Friday, November 24, 2017

It's Time to Thank Wolves

Wolf photo via USFWS (CC BY 2.0)
As the thankful time of year arrives, I think wolves deserve our thanks. With the help of wolves, early humans improved their hunting skills. Ancient wolves were generous enough and brave enough to make a leap of friendship with humans and domesticate into dogs. Ancient wolves may have helped us outcompete Neanderthals.

For hundreds of thousands of years, wolves dogged herds of reindeer that migrated between what is now Spain and Siberia. After the last Ice Age, perhaps 10,000 years ago, early humans may have seen wolves bringing down reindeer. Our ancestors may have been as hungry as those wolves. Stomachs growling, they puzzled over how to plunder some of their competitor’s bounty. A couple of early humans--no matter how desperate--couldn't just take a pack's kill.  

But early humans were superior to their competitor in some ways, say Wolfgang Schleidt and Michael Shalter in the journal article “Coevolution of Humans and Canids.” Humans have greater cognitive ability. Humans can see better at longer distances because we stand taller than wolves. Humans with weapons could hit a target from a distance. These strengths could have enabled early humans to assist wolves in hunting.

Ancient wolves hunted, as they do now, by sorting and sifting a herd to expose the animal that required the least effort to bring down. Once wolves cut that animal from the herd, the dangerous work of bringing down a much bigger animal began. And that’s where humans might have come in. With bigger brains, better vision, and weapons, humans could have helped the wolves. Working together, a meal was won using the strengths of both predators. The partners--no longer competitors-- shared the spoils. 

There is even evidence that wolves helped humans survive, not just eat. Pat Shipman, an anthropologist, in her book, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, also theorizes that early humans partnered with wolves. But she adds a twist: that alliance gave our ancestors an unbeatable advantage over Neanderthals, our competitor.

Neanderthal sites in Europe (Via Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Scientists figure that Neanderthals dominated the European continent when our ancestors reached there about 45,000 years ago. Just 5,000 years later, Neanderthals had disappeared. Some experts believe that climate change caused their demise. Shipman presents an exciting alternative. 

“At that time, modern humans, Neanderthals and wolves were all top predators and competed to kill mammoths and other huge herbivores,” she told Robin McKie, of The Guardian. “But then we formed an alliance with the wolf and that would have been the end for the Neanderthal.”

Here's how Shipman sees the partnership. “Early wolf-dogs would have tracked and harassed animals like elk and bison and would have hounded them until they tired. Then humans would have killed them with spears or bows and arrows.” In addition to helping with the hunt, wolf-dogs would have kept rival carnivores and scavengers from stealing the kill—just as wolves protect their kills today.

Wolves surround a bison (NPS photo)
These ancient wolf-dogs were not the same as modern wolves or modern dogs, were not a wolf-dog hybrid. Shipman told Simon Worrall of National Geographic that wolf-dogs had characteristics similar to those of today’s wolves, but they were a distinct group. Large and built for hunting, they had big teeth and a great sense of smell and could run long and fast.

Shipman found no evidence that Neanderthals joined forces with wolves. As she told Worrall, “They continued to do things in the same old Neanderthal way as life got hard and times cold...And that lack of adaptability may have been a telling failure as [modern humans] moved in. If you then add in wolf-dogs, Neanderthals were at a terrific disadvantage.” 

Modern humans won the evolutionary race. And we have our partners the wolves to thank for some of that victory. 

As centuries passed, this partnership evolved into wolves becoming dogs. The commonly held view of that domestication is that humans chose the lazy, opportunistic, outcast-from-the-pack wolves that scavenged at human camps. But Schleidt and Shalter present an alternate—and intriguing—possibility of unrecorded history: “…scavenging wolves took the initiative and conned the affluent hunting and gathering humans into sharing their plenty, by pretending to be their obedient servants and hunting companions.” In other words, wolves may have chosen and trained us, much to our benefit. 

Mark Derr offers another view of the wolf-to-dog transition in his book How the Dog Became the Dog. He does not see wolves as curs slinking around the edge of a human settlement begging for handouts and eventually tamed by intelligent humans. He writes that the partnership with wolves occurred before early humans even had settlements. Certain nomadic humans and wolves met on the trail and were simply right for one another; were both sociable and curious. Those initial connections were no small thing for either party. The first wolves to take up with humans were exceptional animals capable of making what Derr calls “a leap of friendship” with a creature from another species.

Wolves hunting elk (NPS photo)
Once that leap was made, early human and wolves evolved together. Our ancestors learned a few tricks from wolves—and returned the favor.  Early human hunters, writes Derr, were ambushers, while the more experienced wolves were pursuit hunters.  Humans observed wolves and learned to hunt by stampeding prey. This method produced more meat than humans could eat or carry away and they left the remains for wolves and scavengers. Wolves ate their fill and learned that they could benefit from human hunters. 

Derr’s image of two intelligent and resourceful creatures meeting on the trail, befriending one another, and evolving together is an important addition to wolf natural history. No one knows for sure how humans and wolves met or how wolves started their long journey to doghood.  But I think that how we view wolves historically is critical to how we treat them today.

Consider this scenario: You’re in the market for a dog and you go to a reputable breeder. She has two dogs from which you can choose. The dogs look similar. You ask about each. She points to one and says, “Oh, his parents hung out by my trash pile. They’re just scavengers.”  Then she points at the other and says, “This one’s parents were two of my best friends. They were intelligent, attentive, and curious.” Which animal would you take as one you will love and care for? Which might you keep at a distance or demonize? 

As I see it, ancient wolves were intelligent enough to grasp the advantage of working with our ancestors. Ancient wolves were generous enough to share their hard-earned kills. Ancient wolves were brave enough to make a dangerous leap of friendship with a competitive species. 

In the end, we became top predators with powerful arsenals and few thoughts of long-term consequences. And, sadly, we came to hate wolves and treat them as unacceptable competitors for game and livestock. 

We forgot the thanks we owe these fine creatures that befriended and taught us.

You can read more about wolves and our relationship with them in Rick’s books. His new book, Deep into Yellowstone: A Year’s Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy, is available signed from Rick, or unsigned on Amazon.  His best seller, In the Temple of Wolves, is available signed, or unsigned on Amazon.

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