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Giant tortoise brings slow salvation

Richard Black | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 21 April 2011

In a week when the introduction of species to islands has been under discussion for other reasons, news comes from Mauritius of a new inhabitant that is restoring a vital piece of long-extinct ecology.

And it centres on a tortoise.

Aldabara giant tortoise

 

Several hundred years ago, settlers wiped out the big wildlife from the Ile aux Aigrettes, a small island off the Mauritian coast that's now a nature reserve.

Vanished creatures include a giant tortoise of the Cylindraspis genus and Leiolopisma mauritiana, the largest skink in the world while it still existed.

So far, so bad - but so familiar.

What might not been have anticipated was the impact on one of the island's most important trees, a species of ebony (Diospyros egrettarum).

The giant tortoises, and maybe the skinks too, would eat fruit from the ebony trees as it lay on the ground.

The animals would then waddle away; so when the fruit emerged some days later at their nether end, it was now some distance away from its parent tree.

So just as the forest was essential for the tortoise's survival, the reverse is also true.

And without the giant seed-dispersers, egrettarum's capacity to spread itself around Ile aux Aigrettes has become so compromised that the species is now listed as Critically Endangered.

It's not the only issue threatening them - chopping valuable ebony trees down hasn't helped, and neither has the introduction of plants from outside the island - but without their carapaced companions, the ebony fruit and the seeds they contain can only fall under existing trees, with no chance of spreading further afield.

A group of scientists headed by Christine Griffiths from the UK's University of Bristol decided to attempt something a bit radical; stocking the island with another giant tortoise.

And in the journal Current Biology this week, they relate what happened.

Essentially, it's a good news story. The tortoises - Aldabrachelys gigantea, one of the largest species in the world - were imported from fairly close by, the Aldabra atoll in the Seychelles, and appear to live happily in their new home.

They have been eating the ebony fruits and dispersing them over large distances, which should help the trees' recover something of their former range.

And the researchers discovered another important role that the tortoises play. Passage through their digestive system strips some of the fruit away, meaning that the seeds within it germinate much faster after they hit the ground - perhaps meaning that more seeds germinate in total.

Tortoises are to the ebony trees what civets are to coffee-lovers - at least in parts of Southeast Asia...

Tortoise with ebony fruits

The tortoises have developed a taste for the ebony fruit

As we've discussed here (and thanks for all your incisive comments on that thread), introducing new species to islands isn't something to be done lightly.

But as the researchers point out, here they were using a species very similar to the one that disappeared; plus the tortoises are so big and so slow-moving that if anything does seem to be going wrong, they can be plucked out of the ecosystem again.

The team also cautions that longer-term observation is needed because there are also introduced plants on Ile aux Aigrettes; and what impacts the tortoises may have on them is an unknown, as presumably the twain will not previously have met.

At some point down the road, I guess, an ethical decision will have to be made.

Do the tortoises stay, or go? Deciding the former implies a judgement that overall, the ecological health of the island is better with a large, lumbering, introduced new inhabitant than without.

In the Seychelles, the quarter-tonne beasts have quite an impact.

They make burrows; and some of the land is now covered in what's termed "tortoise turf", where more than 20 species of grasses and other plants grow together - some having evolved to produce seed low down their stems, better placed to avoid the animals' chomping jaws.

And - an important issue for an island introduction - they can swim.

But take them away, and perhaps the ebony's fate will be sealed.

So do they stay or do they go?

Hope you enjoy chewing this one over!

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    An additional thought: tomatoes come from the "New" World. But if the New World was not populated by humans many, many centuries ago, how come human, er, digestion is such an effective spreader of ready-to-go tomato seeds? I gather that tomato seeds and the human alimentary tract look like they were "made for each other", much like tortoises/ebony, civets/coffee, bees/pollen, etc..

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm amazed greenies actually manage to get anything done, ever. How can one take any action when one is far too busy wringing one's hands and agonising over the ethical implications of a tortoise s****ing in the woods.

  • Comment number 3.

    Ahhh. More nice animal pictures.

    I gather the backup reactor/spent fuel cooling failed at Hartlepool nuclear power plant recently.

    That means had we suffered a power cut to the mains supply during that time then, as far as I can see, we would have had our very own Fukushima-type nuclear disaster on our hands.

    Still, tortoises are probably quite radiation resistant.

  • Comment number 4.

    If the plant explodes, start worrying. In the meantime, stop wasting your time with the major green pre-occupation; what might, just possibly, you-knever-know, happen.

  • Comment number 5.

    Tis pretty cool the re-introduced Tortoises are close enough to the extinct native one, dispersing the ebony fruits & trees. It's like putting a piece of the ecosystem back into place. It's a benefit for Mauritius as a whole then, since humans killed off the original one

  • Comment number 6.

    Reintroducing an extirpated species to its original habitat is a great idea where feasible and practical and controllable and this example seems to fit all those criteria.

    These tortoises could be a sustainable resource, and that always helps conservation efforts (see bison as an example).

    Eddy Waring notes "Still, tortoises are probably quite radiation resistant."

    Given how long they have been around they no doubt are. Apparently the major concentration of wildlife now in the Chernobyl exclusion zone are too. One might almost think that radiation scares are overhyped...

    And just imagine how resistant those tortoises must be to climate change, which has been quite the nonstop roller-coaster through the times they have been around. I guess they didn't read the IPCC predictions of their imminent extinction.

  • Comment number 7.

    Oops. I missed the detail that these tortoises are not the exact same 'species' as the originals... but close enough.

  • Comment number 8.

    7. At 21:17pm 21st Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    Oops. I missed the detail that these tortoises are not the exact same 'species' as the originals... but close enough.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    And therefore the hippies continue their pointless, endless handwringing. It'll either work or it won't, simple as that.

    Oh, as for you worrying about wolves being re-introduced to the UK (other thread) I shouldn't if I were you. Wolves are SUPPOSED to live in the UK. We shot them all to protect sheep so we should bring them back.

    Besides, it'll make hillwalking all the more exciting...

  • Comment number 9.

    Brunnen - Sounds nice in theory but doesn't work in practise. Like I said, try it out with a pack of wild dogs first.

    If it doesn't work for the rural people who have to live with them, it will never work. In the US it has caused a huge backlash and caused far more harm than good.

    People living in cities who experience nature mostly through TV just don't seem to get the basic realities of this because it doesn't effect them. Same basic mentality that cleared African people from their lands to create national parks there.

  • Comment number 10.

    Life tables for giant tortoises show slow replacement and life-spans of 100 years, so introductory solutions involving breeding will need monitoring programmes longer than the working life of individual researchers. They will also need protection protocols over the long term.

    But if the only rationale of introducing tortoises is to disperse tree seeds, it is much quicker and easier for researchers/conservationists to do it by hand (but not necessarily involving personal evacuation techniques).

    ------//------

    We agonize over animal translocations but are much more sanguine about plant translocations – especially when it comes to species and strains of economic importance.
    Coffee, rubber, dende, maize, wheat – the history of man’s global evolution is marked by movement of plants-of-choice around the world (however hard airport Customs try to control it).

    Animal domestication has moved the top 20 domesticated species liberally around the world (yes – even ferrets for rabbit hunting!).
    And this animal and plant domestication an movement has radically altered ecologies over most of the biomes of earth.
    Yet we agonize over the occasional translocation of non-domesticated species.

    I understand the problems and the sensitivities, but only when we add humans and their domestic species of animals and plants can we get any sort of ‘macro-perspective’ of ecosystem change.

  • Comment number 11.

    9. At 23:09pm 21st Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    Brunnen - Sounds nice in theory but doesn't work in practise. Like I said, try it out with a pack of wild dogs first.

    ------------------------------------------

    Dogs and wolves are very different animals. While they both share some similar characteristics and behaviors, a dog is like a juvenile wolf. They never get beyond wolf "adolescence". They're a lot more aggressive than wolves too. I'd rather be out walking and come across a wolf pack than a wild dog pack any day of the week.

