Category: Domestication


Happy Thanskgiving

Wild Turkeys

This photo was taken right off the deck of my sister and brother-in-law’s house in Ithaca, and no, they do not live out of town. Photo by Richard Baer.

Just a very short post for Thanksgiving day. For the day’s feast, aren’t you glad the turkey was domesticated? Wonder why Ben Franklin wanted to make it the National bird? He was thinking of the wild ones, which are still around, though not in Alaska. My brother-in-law took this picture, in his back yard (Ithaca, New York.)

red Dun horse

Red Dun. Notice how flat the color looks compared with chestnut.

The colors of all wild animals are a tradeoff between camouflage, which hides the animal from its predators or hides the predator from its prey, and display, which involves making the animal more attractive to members of the opposite sex or more threatening to rivals of the same sex. In equines, camouflage may involve blending into the herd (as in zebras) or blending with the background (often dry grass.) Bay, black and chestnut are not very good camouflage colors, but flatter, duller shades of these colors are.

Same red dun, showing dorsal stripe

Dorsal stripe on the same red dun as the first picture.

The dun gene flattens and dulls the coat color over most of the body, sometimes leaving head, lower legs, and manes and tails darker than the body. Both red and black pigments are affected. It also produces a highly variable degree of striping of the coat. In general a dun horse will have a dark stripe running from the mane to the base of the tail, which in some cases continues down the center of the mane (dark mane center with light edges as in the Fjord horse) and tail. (Dorsal stripes do occur on other colors, but they are rarely unbroken from mane to tail.) In addition duns often have zebra-like stripes on the legs (especially near the knees and hocks.)

Dun Fjord horse

Dun Fjord horse. Note that the dorsal stripe continues up the middle of the mane. This horse also has tiger striping (faint) on the hocks.

Less commonly, they will have spiderweb-like markings on the forehead, or a cross stripe over the wither area—a marking common in donkeys. All of these markings are grouped as primitive marks.

One early study of dun suggested that the dulling is due to a crowding of the pigment granules to one side of the hair. My own observations tentatively support this, but I am aware of no published studies—looking at individual hairs under a microscope doesn’t seem to be popular today.

Dun is thought to be the wild-type gene for horses, and it is definitely dominant to non-dun. Why do we think it is the wild-type gene?

Dun Fjord horse, rear view

Dun Fjord horse. Note that the dorsal stripe runs into the tail, and the faint zebra markings on the hocks.

First, cave paintings.  Almost all show the darker head typical of dun, and some also show other primitive marks. Cave artists were limited by the available pigments, but their renditions are certainly compatible with the various types of dun.

Second, the wild horses that survived long enough to have their color recorded. These include the living Przewalski’s horse of Asia and the now extinct Tarpan of Europe, both duns.

Dun, though a dominant gene, is not that common in most horse breeds today. Why? During domestication, an occasional mutation to non-dun must have occurred. Human beings are attracted to what is different, and the earliest domesticators of the horse probably prized these intensely colored variants—to such a degree that in many horse breeds of today dun is either non-existent or very rare.

Zebra Dun

A darker shade of dun on bay. This horse had the dorsal stripe (clearer in another photo) and a clear shoulder stripe.

The words dun and buckskin are rather loosely used, and often treated as synonyms. Genetically, however, it is better to reserve buckskin for a bay with one cream gene at the cream locus, and dun for the whole suite of colors produced by one or two doses of the dun gene. The colors include red dun (dun on a chestnut background) various shades of tan with black mane, tail and lower legs known as  zebra dun, (dun on a bay background) and various shades of dark slate gray to tan to silver with dark points known as grullo (dun on a black background.)

Appaloosa grulla, photo credit Gail LordIn my  science fiction book, Tourist Trap, I have both wild horses assumed to be descended from some transplanted from Earth during the Pleistocene, described as striped duns, and a domestic mare, Raindrop, whose base color is grulla (feminine form of grullo.) Those striped duns are assumed to be duns of various base colors with very strong primitive marks. I might add that Raindrop’s color and markings correspond almost exactly with those of the foal in the last picture.

