The animal above was an anomalous black fox that was photographed near the village of Bassingbourn in South Cambridgeshire. The photographer, John Moore, spotted the fox running in the fields near his home and snapped some photos. It was late March in 2012, and it was a true rare find.
Foxes that are any color other than the typical red are extremely uncommon in the UK, so when these photos were published, speculation about where it came from were rampant. One theory was that it was one of the Belyaev “domesticated” foxes, which were then being sold as pets. Another suggestion was that it was a fur farm escapee. The problem with that theory is that fur farms had been banned in England and Wales since the year 2000, and those last remaining fur farms were mink producers, not fox producers.
Just a few days after John Moore took the photos, the black fox was found dead on the highway. Its body was sent to Anglia Ruskin University for genetic testing to determine why this particular fox was black.
Genetic testing revealed something quite unusual about it. The vixen was found to have two genetic mutations related to fur color that were similar to those found in raccoon dogs.
Raccoon dogs are very closely related to foxes, and in Russia, they are commonly bred in fur farms that also contain (silver) red foxes and (blue) arctic foxes. Because of the similarity between this fox’s fur color genes and those of a raccoon dog, it was given as evidence that this animal was a Belyaev fox that had been turned loose.
It would make some sense. After all, this vixen was estimated to have been 18 months old, and she was apparently so unwise around roads that she soon met her demise on the highway. Further, her coat was much thicker than a typical English red fox. Maybe someone with more money than sense had ordered up one of these famed “domesticated” foxes, and soon realized they aren’t that awesome to have as pets.
And the poor thing got turned loose to live with the wild English foxes, which is about as a humane thing to do as turning out a cocker spaniel into Alaska to go live with the wolves.
So this logic is easy enough to follow.
The issue that seems to be ignored in all of the discussion about what this fox was is whether it is actually possible for a raccoon dog to hybridize with a red fox.
Ignore what you’ve read in various texts about raccoon dogs. They are actually quite close related to the true foxes. Genome-wide analyses have revealed that they are close enough to the other Vulpini to be classified with them.
They are quite unusual as wild dogs go. They can “hibernate,” which means they just sort of go to sleep during the worst of the winter (but it’s not really “true hibernation.”) They also have masks, and rather superficially resemble actual raccoons. It was not unusual for taxonomists to classify them as a sort of Old World raccoon species. We now know they are actual dogs, but the idea of them being sort of dog-like procyonids certainly captured more than a few imaginations.
So the notion that these animals could hybridize with red foxes would seem far-fetched.
But maybe they have.
The Soviet Union was really interested in fur. Historically, Russia has been a nation of fur-wearers. Furs drove them east and north into new territories, and when fur farms became a possibility, improving fur stains became an important goal. This goal went on in earnest during the Stalin years, and Belyaev, a Mendelian, was driven from his initial research post to accommodate Lysenkoist methodologies. He went to a research facility in Novosibirsk, where he conducted his experiments on silver foxes.
The Soviet ideology believed that nature could be bent to serve mankind. Socialism in one country meant quite a bit of scarcity, even in the largest country in the world, and it was hoped that the new Soviet science could use native flora and fauna to produce abundance. This abundance would soon provision their citizens, and the Marxist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would be possible. Then this ideal would spread to other countries of the world, leading us to a new socialist future and then full-on communism.
It never really worked out, and we all know of the ecological catastrophes that happened as a result of these plans, including the introduction of raccoon dogs to Eastern Europe.
But they made some sense with in the logic of that system.
And if some enterprising Soviet fur farmer wanted to try something different, he might try crossing his silver foxes with raccoon dogs. Maybe he did in the years following the war, when scarcity was the rule, and getting new blood for foxes and raccoon dogs would have been an ordeal.
But this still doesn’t answer the question.
The fact that someone might try crossing the two species is interesting enough, but the question is whether one can produce viable offspring. And the next question whether any of the offspring would be fertile.
I have yet to find the answer to those questions, except that I am aware that red and arctic fox hybrids are sterile.
And those two species are much more closely related to each other than raccoon dogs are to red foxes.
So maybe the black fox of Bassingbourn really wasn’t a hybrid or of distant hybrid ancestry. The similarities in her genotype could have simply been the result of the fact that both red foxes and raccoon dogs share a common ancestor. This fox simply retained a few genes that she held in common with the raccoon dog.
I think that this is a bit better explanation, but the British press took the suggestion that she might have been a hybrid a bit too far. Virtually every mention of this fox online or in print says that she was a hybrid.
I wish, though, that more research had been performed this fox. If she really were the result of a hybridization on a Russian fur farm, it would be possible to detect this hybridization with more analysis of her genome.
The fact that she had just been killed when her body was donated to science meant that lots of different tests could have been performed.
If she really had been derived from hybridization between these two species, this would have been a major discovery.
I don’t think anyone would have expected it.