    Wild wolves are notoriously timid around humans, even to the point of abandoning kills when they detect us approaching. Attacks DO happen, but frankly badgers are more likely to have a go. But then they're vicious buggers...

  • Comment number 12.

    Brunnen - Wolves are very timid around people who shoot at them. They are not timid around people who do not.

    But human safety is only one factor. They also kill livestock and pet dogs and anything else they can kill.

    So, if you think it is reasonable to let wolves loose in rural areas where the people have been farming for centuries, then I am sure that you would agree that it would also be good to release criminals and burglars into your home town. Right?

    I would really encourage you to look into what is happening in the American West and even the Great Lakes states to give you a more reality-based perspective.

    That said, we have wolves around here and it is wonderful to see or hear them. We also have an open season on them and landowners can shoot them anytime. Nobody does unless they start attacking livestock. And some individual wolves and packs do that... and they must go for the benefit of the ones that don't. Even under maximum protection in the US they have ALWAYS killed such problem wolves.

  • Comment number 13.

    "So, if you think it is reasonable to let wolves loose in rural areas where the people have been farming for centuries, then I am sure that you would agree that it would also be good to release criminals and burglars into your home town. Right?"

    Chalk and cheese.

    Especially in the UK. The proposed areas for the re-introduction of wolves are in the Scottish highlands. Very sparsely populated and not intensively farmed either.

    And don't forget, we're talking about the European wolf here, not one of the North American species. The behaviours and pack sizes are different.

    Also, the European wolf survives in the wild in Europe. And thanks to human induced changes in the environment and the massive reduction in the incidence of rabies, attacks on humans by wolves in Europe are now VERY rare.

  • Comment number 14.

    As for livestock, if DEFRA having to compensate the occasional crofter for the loss of some sheep is the price we have to pay to re-introduce a magnificent apex predator, then so be it.

  • Comment number 15.

    Sometimes you wonder if the greenies give any thought to the consequences of their demands.

    Here where I live the greenies lobbied to change the laws and make it very difficult to hunt cougars. The result of course is that the cougar population expanded and now there are more frequent encounters between cougars and people which drives people to demand that the state "do something" to protect them, their pets and their livestock. The result is the state now pays professional hunters to manage the cougar population where before ordinary private citizens who hunted paid the state for the privilege of doing it. Of course no one knows if the cougars understand or appreciate the subtle difference but it makes the greenies feel better and isn't that the important thing?

  • Comment number 16.

    brunnen - Wolves are wolves. The problem with your scenario is containing them. They can move huge distances. moreover, given the high ratio of daft animal rights lunatics in the UK, once that wolf is out of the bag any and all attempts to contain that problem will be attacked by them.

    Scott0962's comments are right on and based on real experience... where you seem to be speaking from the perspective of an urban TV watcher.

    Like I said, try letting a pack of wild dogs roam around for a while as a test. The animal rights fanatics might not freak out quite so much when you have to destroy them.

    And the 'chalk and cheese' comparison is, for rural people, cheese and cheese. Its just that urban people don't care about rural people. They just watch TV.

  • Comment number 17.

    15. At 00:32am 22nd Apr 2011, Scott0962:

    One might hope that the professional hunters only kill the problem mountain lions, where as the amateur hunters that frequently run around hunting deer have on too many occasions mistaken bi-pedal anthropoid apes for dear. Given that, they are likely to shoot anything yellow. I've spent considerable time hiking in the California mountains and always been more concerned about being shot by a deer hunter during the hunting season than being jumped by a mountain lion.

    Given the huge increase in deer, one might argue we need more mountain lions to keep the deer population down as the human hunters have not been very effective. High deer populations are a threat to many endangered and/or rare plant species.

    There are a number of competent deer hunters where I work and I have invited them to bow hunt in our neighborhood to help keep the deer population down, but even though they have taken their share of deer, the deer are just as numerous as ever. But adding mountain lions to the neighborhood would be OK with me, although probably not with the neighbors. It would make working in the garden or getting to the car in the morning more exciting :-) although I would still be much more likely to get whacked by an MS13 gang member.

  • Comment number 18.

    12. At 23:54pm 21st Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    "But human safety is only one factor. They also kill livestock and pet dogs and anything else they can kill. "

    Given that the city tax payers subsidize so many of the rough individualists grazing their stock on National Forest Lands I think they should be have some say on what happens to wolves. It should also be noted that not all rural folks are opposed to wolf re-introduction.

  • Comment number 19.

    #18. HungeryWalleye

    It should also be noted that not all rural folks are opposed to wolf re-introduction.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Wolves being opportunists will soon find that sheep make an easy meal. Then the "not all rural folks" will start bleating.

  • Comment number 20.

    A very interesting story and I must say I do like to see reporting on such issues but when are we going to be allowed to comment on UK political news again on this website ? It's been THREE MONTHS since we were allowed to comment on UK politics at a time of major change. I am assuming the Tories are censoring our debates and news now.....at least Labour never stopped the BBC from allowing debates and reporting the news.

  • Comment number 21.

    " I am sure that you would agree that it would also be good to release criminals and burglars into your home town. Right?"

    I thought they already were!!!!!!!!!!!

    There is a lot of hot air about conservation, lots of tinkering to make the luvvies feel good. So many species are down to a few hundred individuals & so much habitat turned over to human exploitation.
    A few millennia ago there were only a few million humans and now there are billions. Most fertile habitat and most resources are given over to human exploitation.
    Humans are only one species, why are they so 'precious'? (religious considerations asice). Clearly, to give the rest of creation a sporting chance Humans need to be culled by 90%+ or so, and removed from large swathes of habitat.
    Is there any real reason why humans, part of the ecosystem, suould not be preyed on by predators, should have priority in habitats, should have first dibs of the Earth's resources etc?

  • Comment number 22.

    @Brunnen

    far too busy wringing one's hands and agonising over the ethical implications

    (sigh)

    The vast majority of species introductions are OK, and have contributed positively to horticulture and agriculture. But...

    http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/business/sectors/31364.aspx
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_toads_in_Australia
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Africanized_bee
    http://www.britishwildlifecentre.co.uk/animals/mink.htm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbits_in_Australia

    so perhaps treading cautiously with new introductions, and being prepared to change policy might be appropriate.

  • Comment number 23.

    @bowmanthebard

    Sorry, you think the human gut is unique in this regard?

    I am reminded of the "barn owl" argument trotted out by some creationists, who seem unaware of the availability of "natural" nesting sites.

  • Comment number 24.

    @threetees

    Please don't make jokes like that. Some of the sceptics here have no sense of humour and will think you are a real eco-fascist.

  • Comment number 25.

    As someone with a zoological background outside species introductions are something that always makes me sceptical, there are many cases where such action has let to decimation of the local area and problems that don't seem apparent at first.

    That being said, the majority of problems have arisen from predator species being introduced or species of animals that are toxic or prolific breeders, just look at the predator snails introduced to French Polynesia that wiped out the native partula snails down to there very last few, the cane toad has also caused massive destruction across Australia.

    Out of all of the outside introductions I have read about, or witnessed the damage they have caused the introduction of this tortoise is one that should have a much lesser negative impact on the ecosystem where it has been introduced, it may actually cause no noticeable detriment to the local area whatsoever, this is not a predator species nor is it a particularly territorial animal and it is unlikely to prove hazardous to predators, if it even has any.

    The main concern here would be the tortoise finding another food source it prefers over what it is there to aid, if it reached a large population it could well hinder its purpose, though the options to find other alternatives may not be as forthcoming as the efficiency of nature to assist in seed dispersal, some flora ONLY germinates after being through the digestive tract of an animal.

    Outside species introductions are never done lightly, though they are sometimes done against the advise of the experts hired to advise local authorities.

    This is one to watch, and hopefully will be a rare success story, it has the potential.