Year 2, Day 355

African landscape, from Morguefile.comFifteen days it took them to get Meerkat to the place where Storm Cloud’s group was encamped, and by that time most of Storm Cloud’s group had moved on. They’d left a few behind, and everyone seemed to know where they were going, so I didn’t worry too much about leaving them at the old camp site. Lion’s group had reached good grazing and water several days earlier. Everyone was feeding themselves and finding water,  so all I had to do was continue to have Patches track Storm Cloud’s group to the Gather.

The Gather. Patches. Two problems for me to worry about. Do I really want to go to their Gather? Should I, or have I interfered more than enough already? And what am I to do about Patches? How easily the impulse to help can lead us into trouble!

I could have ignored the orphaned and starving puppy. Then I would not be agonizing over the moral problem of just how far I can justify meddling with Patches’ mind. She is not a domesticate, whose mind is adjusted to living with a dominant species. She is a tamed wild animal, and her instincts are telling her she should be part of a pack, challenging the dominant female for the right to breed. But she understands nothing of pack living.

I could free her, easily enough, but she could never survive on her own. No pack would accept her. Any dominant female would kill her on sight. She knows nothing of fighting; I myself have conditioned her against the very things that might keep her alive.

True, she is not a sentient, a creature that is aware of its own mortality, I can modify her mind, deepen her acceptance of humans as her pack, even reduce the instinct to mate. Perhaps that is what I should do? I cannot think of anything else. Perhaps I should not have saved her, but would I myself be alive if I had not?

In case you’re new to Jarn’s Journal it is a Friday feature of this blog, and represents the (fictional) journal of a (fictional) human-like alien stranded in Africa 125,000 years ago. The journal to date is on my author site, and is the remote back story of the setting of my science fiction books.

Year 2, Day 339

African Wild DogI am beginning to wonder if I may have promised more than I can deliver. At least it keeps me busy!

Yesterday morning was devoted to filling water containers, finding food (for three groups now) and checking on the woman whose name, I have finally discovered, is Meerkat. Then I teleported Patches and myself to the last camp of Lion’s group and had Patches try to track them to their next camp. Patches can move a good deal faster than they can, and they usually stop to hunt well before dark, so I caught them just as they are staring to look for a campsite. Yesterday I spotted a good site ahead of them and guided them to it. By that time, however, Patches was getting tired of tracking. Getting her to follow the hunters from Storm Cloud’s camp toward Meerkat’s took a good deal more mental control than I really like to use, and it was full dark before we found them and delivered their water.

I hoped to break up the tracking by having Patches track the hunters partway in the morning, as they leave as soon as there is any light at all. Then Patches could rest while I took food and water to Meerkat and filled the water containers for Lion’s group. Actually finding the group was as much a matter of guessing as following Patches, who by that time was sore-footed as well as rebellious. When it came to following the hunters from where they’d been around noon, she simply laid down and dared me to drive her on.

I thought that by then they might be getting close to Meerkat’s camp, as after all they had estimated two days to get there. So I teleported their supplies to the camp and then flew back along the route I though they would be using. Luckily there was a full moon tonight, so I was able to find them. Lucky also that they had estimated the time it would take them so well. And I have seen most of the trail they will be returning over, so if they tell me each day where they will camp the next night, I should be able to teleport to those sites, leaving only Lion’s group to depend on Patches’ skill as a reluctant tracker.

Occasionally I review books, including my own. Here is an index to posts that can be considered in some sense book reviews.