But Occam’s razor tells me that she wasn’t derived from hybrids.
As much as I’d like her to be, my educated guess is she wasn’t.
And the British press had a lot of fun with it.
As a child of the 80s, I was in the minority when it came to the way I ate. Most of my friends felt sorry for me when it came time for school lunch and I pulled out natural peanut butter and apples or homemade granola and a banana – and at the time, I felt pretty sorry for myself too. While I spent years coveting their salty snack chips and bologna sandwiches on white, by the time I got to college, I understood why my parents pushed healthy foods on my sister and me. We never went without goodies and treats by any means, but they created healthy habits in us when it came to our overall eating routines – and when it came time for us to venture out on our own, it was second nature to us to choose nutritious snacks and meals over less healthy alternatives.
Now that I’m a parent myself, it is incredibly important to me to instill the same health-conscious habits in my kids that were taught to me as a child. As a family, we make a conscious effort to invest in healthy lifestyle choices in general. My husband is a runner and I practice daily yoga, and we involve our kids in these activities as well. We also try to participate in as many activities as we can outside – from working together in our garden, to going for walks, to having outdoor picnics, to spending time at our favorite places of play. And, just as my parents did for me, we place a lot of emphasis on creating healthy habits in them as they grow up when it comes to food.
One of the biggest ways we work to instill these habits is by setting good a example ourselves with meal and snack choices. We cook a lot of meals as home that use whole, nutritious ingredients, and we involve them in the preparation (well, Essley anyway; at 7.5 months, Emmett is a little too young to grasp the concept of cooking) and grocery shopping. When we want a snack, we grab healthy ones like nuts, fruits and veggie, and CLIF Bars. And when we’re thirsty, we always fill up our water bottles (and Essley has one of her own too) rather than going for a soda or sugary juice. Kids soak up everything they see – by allowing them to watch us choose foods that are good for our bodies, they want to do the same.
Another way we make an effort to form healthy food habits with our little ones is to provide them with nutritious snacks when they’re hungry outside of meals. It is so easy to hand kids sugary treats or overly processed snacks when we’re in a hurry, but providing them with better-for-you options on a consistent basis gets them used to a pattern of choosing good snacks over unhealthy ones. When Essley says she’s hungry between meals, I like to cut up an organic apple or banana with some almond butter, or give her a CLIF Kid Zbar (which are also perfect for stashing in my diaper bag on the go). She loves them because they taste so good; I love them because they’re made with organic ingredients, are non-GMO, contain important nutrients for active kids, and have no high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, or synthetic preservatives. These are the kind of snacks I want her (and eventually, her little brother) to get used to eating so that they’re opting for similar healthy snack choices once they’re old enough to make eating decisions for themselves.
One other way we work to instill healthy nutrition habits in our kids may not seemingly have anything directly to do with food – and that’s spending lots of time playing outside. This can mean something that actually does involves food, like eating meals outdoors or having picnics (our favorite), but it can also mean just being a part of an overall healthy routine that involves outdoor activity. (And let’s face it – playing outside really does lead back to nutrition anyway. A kid who spends an afternoon running around in the grass and dirt is going to be much more apt to eat a full, healthy dinner, right?) Another thing we love about CLIF Kid is their dedication to reclaiming play. Our childhood memories involve lots of outdoor adventures with friends, and we want the same for our kids. Did you know 70% of moms played outside when they were kids, but only 31% of their kids play outside today? How sad is that? CLIF Kid is encouraging boys and girls everywhere to get back outside (you guys have to check out their Come Out to Play video, which so perfectly illustrates this), and to participate in balanced, active play – which we fully agree lays the foundation for a skilled, healthy, resilient and successful society. Spending time outside is a huge part of our goal to instill healthy habits in our kids.
For those of you with kids of your owns or important kids in your life, how do you work to teach healthy nutrition habits? How do you encourage them to play outside? I’d love to hear what works for all of you!
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I’ve seen this photo several times, but every time I’ve seen it, the left-hand side was always cut off.
Now that I see the full photo, you can see what was going here.
Someone wanted to introduce his spaniel (an English springer, by my estimation) to a captive thylacine.
I guess this would be the equivalent of a human meeting a Klingon or a Vulcan for the first time.
“You’re similar, but you’re not the same!”
The Farmers Dog, the leading direct-to-consumer HUMAN-GRADE dog food startup, recommends fruit as a healthy snacking alternative for your dog. Apples – Packed with fiber and vitamins A and C, an occasional apple is a great way to add extra nutrients to your dog’s diet. Additionally, their low protein and fat content makes them the […]
I hate when that happens! Until next time, Good day, and good dog! Related PostsSaturday Survey: Don’t Eat That!!Is your dog allowed on the bed?Friday Funny: Dog FeetFriday Funny: Some Guard Dog You Are!Friday Funny: Smart Dog!Friday Funny: A Dog Scorned…
More than a decade ago, when I was still living year-round in East Hampton, I discovered a dog portraitist of uncanny skill. Her name was Carol Saxe and working only from photographs, she was able to capture the distinctive essence of every dog she put into a painting – many of which were single portraits. I went to her studio to admire her work and happened upon a painting she was doing for a family that wanted a portrait in which they could see all the Corgis they had ever owned – even from the parent’s own childhoods. It sound like something Queen Elizabeth might want!