  • Comment number 26.

    @JaneBasingstoke

    They're not talking about an introduction, they're talking about a REintroduction. The consequences for native species will be nothing beyond what they experienced before humans hunted them to extinction on our island.

  • Comment number 27.

    16. At 01:04am 22nd Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    brunnen - Wolves are wolves.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------

    No. Just no. That's like expecting a polar bear to behave like a black bear. Bears are bears after all...

    You also seem to be willfully missing the fact that Europeans have been living with loves with very little incidence of

  • Comment number 28.

    JaneBasingstoke #3 wrote:

    "Sorry, you think the human gut is unique in this regard?"

    Not really, just thinking aloud, that's all! Actually you make a very good point that could be applied to honey bees. Just because they seem like "perfect pollinators" at present doesn't make them the only good pollinator, nor that they and the flowers they pollinate evolved together.

  • Comment number 29.

    Brunnen #8 wrote:

    "Wolves are SUPPOSED to live in the UK."

    Always nice to see an unashamed appeal to "God's design"!

  • Comment number 30.

    19. At 07:34am 22nd Apr 2011, Cariboo wrote:

    #18. HungeryWalleye

    It should also be noted that not all rural folks are opposed to wolf re-introduction.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Wolves being opportunists will soon find that sheep make an easy meal. Then the "not all rural folks" will start bleating.


    ------------------------------------------------------

    They already know. There's a reason humanity has bred over 30 different breeds of livestock gaurdian dog over the centuries.

    We can protect the sheep fom the wolves.

  • Comment number 31.

    Another interesting blog about reintroduction / relocation of species.

    I agree with Henry (25) that this one sounds like it could work.

    Regarding wolves, Brunnen (13 & 14) is right. Wolves are re-establishing themselves here across central and southern Europe. Governments have policies in place to help this process and information to educate the public. There is some scare mongering and complaints from farmers about losing livestock (which they are compensated for anyway), but in general in is working and accepted.
    There is no reason why it shouldn't work in northern Scotland. It is connected to the process of restoring the general habitat in that part of the world - it has been deforested and overgrazed for years. Parts of the Caledonian forests are being regenerated, and that includes the large animal species which have disappeared such as wild boar, lynx and elk (moose to you north Americans). The wolf is part of that ecosystem.

  • Comment number 32.

    29. At 13:05pm 22nd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Brunnen #8 wrote:

    "Wolves are SUPPOSED to live in the UK."

    Always nice to see an unashamed appeal to "God's design"!

    -------------------------------------------------------------

    From an athiest? I DON'T think so.

    However, being Scottish and living rurally too, (so CR really you're worries about us country folks being savaged by wolves in hoodies are cute, but baseless) I can tell you that the loss of the wolf has had a devastating effect on the native deer population.

    Namely the population has exploded and without a natural predator to pick off the weak, (besides us, and wolves are much better at picking off the weak than we are) the quality of the herds has declined. Genetically weak deer who would have been picked off in infancy are now surviving into adulthood and even getting to pass on their genes.

    God's design indeed. How dare you? I can provide perfectly logical arguments without resorting to invoking invisible wizards, thank you very much.

  • Comment number 33.

    @bowmanthebard

    Think the fossil record shows wind pollinated flowers came first. Then insect pollinators and insect pollinated flowers evolved alongside each other.

    However as to specifics, seem to remember from a David Attenborough programme that wasps came first, then bees and ants evolved from niche wasps.

  • Comment number 34.

    Hello JaneBasingstoke and good to see you back.
    As an urbanite(not by choice), I am not particularly affected by creatures roaming around the place, unless I am waiting for a bus in the dark. Imagine wolves wondering around town! There would be a sudden drop in the number of people turning up for work early in the morning or leaving late at night. Even car drivers would think twice as they juggled with the idea of returning to their car from the office. Even the occasional urban fox can be a bit intimidating when it follows you in the dark. However, the idea of lots of deer and rabbit doesn't bother me so much. British bush meat! At least giant tortoise look interesting and they can't run fast.

  • Comment number 35.

    Brunnen #32 wrote:

    "I can provide perfectly logical arguments without resorting to invoking invisible wizards, thank you very much."

    The trouble is, if you say things are SUPPOSED to be a certain way, you're appealing to a "plan" of some sort, and whose plan could that be?

  • Comment number 36.

    @Sean

    They are not the same species. Not even the same genus.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cylindraspis
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldabra_giant_tortoise

    At the moment they appear to comfortably fit the same niche. And normally the problem with introducing a close relative of the native is that it may displace the native, this situation does not apply here because the natives are all extinct.

    But the above is no guarantee of an easy ride. All species introductions need to be done with care, because when things go wrong they can cause significant problems.

  • Comment number 37.

    35. At 13:51pm 22nd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    Brunnen #32 wrote:

    "I can provide perfectly logical arguments without resorting to invoking invisible wizards, thank you very much."

    The trouble is, if you say things are SUPPOSED to be a certain way, you're appealing to a "plan" of some sort, and whose plan could that be?

    ---------------------------------------------------------------

    It's called an ecosystem. Wolves didn't die out in the UK, they were shot by us to make sheep farming more profitable.

    The consequences for their primary prey (deer) haven't been good, as I have already outlined.

    I honestly don't get your argument here. Are you saying that it's acceptable to wipe out native species for financial gain or that having done so in a more ignorant time, we shouldn't attempt to correct the mistakes of our ancestors?

  • Comment number 38.

    I live in Alaska and we have bears-black, Brown and polar Bears, Wolves, wolverines. otters, minks, and lynxs in abundance. I'm sure the state would be happy to donate to any place the needs to have them introduced. We transplanted deer around Alaska and brought in Elk to a few islands and brought muskox from Greenland and Canada plus Siberian Reindeer. The Muskox thrive on the Bering Sea coast and the deer thrived on Kodiak Island. The reindeer are nearly gone but the caribou still thrive as do elk on two islands. The introductiom of rats, dogs and blue foxes to the Aleutian Islands was a disaster to some Sea bird colonies. By the way muskox meat is very tasty and the wool make fantastic knitted garments.

  • Comment number 39.

    Brunnen #37 wrote:

    "I honestly don't get your argument here."

    Well, I'm always trying to point out where people appeal to cosmic design without really being aware of it. It's "my thing", I'm afraid!

    So when you talk about an "ecosystem", you're not talking about the way things happen to be as a matter of fact, but about the way things "ought to be as a matter of design". This will always be some approximation to your own idea of what a "perfect world" looks like, with "a place for everything and everything in its place".

    For example, re-introducing wolves would eventually make deer faster runners, but it would probably make them leaner, with smaller antlers, less fecund, and so on. The "monarch of the glen" might eventually look more like the "Speedy Gonzales of the glen". Why would that be a good thing? The deer wouldn't enjoy it, the venison would be worse, the antlers would be less impressive, and so on.

    "Are you saying that it's acceptable to wipe out native species for financial gain or that having done so in a more ignorant time, we shouldn't attempt to correct the mistakes of our ancestors?"

    The very idea of "native species" is suspect -- it's a bit like "native races". The living world is constantly in flux, and at some point both deer and wolf were themselves "new arrivals". As for the "mistakes" of our ancestors, they were simply making their world a better place for themselves in the same way as you hope to make it a better place for yourself and wolves (but not deer).

    There simply isn't a "plan" of any kind, whether we call it "God's design" or an "ecosystem". The very idea is wonky.

  • Comment number 40.

    #27. Brunnen wrote:

    16. At 01:04am 22nd Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    brunnen - Wolves are wolves.
    -------------------------------------------------------------------------

    "No. Just no. That's like expecting a polar bear to behave like a black bear. Bears are bears after all... "

    brunnen - Polar bears and black bears are very different species separated by at least 3 million years of evolution - between the black and brown bear lines, after which polar bears recently evolved from brown bears.

