid is a ferocious hunter and creates strong family ties with its pack. The fur coloring is beautiful and they’re easily recognized by both the pelt and those huge ears. This canid is the only canid that lacks a dew claw.
The Bat-Eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis) is pictured first with the darker coat, and the Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda) is pictured second with the light coat. Both are native to Africa and use those huge-r-ific ears for hearing prey underground and dispersing heat. Bat-Eared Foxes are insectivorous and Fennecs omnivorous. Both species are nocturnal. Oh, and by the way, GOO!
And then there’s the majestic, ferocious DOG (Canis lupus familiaris). Dog is a versatile, many-faced species that rejoices the most when placed in combination with humans, squeaky toys, soft beds, and jerky treats. I jest, but left to their own devices, feral domesticated dogs will form packs, hunt, and perform behaviors almost identical to their ancestor, Canis lupus. (Was it totally wrong to use this photo? Yes? Okay, just don’t tell my dog I put it up here. You know, I really can’t help it, I have a problem.)
Which brings me to my next point: the domestic dog. Researchers think truly domestic dogs have been around for about 14,000 years, but some evidence suggests a longer relationship with humans. It’s easy to see why that relationship would have developed to the benefit of both parties: wolves may have protected tribes and helped them hunt, while humans may have allowed a local wolf pack access to all the scraps and waste meat they could handle. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of evidence for exactly how dogs became domesticated, but there are some theories. We know tribal peoples around the world often adopt wild canid puppies, so that may have been the humble beginnings of domestication. One theory in particular that I like is that domestic dogs came from members of the Southern Wolf clade (clade is a fun word, isn’t it?): the Ethiopian Wolf, Arabic Wolf, Dingo, and others.
See, there are two groups of wolves. The Northern clade is the one we know best: the Gray Wolf, with its thick dark coat, big brain, and propensity for howling, and others like it inhabit geographic regions in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Wolves, however, are a bit different. They’re smaller, leaner, have weaker carnassials, inhabit lands in the Southern Hemisphere, and don’t howl so much as bark and make other smaller vocalizations. Sounds like a dog to me! Obviously, it’s not that simple, but have a look at these three photos:
Australian Dingo (Canis lupus dingo).
Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis).
Basenji (Canis lupus familiaris), one of the oldest breeds of dogs, thought to originate in central Africa.
It’s easy to see where the Basenji came from; how about other breeds? Did they originate from ones like the Basenji, or do we have a bunch of breeds coming from one Canis ancestor, and a bunch from a different Canis ancestor? I don’t know, but it’s sure fascinating to consider. What we do know is that dogs were bred to be happy around people; most wild canids are very, very weary of humans and would rather run for the hills than have to interact with us. Dogs, on the other hand, look at humans as just a funny-looking pack member.
Ah, I can’t wait to get home and play with my scrappy little wolf-thing. Thanks for reading, everyone! :) Happy Tuesday.
I’m taking this space as an opportunity to push my dog agenda.
#1: Support animal shelters and, if you can at all, avoid breeders. There are millions of dogs and cats that have to be put down each year because there aren’t enough people adopting the orphaned. Instead, breeders can charge hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a “genetically pure” (read: potentially inbred if you don’t use a reputable breeder and the dog is set up for genetically inherited issues, whereas mutts face less of that kind of stuff) puppy. This isn’t a personal attack on breeders, I just don’t agree with breeding when there are already so many dogs that have to die each year. We also rarely use dogs in the capacity for which they were originally bred. And, do not ever buy a dog from a pet store, as most of those puppies come from inhumane puppy mills. (Please Google “puppy mill” if you don’t know what one is.)
#2: Do your research when you want to take on a dog. Dogs do not understand human communication and human signals; they understand canine communication and canine signals. For example, when a dog goes through a trauma, the last thing you want to do is cuddle it and coo over it. That reinforces negative feelings and encourages neurotic behavior. The best I’ve read on dog behavior (which is not the same as dog training) is Cesar Milan, who now has at least three books on the topic. I’ve never experienced a dog that didn’t understand what I wanted when using Cesar’s methods; Cesar truly loves dogs and has a long history of rehabilitating dogs that are going to be put down because of “bad behavior.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of bad dog behavior is caused by humans not understanding how to effectively communicate with dogs. (I’m happy to entertain any dog behavior questions or comments on this topic!) I’ve worked with people who are just wrecked over their dog’s bad behavior, but a few quick fixes can get a dog back on the right path. In fact, the dog is usually happy to be told exactly what the human wants; most dogs are submissive by nature, and want to be told what’s expected of them!
(deep breath) Okay…thanks for hanging in through that! As a reward, here are some cute puppy photos. (Which I’m posting because I’m always looking for a way to throw around my puppy photos. Please forgive me. I told you I have a problem.)