In this case, the people commissioning the portrait asked that all the dogs be placed as if they were alive at the same time – and put them at their current beach front house, which was a delightful background with a wide porch on a shingled house, overlooking dunes with beach grass and a wide beach below. Carol had painted this setting from a series of photos that were clipped to her easel, along with old photos and newer ones of the 8 or 10 dogs. She had gathered all the dogs of this family’s life into their current life and placed the Corgis judiciously around the property, some on a chair or bench, others under an umbrella, others playing with each other.
What I noticed straight away was that each of these Corgis looked subtly different from the others. None of them was a generic Corgi- each had his own coloring, tilt of their head, and expression: they were clearly each distinctive portraits. I wanted something just like that myself and decided on the spot to give it to myself as a gift – a way to look back on the many different dogs who had graced my life, from the several generations of Bedlington Terriers that began in my childhood, to the Golden Retriever Roma and her sidekick Cocker Spaniel Amalfi, to Yogi Bear the rescued Rottweiler and the series of rescued Weimaraners who followed Lulu and Billy Blue.
Here’s that portrait – and another more impressionistic one (above) she did of my two Weimaraner boys, Teddy and Billy Blue, along with Yogi Beat the Rottie – a wonderful triumvirate of big boys sadly long gone, but whom I can still gaze upon lovingly every day.
Tracie began her career as a radio personality with a live show – DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) – on the local NPR station in the Hamptons, Peconic Public Broadcasting (WPPB) from Southampton, New York (the show is now also carried on the NPR station Robinhood Radio in Connecticut and the Berkshires). DOG TALK® won a Gracie® Award (the radio equivalent of an Oscar) in 2010 as the “Best entertainment and information program on local public radio” and continues weekly after more than 450 continuous shows and 9 years on the air. Tracie’s live weekly call-in show CAT CHAT® was on SiriusXM satellite radio for seven years until the Martha Stewart channel was canceled in 2013.
Tracie lives in Vermont where the Radio Pet Lady Network studio is based, on 13 acres well-used by her all-girl pack – two lovely, lively Weimaraners, Maisie and Wanda, and a Collie-mix, Jazzy.
Have a great weekend! Until next time, Good day, and good dog! Related PostsFriday Funny: Playing FetchFriday Funny: Some Guard Dog You Are!Friday Funny: Dog FeetFriday Funny: Smart Dog!Friday Funny: A Dog Scorned…Friday Funny: Too Tired to Help With The Dishes
I didn’t think I’d do another one of these, but my conscience has been dragged back into it.
Jemima Harrison posted this morning (my time) about a friend’s flat-coated retriever who died at the age of 7. Both the dog’s parents were dead before they were 8 years old.
I used to follow this dog’s owner’s blog, way back when there was a more active dog blogosphere. I remember when she was born, and I remember when her mother died.
I’ve always admired this breed. It was once the most common retriever in Britain, and I love all those old paintings and photographs of the dogs at pheasant and partridge shoots.
At one point in my life, I thought I wanted one of these dogs. They were sleeker and more agile than golden retrievers, and I’d always preferred golden retrievers that came in that body type, even if the show ring never did.
But then I looked at the health of the dogs, and I decided that I would pass.
A golden retriever is already a notorious tumor factor. That there could be a retriever in worse shape with regard to cancer was something that really did bother me.
I used to wonder if this breed could be made more viable if they did some crossbreeding, but virtually every breeder in the breed is so opposed to it that having rational discussions with them is like talking to a creationist or someone who believes that Bush did 9/11. Their job, regardless of the facts, is to come up with ways to justify keeping the gene pool walled off.
And at that point, I knew the problem would never be solved.
It’s taken me a while to realize that no amount of explanation will change anything.
It’s that way with just about every breed of dog. If it’s not flat-coats and cancer, then it’s bulldogs and everything that’s wrong with them. Or pugs.
After doing this for years and years, I’ve stopped having any confidence that any of these problems will be solved, and I’m not wasting my time.
So we’ll hold onto closed studbooks, “linebreeding for health” or some other delusion, until we hit the eventually genetic dead-ends of several breeds.
The population of canids known as “domestic dogs” will continue on, because the vast majority of North Americans will choose things other than registered dogs. And the village, street, and pariah dog populations will still be there in other parts of the world.
But as for the Western “purebred” dog, its future is quite tenuous indeed.
And when you’re powerless to stop something, you’re better off giving yourself some distance.
That’s what I have done.