    Polar bears and black bears adapted to completely different habitats with different behaviours. So they are quite different. Yet everywhere people face the same problems with brown, black and polar bears as anyone who has to live in their habitats know. So to some degree bears are bears.

    That said wolves are Canis lupus. Dogs are Canis lupus domesticus. Same species.

    But this conversation is going nowhere. People who know wolves from TV have been fed a Walt Disney fantasy and don't have a clue about the real world. And, like I said, urban people don't care about rural people.

    You really ought to look at what has happened in the western US. The introduction of wolves - and the absolute dishonesty involved in that process and in its aftermath - has caused an enormous backlash against environmentalism of all kinds and it is just getting worse.

    Oh well. Oh yes. April 22. Happy birthday Lenin!

  • Comment number 41.

    Good to see you Jane,

    Given the timing of your disappearance I was starting to wonder if you were actually Kate Middleton... and just too busy to post.

  • Comment number 42.

    @bowmanthebard

    I think in writing off the term "ecosystem" because it gets abused you are also writing off a more scientific interpretation of the concept.

    You're a fan of Feynman, right. Feynman said "what I cannot create I do not understand".

    Are you familiar with the consistent failure to get Biosphere II to be self sustaining?

  • Comment number 43.

    There simply isn't a "plan" of any kind, whether we call it "God's design" or an "ecosystem". The very idea is wonky.

    ------------------------------------------------------

    It's the implication that ecosystems are somehow artificial, unimportant things that is wonky, and the comparison to religious beliefs is just laughable, illogical nonsense.

    As for your assertion that being predated by wolves would somehow diminish the Scottish deer, that's more nonsensical than comparing an ecosystem to a divine plan. For deer to be strong, healthy and to avoid problems such as overpopulation, survival of the weak and over-grazing (the deer are moved on as they are chased by predators), this lack of deer being forced to move on is one of the major factors contributing to the poor success rate of forest regeneration in Scotland.

  • Comment number 44.

    "That said wolves are Canis lupus. Dogs are Canis lupus domesticus. Same species."

    I hate to say this, but you really are clueless on this subject.

    canis lupus (the gray wolf) is ONE species of wolf that has at least 8 distinct subspecies and to even suggest that all those subspecies are essentially the same in either appearance or behaviour is nothing short of parading a staggering degree of ignorance.

    And what of canis rufus (the red wolf)? Or canis simensis (the Ethiopian wolf)? Are those not wolves?

    Oh, and dogs (canis lupus familiaris, there has never been a species called canis lupus domesticus. The domestic dog was originally classified as canis familiaris and canis familiarus domesticus by Carolus Linnaeus in 1758, and was reclassified in 1993 as canis lupus familiaris) have had 15,000 years of seperation as a distinct subspecies of the gray wolf. Their appearance and behaviours have diverged radically over that time, unless you're trying to suggest you can't spot the difference between a timber wolf and a daschund?

  • Comment number 45.

    40. At 18:56pm 22nd Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    But this conversation is going nowhere. People who know wolves from TV have been fed a Walt Disney fantasy and don't have a clue about the real world. And, like I said, urban people don't care about rural people.

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    I hope you're not implying I'm one of those people. For a start, the village I live in now could hardly be termed urban by any stretch of the imagination. Nowhere squared would be more accurate.

    Add to that that I lived in Scandanavia for two years and have seen first hand how people deal with living in the same country as the European wolf, I can safely say I know what I'm talking about here.

  • Comment number 46.

    CanadianRockies #40: "That said wolves are Canis lupus. Dogs are Canis lupus domesticus. Same species."

    Brunnen #44: "I hate to say this, but you really are clueless on this subject.

    canis lupus (the gray wolf) is ONE species of wolf that has at least 8 distinct subspecies"

    Is this your way of saying that he's right, they are all one species? If so, would you be a bit more open about what it is you "hate" saying -- because it looks to me like you hate admitting he's right, and love saying he's "clueless" despite being right.

    The concept of as "species" can be fuzzy-edged, but this is a clear case of "same species".

  • Comment number 47.

    wolves are fine you can throw them biscuits and they come up and lick you we should stop shooting them

  • Comment number 48.

    Brunnen #43 wrote:

    "It's the implication that ecosystems are somehow artificial, unimportant things that is wonky"

    I'm talking about the concept, which is essentially teleological.

    "As for your assertion that being predated by wolves would somehow diminish the Scottish deer, that's more nonsensical than comparing an ecosystem to a divine plan. For deer to be strong, healthy and to avoid problems such as overpopulation, survival of the weak and over-grazing (the deer are moved on as they are chased by predators), this lack of deer being forced to move on is one of the major factors contributing to the poor success rate of forest regeneration in Scotland."

    Ah, but now you're talking about what's good for forests -- let's go back to what's good for deer.

    If deer are chased and killed by wolves, the ones that can't get away don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on wolf-predated deer to run faster. If deer are not chased by wolves, but instead live or die because of resistance or otherwise to disease, the ones that are less resistant to disease (rather than wolves) don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on these deer to be more resistant to disease.

    If you want healthy, disease-resistant deer, better let them be descended from deer that have faced life-threatening diseases rather than deer that have faced life-threatening wolves.

  • Comment number 49.

    JaneBasingstoke #42 wrote:

    "I think in writing off the term "ecosystem" because it gets abused you are also writing off a more scientific interpretation of the concept."

    What does it add to the bog-standard (and mistaken) idea that there is a pre-ordained pattern?

  • Comment number 50.

    brunnen - You are right. I used the wrong Latin name, as I'm writing from my aging memory, not from wiki. I think I was thinking of Passer domesticus, a bird.

    "And what of canis rufus (the red wolf)? Or canis simensis (the Ethiopian wolf)? Are those not wolves?"

    No they are not. That is why their Latin names are different. In fact the 'red wolf' is quite a mystery and is almost certainly not a real species at all.

    And while the FOSSSIL evidence shows divergence between dogs and wolves only 15,000 years ago - when people developed agriculature and needed different kinds of wolf-dogs - the DNA evidence shows it going back 150,000 years and other evidence suggests it goes back further. With multplie domestications in many places.
    The 'dogs' of plains people in North America were just tamed wolves.

    But... as they say, I have no dog in this hunt. Go ahead and introduce wolves. But please don't investigate what has happened in the US because you might learn something from that. Expect a huge backlash. In Switzerland it seems that all the introduced lynx and wolves dies of lead poisoning.

    There is a difference between TV nature and the real thing.

    And good luck with those reintroduced beavers!

  • Comment number 51.

    brunnen.... sigh... now I get it.

    "As for your assertion that being predated by wolves would somehow diminish the Scottish deer, that's more nonsensical than comparing an ecosystem to a divine plan. For deer to be strong, healthy and to avoid problems such as overpopulation, survival of the weak and over-grazing (the deer are moved on as they are chased by predators), this lack of deer being forced to move on is one of the major factors contributing to the poor success rate of forest regeneration in Scotland.

    "For deer to be strong, healthy and to avoid problems such as overpopulation, survival of the weak and over-grazing (the deer are moved on as they are chased by predators)"

    How long have human predators been in the UK? (Did you know they all had tame wolves (dogs) for hunting?) So why couldn't people play this role again? Humans buy hunting licences and thus contribute to conservation. Wolves don't. Human hunters obey the rules. Wolves don't. Human hunters don't kill some kid's favourite horse or sheep or dog. Wolves do.

    "this lack of deer being forced to move on is one of the major factors contributing to the poor success rate of forest regeneration in Scotland"

    Move on to where, in the UK? This deer overpopulation problem could be solved in no time with hunting seasons. That also makes deer move.

    But that's right. For people who hunt and gather only in supermarkets, hunting is bad. Need to revise history. We didn't evolve from hunter-gatherers, just gatherers.

    The Big Lie of environmentalism is that humans are not part of nature and, worse, that hunter-gatherers lived in some 'harmony with nature.' Thus the whole mantra is based on a (deliberately) false baseline and understanding of how ecosystems have actually been since the Neanderthal days.