Book Reviews

Homecoming 10/20/10
The Book Video is Here! 12/15/10
Quick Comment on Reading 2/8/11
Homecoming Award 3/1/11
Beauty and the Beast 3/24/11
The Animal Connection 6/28/11
Tourist Trap: What’s it About? 8/16/11
Shipbuilder (Guest Post) 9/8/11
Is That a Ghost? 10/31/11
Once and Future Giants 11/22/11
The Land of Painted Caves 2/28/12
Tourist Trap 3/27/12
Pride and Prejudice 4/17/12
The Fire Rose 8/14/12
Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels 8/28/12
Rescue Operation Preview 9/4/12
Alone in Paradise (blog tour) 9/6/12
Darcy’s Decision 1/22/13
The Real Jane Austin 3/12/13
Georgiana Darcy’s Diary 4/9/13
Darcy’s Diary 5/7/13
Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman 7/10/13
Death Comes to Pemberley 8/13/13
Mr. Darcy’s Guide to Courtship 9/10/13
Jane Austen, Game Theorist 10/8/13
Betrothed to Mr. Darcy 11/12/13
Pride and Pyramids 12/10/14
Mansfield Park 1/14/14

With 550 posts as of today, I’ve started to have problems remembering what I’ve already put on here. This is particularly a problem with posting existing content such as poems, short pieces from the Summer Arts Festival, or science explanations originally written for the Alaska Science Forum. I can’t remember which books or DVDs I’ve posted reviews on. It also is starting to be a problem when I want to link to a previous post and can’t remember when it was put up or what the title was. And there are posts on this blog that have permanent information, like the series on planet building and the one on horse color genetics, or the book and DVD reviews. I want to make it easier for my readers as well as myself to find things.

I made a start some time ago by adding an index page, which can be accessed from the menu at the top of any page. Right now, the only links are to index pages on my author site. This takes you out of the site and sometimes back in, which is rather clumsy. The index list is also incomplete.

I’m going to start posting an occasional entry which is strictly an index of past posts on a particular topic. These posts will be linked from the index page, and will link forward to the individual blog posts. As it takes a while to find all the posts that belong together, this will be a slow process—probably extending over the next few months. The first in this series, on DVD reviews, is already queued for January 3. Others will follow, most on Thursdays.

I probably won’t be indexing every post. Some, like those early posts which were simply glossary entries for my books, are on the author site and really belong there. Others, like the regular Monday updates on North Pole weather starting in November 2010, can be found easily enough just by using the calendar on the site. But I hope that by the time I have finished this, older posts of interest will be easier to find.

I don’t often repeat posts, but with the projection of the  world population passing 7 billion this week, I thought it was time to bring this one out again.

Domestication is a mutual process—the plants and animals domesticated historically have met us halfway.

We and our domesticates have entered a kind of symbiosis—both we and they benefit, at least in numbers.

Plant and animal domestication was the first step toward civilization.

There are only two ways of increasing agricultural yield: Increase the amount of food produced per acre, or increase the amount of land farmed.

Once domestication occurred, we were locked into a positive feedback loop between food production and population. But a positive feedback loop is inherently limited and unstable. Are we approaching a crash?

I’ve been taking a Teaching Company course on DVD for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve taken so far. I’ve always been interested in the process of domestication, especially since it became clear that the early agriculturists were generally less healthy than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. How did wolves become dogs? Who first thought of riding a horse? Did riding come before or after driving? And are cats really domesticated, or did they domesticate us?

The course is “Understanding the Human Factor: Life and Its Impact” by Professor Gary A. Sojka, but it’s really about human impact. I can’t say it answered all of my questions, or even asked them, but it did a good job of summarizing our current state of understanding, and of steering a middle course between “domestication is a sin and all domesticated animals should be returned to the wild” (most would not survive, and we probably wouldn’t, either) and “animals have no feelings and were put on this world solely for our use.” There are fewer moral problems with domesticated plants and microbes, though even here there are quandaries. How dangerous are monocultures, for instance? Or reliance on a small number of closely related varieties? (Think the Irish potato famine.)