    But I forget... it wasn't Neanderthals in the UK... it was Piltdown Men. No, wait. They were all gatherers. It was just Piltdown Women and Children.




  • Comment number 52.

    bowmanthebard - Clueless and factless are two different things. But I did err on that Latin name so I'm expecting the Spanish Inquisition now. I made an off-the-top-of-my-head error about Homer (James) Hansen's career once a few months ago and every week or so Walleye brings it up. C'est la vie. On the bright side, it is better peer review than in AGW crisis 'science' publishing.

  • Comment number 53.

    CanadianRockies #52 wrote:

    "I did err on that Latin name so I'm expecting the Spanish Inquisition now."

    I think the Latin name matters less than that fact that (our domesticated) dogs and wolves belong to the same species.

  • Comment number 54.

    JaneBasingstoke #42 wrote:

    "Are you familiar with the consistent failure to get Biosphere II to be self sustaining?"

    I'm afraid not -- but do you mean its failure to sustain human life rather than its failure to be self sustaining? A punctured can filled with meat and botulinum can self-sustain itself for years, I'm told.

  • Comment number 55.

    @bowmanthebard

    #49

    OK, so you don't like the word "ecosystem", but you might be happy if every occurrence was replaced by an explanatory essay. An essay that has the potential to get very messy when not talking about one single well defined ecosystem.

    Any other technical terms you want to do that with?

    #54

    Although Biosphere II would have sustained human life as well if successful, it was in the first instance more about creating a self contained miniature simulation of the Earth's biosphere, with the only significant input being sunlight, the thing being in a giant airtight greenhouse. But they had big problems with the balance of atmospheric gases, they could not get it stable.

    Incidentally your comparison example doesn't work, eventually the Clostridium botulinum runs out of energy.

  • Comment number 56.

    52. At 21:17pm 22nd Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:

    "I made an off-the-top-of-my-head error about Homer (James) Hansen's career once a few months ago and every week or so Walleye brings it up. C'est la vie. On the bright side, it is better peer review than in AGW crisis 'science' publishing."

    I don't believe it. I can believe you made an off-the-top-of-my-head error about the Latin name for the dog; however, I don't believe the same thing about your false assertion about Gore getting Hansen his job. I suspect you read it on one of the "reliable" web sites you like to link to buttress your point of view. I would like to know which one.

  • Comment number 57.

    12. At 23:54pm 21st Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:
    So, if you think it is reasonable to let wolves loose in rural areas where the people have been farming for centuries, then I am sure that you would agree that it would also be good to release criminals and burglars into your home town. Right?

    So wolves are criminals? This seems to be a rather typical attempt at demonizing a species that does no more than 'exist'.

    51. At 21:12pm 22nd Apr 2011, CanadianRockies wrote:
    Human hunters obey the rules. Wolves don't. Human hunters don't kill some kid's favourite horse or sheep or dog. Wolves do.

    Huh? What rules? Again, there is nothing sinister going on here. It is not a vindictive plan carried out by wolves intent upon terrorizing and targeting peoples' cherished animals. This is the same ill-informed and pernicious attitude that has lead to the extermination of many species.
    Perhaps if human hunting of wild game was curtailed or even prevented in areas that overlap those of wolves' habitats there would be fewer wolf-human and wolf-farm animal interactions....? Just a thought.

    53. At 21:26pm 22nd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    I think the Latin name matters less than that fact that (our domesticated) dogs and wolves belong to the same species.

    bowmanthebard, you claim for a 'fact' that domesticated dogs and wolves are the same species. Defining a species is a tough task yet you seem to know without doubt what criteria are necessary to ascribe animals into distinct species! Bravo! A Nature paper beckons!

    Anyway. Interesting article. It will be interesting to see if the introduction of this supposed 'benign' species integrates into the environment in the same way it's predecessor did or whether it will take to surviving by means other than those intended by the researchers-conservationists.

  • Comment number 58.

    48. At 20:42pm 22nd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    "If deer are chased and killed by wolves, the ones that can't get away don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on wolf-predated deer to run faster. If deer are not chased by wolves, but instead live or die because of resistance or otherwise to disease, the ones that are less resistant to disease (rather than wolves) don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on these deer to be more resistant to disease."

    For some one that is so critical of people trying to predict the future, it is quite amazing you have worked out exactly how deer will evolve in response to predation by wolves.

    Have you considered the possibility that wolves "don't like" working any harder than necessary to get their food and would prey primarily on the weak and the sick? So adding wolves would lead to larger, stronger, more disease resistant deer.

    Since you claim to have read Dawkins, you must be familiar with sexual selection. Does tend to prefer big bucks with large antlers and in competition between males for does, being large and having large antlers is also an advantage.

    Finally, both species and ecosystems are intellectual constructs that simplify what is really going on, but are useful in providing terms that can be used to describe and summarize what is being observed.

    Before you jump on this I would point out that these terms have a much closer relationship to what is going on in nature than the term "free market" has to do with what goes on in a Laissez-faire economic system.

    The major ecosystems evolved over long periods of time and barring some jolt, cycle through a small segment of the state space available to them. Major changes, like the introduction of humans to the American continents results in major changes to ecosystems.

    Knowing CR's concern with rural people, perhaps you could inveigh against the destruction of their way of life by the contamination of their wells by the oil and gas industry. My impression is that has a much larger impact on the viability of their way of life that wolf predation. There was a good presentation on that on PBS.

    http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/613/index.html

  • Comment number 59.

    Brunnen #43 wrote:

    "If deer are chased and killed by wolves, the ones that can't get away don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on wolf-predated deer to run faster. If deer are not chased by wolves, but instead live or die because of resistance or otherwise to disease, the ones that are less resistant to disease (rather than wolves) don't reproduce. This puts selective pressure on these deer to be more resistant to disease.

    If you want healthy, disease-resistant deer, better let them be descended from deer that have faced life-threatening diseases rather than deer that have faced life-threatening wolves."

    This argument makes no sense!
    The 'disease ridden dear' would be the weak ones and would thus be predated by the wolves!
    All you are saying by this is that viruses are better at forcing evolutionarily beneficial changes than apex predators. The pressures these two stimuli (viruses and predators) apply are completely different, one is at the cellular-molecular level for a start!

  • Comment number 60.

    57. superted

    Sounds like you live on concrete. I like wolves. We live with them. But I also know the real problems they can create just by being wolves. To introduce them to the UK is just going to turn into a disaster for all and create a major backlash against wolves and likely all environmental projects. That is what happens and did happen in the western U.S. That backlash didn't happen in the distant cities where people love TV wolves and are NOT impacted by them. It happened where the people actually had to deal with them. And in the long run, if you turn rural people away from conservation you lose the war in most places.

    So, that's the practical realities from on the ground, not some idealistic fantasy about what 'should' be.

  • Comment number 61.

    #56 - walleye

    I seriously don't know where my Hansen error came from. Quite certain that I did not read it anywhere. Could have been wishful thinking. Or subliminal, since I've seen their faces side by side so often. The guy who created the Muppets was named Hansen. Maybe I saw a Muppet who reminded me of Gore and got confused?

    Speaking of confused, wonder why Gore thought it was several million degrees just below the earth's crust? I can't imagine he read that anywhere either.

  • Comment number 62.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 63.

    superted #59:

    "The 'disease ridden dear' would be the weak ones and would thus be predated by the wolves!"

    Yes, but the selective pressure here would be much less "well-aimed". This sort of thing can easily be tested. Where did rabbits more quickly acquire resistance to myxomatosis, in places where they were preyed on by predators that killed the sick, or in places where they died of or survived the disease on its own?

  • Comment number 64.

    Re-wolfing Scotland might work well. There are certainly parts of Glasgow that could do with roaming wolf packs on a Saturday night. It would improve behaviour no end.

  • Comment number 65.

    HungeryWalleye #58 wrote:

    "For some one that is so critical of people trying to predict the future, it is quite amazing you have worked out exactly how deer will evolve in response to predation by wolves."

    I think you may need a sense of humour injection. I was not predicting that deer would literally become like a cartoon Mexican mouse.

    As always, I'm trying to dispel the teleological idea that there is a "cosmic plan" or "way things were meant to be". It should be perfectly obvious that introducing wolves to prey on deer is not good for deer, either individually or collectively.

    The environmentalist movement is always trying to harness the general public's sense that nature consists of "delicate balances" that have to be protected or re-constructed so it fits the "cosmic plan". It's exploitative religious hokum.

  • Comment number 66.

    65. At 12:09pm 23rd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    It should be perfectly obvious that introducing wolves to prey on deer is not good for deer, either individually or collectively.

    -----------------------------------------------------

    It isn't obvious to anyone who knows anything about deer. Wolves primarily hunt the weak and the sick, removing them from the gene pool, thus it is the stronger deer who breed.

    BTW, when wolves hunt deer, it isn't a question of speed (deer are faster than wolves, and the wolves know this), it is a question of stamina that will determine whether or not a deer survives. So your notion of slender, faster deer falls at the first hurdle.

    As to the antlers, more nonsense. With Scottish deer, stags need large, impressive antlers and also need to be large and powerful themselves in order to win the rut fights with the other males and have a chance to mate. Slender males with smaller antlers would never get the chance to pass on their genes in the first place.

    As for CR insisting there is a comparison between the re-introduction of the wolf to the Western US and the re-introduction to Scotland, there just isn't. The geography isn't the same, the flora and fauna aren't the same, the wolves aren't the same (despite your protestations, they just aren't), the land use isn't the same, the human population dispersal isn't the same and the human lifestyles aren't the same. In fact, there are so few points of comparison I'm wondering why you brought it up.

  • Comment number 67.

    63. At 12:00pm 23rd Apr 2011, bowmanthebard wrote:

    "Yes, but the selective pressure here would be much less "well-aimed". This sort of thing can easily be tested. Where did rabbits more quickly acquire resistance to myxomatosis, in places where they were preyed on by predators that killed the sick, or in places where they died of or survived the disease on its own?"

    Can you answer your answer this question? I am not particularly knowledgeable about myxomatosis other than known vaccine was produced by humans for its treatment.

    Lets take another example, a deer becomes sick and continues to stick with it's herd. Under your assumption, this will be beneficial to the deer (in the long run) as they will spontaneously assume a resistance to the disease?
    With the presence of a predator such as a wolf, this sick animal is targeted and removed from the local population, thereby limiting the possibility of transmitting the disease.

    You assume that an infection will give it's host species a chance to adapt. Though this may be fine for a common rhinovirus... (debatable) This is not so for more agressive and infectious agents. The population can simply be wiped out like the Chytrid fungus in frogs.
    Human methods for countering the spread of many infectious dangerous agents include prevention and isolation. Presumably you think this method is wrong? It would be best to let humans carry on within a population whilst harboring potentially lethal and highly infectious agents... In humans' case isolation occurs in a hospital (with hope), for deer, they are predated. Either way, the sick in question are taken out of a given population!

  • Comment number 68.

    bowmanthebard #63:
    "Yes, but the selective pressure here would be much less "well-aimed". This sort of thing can easily be tested. Where did rabbits more quickly acquire resistance to myxomatosis, in places where they were preyed on by predators that killed the sick, or in places where they died of or survived the disease on its own?"

    superted #67:
    "Can you answer your answer this question?"

    No. If I knew the answer in advance it wouldn't be a genuine test.

    "Lets take another example, a deer becomes sick and continues to stick with it's herd. Under your assumption, this will be beneficial to the deer (in the long run) as they will spontaneously assume a resistance to the disease?"

    No. Diseases, predation, all of these threats to life are bad for the individuals involved. What they do to the whole group is a matter of where the selective pressure is applied. I don't think it makes sense to say that it is "good" or "bad" for the whole group, as we have to choose what strengths we value and what strengths we do not value. Those are our values.

    We humans have acquired resistance to various diseases through selective pressure, but what we gain in the "swing" of resistance to malaria, for example, we lose in the "roundabout" of susceptibility to sickle-cell anaemia.

    A deer population that is has been preyed upon by wolves for several generation will be better at getting away from wolves than one that has not be so preyed upon. But it's a constant arms race, because the wolves will get better too.

    "With the presence of a predator such as a wolf, this sick animal is targeted and removed from the local population, thereby limiting the possibility of transmitting the disease."

    I have no reason to think that is a particularly effective way of isolating disease. If it were, the healthy deer would grow to shun sick deer, with or without wolves picking them off.

    "You assume that an infection will give it's host species a chance to adapt. Though this may be fine for a common rhinovirus... (debatable) This is not so for more agressive and infectious agents. The population can simply be wiped out like the Chytrid fungus in frogs."

    Occasionally, entire populations can get wiped out by disease, but more often the population acquires a resistance to that particular disease. You can see how this has happened with human blood groups, which are associated with resistance to different diseases; and toleration of alcohol, which emerges among groups that need to avoid contaminated water.

    "Human methods for countering the spread of many infectious dangerous agents include prevention and isolation. Presumably you think this method is wrong?"

    Not at all -- it is much kinder than natural selection, which usually takes the cruelest path. That's why it's just plain nuts to re-introduce wolves in the hope of making "better" deer.

  • Comment number 69.

    There's a few knowledgeable comments on the potential role of wolves in Scotland, amongst a lot of uninformed ones. But all irrelevant, because wolves are completely off any reintroduction agenda in Scotland for the foreseeable, simply because of the 'little Red Riding Hood' reaction - i.e. no amount of rational argument will overcome media and public's frothing antipathy. What IS, however an interesting and more viable possibility is the reintroduction of European lynx.

    Lynx would live happily in our plantation forests and eat deer. They wouldn't be seen - many lynx researchers have never seen them in the wild - they are so secretive - and yet live in the suburbs of Stockholm without stealing any babies or indulging in granny-based cross-dressing. After some study I have not been able to uncover a single fairy-tale or folk legend about lynx in any of the dozen European countries I've worked in - because they interact so little with humanity. They aren't scary - about the size of a border collie.

    They'd have a positive effect - they will reduce deer populations to levels where broadleaved (i.e. preferred diet) trees and shrubs will be able to grow (about 6 deer/sq km). AND - they would convert our Forestry Commission into a profitable business - because they would remove the costs of killing deer with a rifle at £100+ each. They would also allow foresters to use a wider species choice beyond the unpalatable Sitka spruce.

    Oh, and the second most important prey item after roe deer (in Scandinavian lynx - a reasonable analogy)? Foxes - a neat example of how medium predators are kept in check by larger predators, in his case with probably a range of further biodiversity benefits.

    As you may have realised, I'm professionally a bit of a fan. Just don't invite them to any parties, they are very dull conversationalists. All they want to do is live, solitary, in a forest and eat deer.

    Lorax

  • Comment number 70.

    Brunnen #66 wrote:

    "Wolves primarily hunt the weak and the sick, removing them from the gene pool, thus it is the stronger deer who breed."

    But it depends what we mean by "stronger". If wolves decide which ones breed, the ones that do breed are the ones that are good at getting away from wolves. Being "good at getting away from wolves" is a rather narrow type of "strength". There are other kinds of strength that the deer themselves can decide -- such as male deer's ability to dominate other males, and female deer's appreciation of ornaments such as antlers. Why would the wolves' criteria of "strength" be better than the deer's own criteria?

    If the ability to get away from wolves demands that female deer be very lean and athletic, which reduces their fertility, that would be a weakness from the perspective of deer, wouldn't it?

    We don't improve deer by "setting the wolves on them", any more than we improve children by "beating some goodness into them".