If I have an argument with Professor Sojka, it is that he is too optimistic about the future. This may be appropriate for a college course, but I don’t feel enough sense of urgency. Yes, some people—a small minority even in the West—are beginning to think about long-term sustainability. (The politicians aren’t, by and large.) But the major problem—a population that is rapidly outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (if it hasn’t done so already)—has become a taboo subject for serious discussion.  “The demographic transition will take care of it.” But will that happen soon enough?

Historically, our population has been kept in check by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine. War. Disease. Death by wild beasts—today, accidental death of all kinds. All of these are premature deaths—death by old age simply is not mentioned.

Today, we tend to regard such deaths—those of the young—as particularly tragic. We fight them in every way we can—and in many ways, we’ve succeeded. What we’ve forgotten is that every person born dies eventually, and to reach sustainability we have to reduce the number of people being born until it balances the number who die. Otherwise the four horsemen will eventually increase the death rate to match the birth rate—or more.

Food and energy both rely on sunlight—the sunlight that falls on the earth today and the sunlight that fell hundreds of million years ago, and is now stored in fossil fuels. I group food and energy for several reasons. Fertilizer. Biofuels. Pesticides. Transportation. Pumping water to where it is needed for crops, in some cases pumping down water that has been in storage since the ice age. All of the advances that have allowed us to hold back that horseman, Famine, ultimately rely on those fossil fuels and fossil water, or plan to replace them with agricultural products. And fossil fuels are becoming increasingly risky to exploit—look at the BP oil spill.

But an increase in agricultural output to match the increase in population means more efficiency—which we are obtaining today largely through fossil fuels—or more land in agricultural production. There is only so much land suitable for agriculture, especially if we want to keep the ecosystem services we depend on going. And one of the oldest causes for war is the desire for more land. Desire for more energy, often perceived as a need, is a rising cause of wars today.

Disease? In part that ties back to our methods of food production, as well. Certainly much antibiotic resistance can be linked to the widespread use of antibiotics in animals, and many diseases that started out in animals have crossed over to human beings. I find it interesting that all of the great world religions, many of them very pro-natalist, trace their origins to early city dwellers. Disease can spread rapidly among city-dwellers. In fact until the last century or two, urban areas were dependent on immigration from the countryside to maintain their populations. Having many children was important to these early city-dwellers—most of their children would die before having children themselves. That’s not true today, thanks largely to public health improvements—but the mindset and the religious imperative remain.

All living things—plants, animals, and human beings—are driven to reproduce. In our case, that deep-seated drive is reinforced by religious and social pressures. We claim we have a right, even a duty, to reproduce. But do we? Not in nature. Nature says the “right” to reproduce must be earned. It’s a lesson I hope we can learn before it is enforced by the Four Horsemen.

This is Post 486. Comment to join the drawing.

Cats: DVD review

Cats are probably the least domesticated of our domestic animals. Dogs may have chosen to live with us, but they have changed themselves to suit our needs. Cats moved into our granaries when we started storing grain and found the stored grain an outstanding hunting ground.  While they tolerate us, and at times even show great affection toward us, the domestication is on the cat’s terms, not ours.

T. S. Elliott knew this. The cats of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats belong to themselves, not to people, and Elliott actually turned down an attempt by Walt Disney to make a movie of the poems, because he did not want his cats made into cartoon cats. But when Andrew Weber approached his widow about making a musical from the book, with the cats being very much street cats, she agreed that his vision was what her husband would have wished. The result was one of the longest-running musicals on the London stage.

Cats was made into a movie 13 years ago. I watched it a couple of times on PBS, taped it, bought the official tapes from PBS (and was rather annoyed that some of the material I’d taped off-air wasn’t on the official tape) and finally bought the DVD as part of a set of Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals. It’s one of those DVD’s I have played so often I’m worried about wearing it out.

It doesn’t have much of a plot. What plot there is is centered on Grizabella, an old cat who’s had a very good, if slightly shady, life and is now shunned by the other cats. A secondary plot is the kidnapping of Old Deuteronomy by the feline outlaw, Macavity, and his rescue by the kitten prodigy, Mr. Mistoffelees. But the music and dancing are the heart of the production.