  • Comment number 71.

    I have no problem judging the tortoise re-introduction a superior conservation effort in comparison with Branson's lemurs.

    What I have trouble with is the notion that it is better because it is more 'natural.' It is 'natural' only because a subset of powerful humans have decided that the preservation of existing, or even the re-creation of lost, habitats is a desirable thing.

    Which is fine. Just let us not tart up a human choice as service to Nature's ordained plan.

    Ditto with wolves, lynx, etc. It is fine to say they 'belong' in an eco-system, but the act of reintroducing them is a human choice, based in human interests (whether aesthetic or economic).

  • Comment number 72.

    @chronophobe #71:

    Sorry if my agreement is the "kiss of death", but: spot-on!

  • Comment number 73.

    re: 75 HungeryWalleye (from the previous thread)

    "Or to paraphrase Kennith Boulding, if you believe in infinite growth on a finite planet you are either a fool or an economist. "

    Couldn't let this one pass -- I have this notion, that we of the Western culture can be divided into two archetypes: Hesiodians and Odysseans.

    Those of the Hesiod persuasion are the stay at home types: wedded to nature, tillers of soil, rooted in their time and place, with a tendency to a rather dour pessimism. Odysseans are the restless travellers: glory seekers, warriors, explorers, with a tendency to excessive optimism.

    Your Boulding quote seems to me to exemplify the Hesiodian archetype. To which I offer in contrast this Odyssean exemplar from Carl Sagan:

    "All civilizations become either space faring or extinct."

  • Comment number 74.

    superted #57 wrote:

    "you claim for a 'fact' that domesticated dogs and wolves are the same species. Defining a species is a tough task yet you seem to know without doubt what criteria are necessary to ascribe animals into distinct species!"

    I doubt absolutely everything. I accept that defining 'species' is a tough task, but that's because we have different ideas about what should or should not demarcate them. It isn't that there's a "fact out there" that we find it hard to pin down, but rather that different purposes call for different demarcations.

    For the purposes of an informal blog conversation, I think the obvious "ability to produce fertile offspring" is good enough. Do you think that domestic dogs and wolves do not belong to the same species because of this criterion, or because of some other criterion?

    Do you think that domestic dogs and wolves belong to different species, and if so, why?

  • Comment number 75.

    #66. Brunnen and all discussing this wolf topic. First off, glad we are having this discussion. And Happy Easter or Estrus if you prefer the pagan version.

    "It isn't obvious to anyone who knows anything about deer. Wolves primarily hunt the weak and the sick, removing them from the gene pool, thus it is the stronger deer who breed."

    But brunnen, this just isn't as simple as the simple story suggests. That is how it starts but wolves can completely eradicate a prey population - including the strongest individuals. The trick is whether or not they have alternate prey. For example, the ONLY truly endangered SUBspecies in the Canadian Rockies is the 'mountain caribou'... which is actually an ecotype but they choose to call it a 'subspecies' for various reasons.

    Its is a complex story involving both habitat and predation. They winter in old growth forests, and that habitat is now fragmented and reduced, making them easier for predators to find. Back in the 'pristine' state those caribou were relatively rare and there were very few predators in their winter range because there was nothing else for them to hunt.

    Now with more second growth forests there are more moose and deer and now we have far more wolves, cougars and bears. But let's stick to wolves. Because this alternate prey can sustain wolf packs at high levels they are now knocking off the caribou - even though the caribou are getting consistently rarer.

    In the simple story, once the prey - e.g. caribou - declined so would the wolf population. This same multi-prey story is part of the problem in the western US. And the next step is that when the wolves get hungry, or simply learn, they start looking at other prey like livestock, pets, etc. That is exactly what will happen in the UK.

    This also illustrates the profound difference between human predation and wolf predation. When humans reduce their prey populations they can eat roots and berries... and survive to keep hunting.

    But I see (#69) Lorax saying that this proposal is off the table so its moot.

    brunnen this is a really gross oversimplification... "when wolves hunt deer, it isn't a question of speed (deer are faster than wolves, and the wolves know this), it is a question of stamina that will determine whether or not a deer survives."

    "As to the antlers... With Scottish deer, stags need large, impressive antlers and also need to be large and powerful themselves in order to win the rut fights with the other males and have a chance to mate. Slender males with sma

  • Comment number 76.

    #69 - Lorax, re lynx... I agree. They would be a much more practical species to introduce. But that still has problems as the experience in Switzerland shows. The hunting community there is responsible for paying for and managing the deer populations, plus there are farmers there too... and lynx do prey on sheep.

    So when they tried to introduce lynx there they died of 'lead poisoning.' The key here is that if you can't get the rural people or those with an actual vested interest involved in things, conservation projects are doomed... no matter how many urban voters screech about it. In the US they call it 'shoot, shovel, and shut up.'

    Two other points. I doubt very much if lynx predation would significantly impact deer populations... maybe roe deer but definitely not red deer. Too big.

    Second, you quote the cost for a government hunter to kill a deer. This is the profoundly stupid part. Hunters would PAY far more to hunt them. That money goes to conservation of them. Its a win-win. That is how it works here. And hunting regulations can manage the kill as well as any government plan.

    But the irrational anti-hunting sentiment turns this into a cost instead of a benefit for no logical reason... unless you think that a government paid hunter is somehow fundamentally different than a government paying hunter.

    And it seems abundantly clear that people have no clue about how prey dies when it is killed by wolves, or even lynx. Yes it is 'natural' but that doesn't make it 'nicer' for the victims. Wolves starting eating the guts before they are dead, and in the meantime the victims are shreeded and ripped brutally. C'est la nature.

    Here's the big picture that is important to see. When I got into the conservation business 40+ years ago the big problem was the 'Bambi syndrome,' a product of Disney etc., when everybody turned anti-hunting because of poor Bambis. Back then the public thought the wolf was 'bad' because it killed poor Bambi. So the wolf PR campaign began - and yes folks I was once involved with that - in order to create a more balanced view. But that worked so well - and has other purposes - that the pendulum has swung to the other extreme and now we have the 'good wolf syndrome' and nobody seems to care about what they do to Bambi.

    The truth is always in the middle.

  • Comment number 77.

    66. Brunnen... part of my comment got cut off but I happened to have saved it so... it continues...

    "As to the antlers... With Scottish deer, stags need large, impressive antlers and also need to be large and powerful themselves in order to win the rut fights with the other males and have a chance to mate. Slender males with smaller antlers would never get the chance to pass on their genes in the first place."

    Yes, entirely true in theory but... not so true in reality. The dominant bulls get so whipped up chasing off rivals that the little bulls can and do sneak in and mate.

    But back to wolves... for our elk, and presumably those ones (red deer and elk are the same species), the dominant bulls are so wasted after the rut that wolves very deliberately target them. So in the fall they are actually picking off what would seem to be the 'strongest.' So not so simple.

    "As for CR insisting there is a comparison between the re-introduction of the wolf to the Western US and the re-introduction to Scotland, there just isn't."

    Oh... Monty Python's dead parrot sketch comes to mind.

  • Comment number 78.

    74. bowmanthebard wrote:

    "you claim for a 'fact' that domesticated dogs and wolves are the same species. Defining a species is a tough task yet you seem to know without doubt what criteria are necessary to ascribe animals into distinct species!"

    Short answer: DNA. Longer answer is just as convincing but unnecessary.


  • Comment number 79.

    Re dogs-wolves... just fished out these papers, which I would bet are available on line, if you google:

    "Molecular evolution of the dog family"

    "Multiple and Ancient Origins of the Domestic Dog"

  • Comment number 80.

    If, in real life, tortoises could mutate into wolves as readily as they do in this blog, there would be no Red List problems.

    Richard, there will be no point in doing 'The Wolf Blog' - we've already done it.

  • Comment number 81.