Most of the songs use lyrics straight (or almost straight) from the book, but I think my favorite is “Memories,” which along with Grizabella herself, were added. Of the characters straight from the book, I think my favorites are Rum-Tum-Tigger (a tomcat in his prime who’s a rock ‘n roll teen idol) and Mr. Mistoffelees (a kitten with powers he doesn’t quite know how to handle.)

Surprisingly the dancing, while I love it, is not nearly as cat-like as Puss in Boots and the white cat in the ballet, Sleeping Beauty (Opera de Paris.) But the whole performance is still enjoyable enough to repeat.

This is a continuation from last week of Jarn’s story.  Jarn is a R’il’nian, a very human-like alien, stranded on Earth 125,000 years ago. The Jarnian Confederation, setting of my two science fiction books, was named after him. Jarn’s Journal to date is posted on my author website.

Day 371

I have been here more than a year!

I knew it was more than a Kentra year, of course—the clock and calendar are still working. And the day-length here is close enough to Kentra’s that the count of sunrises alone was enough to tell me that a year had passed on my home planet.

But today I was at my first landing place near sunset. I paused to watch the sinking sun, and it was slightly north of a notch in the hills on the horizon that framed its setting the first time I looked. First it moved north, then south, and now it is moving north again and it is farther north than when I arrived, so more than a planet year has passed. I will have to set up some means of keeping track of were it sets, and develop a local calendar.

I asked Songbird if her people would return. She said yes, they followed the gazelles, which always came back to that place with the sun.

Could they not eat fish, I asked, or any of the other wild foods she was introducing me to?

“Fish is not as sweet as gazelle meat, and besides, they will meet other groups to the north. Aardvark is old enough to mate, and his mate must come from another group.”

“Does the girl go to her mate’s group, or the boy?” I asked.

She looked puzzled. “The shamans of the two clans decide,” she finally said, “but I hope Aardvark stays. We have more girls than boys.”

The shamans again. Was keeping the sex ratio balanced one of their jobs? What else influenced them? I do not know how long these people had been in their camping spot before Patches found them. But this year I will start watching when the clouds begin massing on the northern horizon.

Musk Ox Art

Ever heard of musk oxen?

They’re more closely related to goats and sheep than to cattle (though larger) and they’re definitely an Arctic animal, with a luxurious underwool called qiviut under an outer shell of long hair. They have horns that make a helmet over the tops of their heads with wickedly forward-curved, sharp tips, and they’re a daunting sight head-on. Their defense against their traditional predators such as wolves was to gather in a circle, heads out, with the vulnerable calves in the center. However effective against wolves, such a defense was useless against human hunters, and musk oxen were close to extinction when restrictions on hunting, and transplantation, allowed them to bounce back.

Today musk oxen are being farmed for their qiviut, though it is probably going too far to call them domesticated. The best qiviut is allowed to loosen naturally and combed from the animal (with the aid of a holding chute!) and knit by village women—one of the few sources of cash income in remote Alaskan villages. It’s not overrated — I had a nachaq before the fire, and qiviut is an incredibly soft, warm, lightweight fiber.

The animals themselves have not gotten much attention in art – until recently. Our local PBS affiliate, which has a contest every winter for a poster design, had a semi-abstract muskox painting a couple of years ago. And this month there is an exhibit of musk oxen at the Bear Gallery in Fairbanks.

Have you heard of the Painted Ponies?

Lacie Stiewing decided that musk oxen would be just as good as horses for decorating. Better, in fact, and she designed a somewhat abstract musk ox form and decorated copies of the form with abandon. The result is a herd of musk oxen, a few shown here, in the Bear Gallery at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks, Alaska. It’s an exhibit to make you smile, even if small varieties of the critters are not available. Lacie, have you thought about that?

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