    @CanadianRockies (From the previous thread re: urban deer)

    Not sure where you got the impression that I'm anti-hunting?? I might be green in my outlook when it comes to protecting habit and biodiversity, but we're all predators - you can tell by the slightly elongated canines and the forward facing eyes.

    So, I've nothing against culling or hunting within sustainable populations.

    You’re never going to be able to dissuade local populations from trying to make use of resources, the key is doing it sustainably and whilst avoiding large scale habitat destruction. Of all the ecological things I have a problem with, the destruction of habitats, is probably the one that causes me the most sleepless nights and it’s the one that I devote the most resources to doing something about.

    Re: Re-introductions in General

    Very happy about these, though I hear that there’s been mixed news for the re-introduced Beavers(I guess that’s nature at work). I personally think that the re-introduction of Scotland’s non-human top predators (lynxes and wolves) would be a good thing.

    Regards,

    One of the Lobby

  • Comment number 82.

    #76 Canadian Rockies

    'Two other points. I doubt very much if lynx predation would significantly impact deer populations... maybe roe deer but definitely not red deer. Too big.'

    Evidence from Scandinavia rather suggests that they can significantly reduce roe deer populations, and they'll certainly take red deer calves and yearlings. I'm afraid this evidence is poor quality though, merely peer-reviewed science and the knowledge of experts with decades of experience, rather than blogging ex-weathermen.

    '...you quote the cost for a government hunter to kill a deer. This is the profoundly stupid part. Hunters would PAY far more to hunt them. That money goes to conservation of them. Its a win-win. That is how it works here. And hunting regulations can manage the kill as well as any government plan.'

    Different Scottish hunting culture plays a part. Our hunters will pay well to get is 14-point royal red stag - not so for a roe doe in a crappy plantation. But a further point is that it is easy to get people to pay for a guaranteed kill. Most of the extra cost of 'government hunters' comes from unsuccessful outings because they are trying to reduce numbers from low to even lower.


    'And it seems abundantly clear that people have no clue about how prey dies when it is killed by wolves, or even lynx.'

    Lynx kill largely by asphyxiation.

    Lorax

  • Comment number 83.

    It appears that the BBC has been implicated in this investigation by the Telegraph.

    Might be a good opportunity for Richard to investigate?

    The truth is out there. We live in media manipulated society.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/climatechange/8469883/Lobbyists-who-cleared-Climategate-academics-funded-by-taxpayers-and-the-BBC.html

  • Comment number 84.

    I see how re-introduction of the Lynx could be the UK equivalent to the Mauritius example. They could slot back into the natural environment while being useful, without being in such direction competition with humans as wolves

  • Comment number 85.

    This story illustrates that everything in nature is inter-related and performs an important function. There are unintended consequences to removing species from an ecosystem.

    Here is an example: When wolves were removed from Yellowstone National Park the beaver population declined. When they were reintroduced the beaver population recovered. Why? because without wolves the elk congregated around streams and ate up the willow sapplings, which grow into food for beavers. The wolves not only affect the number of elk, but also their distribution.

    Never assume that anything in nature is without value.

  • Comment number 86.

    hikertom #85 wrote:

    "This story illustrates that everything in nature is inter-related and performs an important function."

    A place for everything and everything in its place. As it was MEANT to be.

  • Comment number 87.

    '83. At 14:14pm 24th Apr 2011, Shadorne wrote

    Giant tortoises probably call ducking inside their shells when things look dodgy 'watertight oversight', if you get my drift, on-topically:)

  • Comment number 88.

    #85. hikertom wrote:

    "This story illustrates that everything in nature is inter-related and performs an important function. There are unintended consequences to removing species from an ecosystem."

    Sure does. There sure are. Same for adding species.

    "When wolves were removed from Yellowstone National Park the beaver population declined. When they were reintroduced the beaver population recovered. Why? because without wolves the elk congregated around streams and ate up the willow sapplings, which grow into food for beavers. The wolves not only affect the number of elk, but also their distribution."

    True final statement but... your Yellowstone story misses the key point.

    The underlying problem in Yellowstone was a hyper-abundant elk population which was overbrowsing vegetation everywhere, not just along streams where beaver were. The cause of that overpopulation was removal of most of their predators - Native North Americans, wolves, and most cougars - compounded by more factors.

    Yellowstone was established in 1872 and by 1900 and earlier, almost all of the Rocky Mountain elk (versus Roosevelt elk of the Pacific coast) were in that park... and extirpated everywhere else. So when the park elk overpopulation started they transplanted surplus elk to other areas to restock them (most elk in North America, including most of the ones in the Canadian Rockies (e.g. Banff, Jasper) came from Yellowstone.

    By the 1930s there were few other places to put them so the park managers started culling them annually. The same thing happened in Banff by the 1940s. That kept the numbers under control.

    Then in the late 1960's certain people didn't like this culling so they stopped doing that. The worst part of this was they invented a completely bogus 'scientific' reason for doing that called 'natural regulation.' They just pulled out the old 'balance of nature' myth to cover what others called the 'do nothing' policy. Then they expalined that it was 'natural' for huge numbers of elk to starve to death in the winter while they destroyed their habitat with overgrazing... including browsing down all the shrubs that beavers ate ( and almost all berry-producing bushes, making the Yellowstone bear population uniquely berry-less).

    (By the way, this overpopulation problem was made worse by a program to feed elk in the winter at nearby Jackson Hole.)

    Then in the 1990s the wolf introduction project began, with wolves from Alberta released in Yellowstone in 1995 and other areas in 1996... and with that huge elk population, which had never seen wolves before, the

  • Comment number 89.

    Oops... cut off... continued...

    Then in the 1990s the wolf introduction project began, with wolves from Alberta released in Yellowstone in 1995 and other areas in 1996... and with that huge elk population, which had never seen wolves before, the wolf population exploded while the elk (deer, moose, bighorn sheep) populations declined dramatically.

    So now that peak wolf population is declining and will stabilize at lower levels in the park but in the meantime the wolves have spread out from the original locations all over the place - as far as Oregon so far... but that's another story.

    Back to the beavers. Yes, this reduction in elk by wolves has increased beaver food and thus habitat. BUT... when wolves can't find larger prey they hunt beavers... which must come up on land to chew down trees. So their impacts on the beaver population is more than just simply 'growth.'

    And it is also worth noting that the increased deciduous growth now also create more habitat for songbirds and lots of other things.

    And worth noting that this huge wolf population has almost eliminated coyotes and have become serious competitors with grizzly bears there for carcasses and also kill grizzly bear cubs and black bears.

    There is much more to this story. When they were selling this introduction the 'Conservation Biologists' lied. They assured everyone that these wolves would be contained and, believe it or not, that they would not have any impacts on their prey populations!!! They had to say that to sell this plan, plus to maintain the big 'natural regulation' lie - both lies proven obviously false by the result.

    Compounding that, when they sold it they said their total wolf population target for the whole project (including areas outside the park) was 30 packs and about 300 wolves in THREE states.

    But then, after there were well over five times that number and still rising the Green mafia said that, no, they really needed 3000... and the armies of environmental lawyers - which is what most US environmental groups are now - launched endless legal challenges while the wolves spread far and wide

    Oh well. Things recently changed, finally. But this obvious deception has done incredible damage to conservation efforts down there, and beyond. And it could all have been so much better if they were honest about it, but they were not and are not. Here's the details of this project... information you won't find in any Defenders of Wildlife et al website:

    http://allamericanpatriot.com/content/how-legal-was-introduction-canadian-wolves-northern-ro

  • Comment number 90.

  • Comment number 91.

    #82. Lorax... "Different Scottish hunting culture plays a part."

    True. As I recall hunting was reserved for the upper classes, not the serfs. I guess some things never change.

    Still, your argument economic argument about why it is better to only let the 'king's men' cull the deer population does not make any sense at all. None.

  • Comment number 92.

    #83. Shadorne - Hmmm. That story is all over the blogosphere.

    I'm shocked, shocked!

 

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