Of Wolves and Dogs.

Recently I had to put together a display about the family Canidae and thought I’d share some of the very cool things I discovered with you all. Being a big dog lover myself, I’m forever fascinated with this family, which is in the Order Carnivora (from the Latin for “to devour flesh”), which also includes cats (Felidae), bears (Ursidae), and a smattering of other righteously cool predators.

The words “canid,” “canidae,” and “canine” all have roots in the word “canis,” which is Latin for “dog.” Also, “caninus,” meaning “of the dog.” The word “canine” refers to “pointed tooth.” (I heart etymonline.com!)

Yellowstone wolf pack in 2001. Via National Park Service.

Canids are wolves, dogs, foxes, jackals, coyotes, and a few other strange species that I had no idea existed. They’re found all over the world and are identified by some (mostly) common features:

1. They’re long-bodied and typically long-legged (for speed and  hunting over long distances).

2. Most sport a “dew” claw, a vestigial toe that doesn’t touch the ground while standing up.

3. Bushy tails and long snouts.

4. Canids are digitigrade, meaning that they walk on their toes.

5. Many are loners, but the Canidae family is known for having social hierarchies and living in packs, which defend set territories (as opposed to being nomadic).

6. The baculum. Also known as the penis bone.

Somewhere between 60 and 30 million years ago, there was this group of rad little predators called the Miacids. They were small and fed on small things, but they were the humble beginnings of our larger predators today: canines, felines, and even bears. Miacids would be total trouble makers today judging by this artist’s interpretation of one called Tapocyon.

Tapocyon had teeth like a dog but retractible claws like a cat, and was the size of a large coyote. Here, miacid miacid miacid…

Over the next 10 million years, miacids split into what would become the cat family and the dog family (and others, but I’m keeping it simple here). Wolf ancestors and fox ancestors split somewhere around 7 million years ago, and wolves split from coyotes around 2 million years ago.

I honestly had no idea just how many canid species there are in the world. There are 32 subspecies of Gray wolf alone (13 of which are now extinct or thought to be extinct) – meaning that they’re all Gray wolves, but with regional differences. Here’s NaturalWorlds.org’s list of all the canid species, and it’s worth a click just to scroll down and see how many exist. Again, canids comprise wolves, coyotes, dogs, jackals (at least four species), foxes (a dozen species of those), raccoon dogs (five species there), the maned wolf, African wild dogs, and a few others.

We’re all pretty familiar with wolves and coyotes and the controversy that they face, so I want to point out some other cool canines.

Raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are found in eastern Asia and face a lot of slaughter for the fur trade. They’re omnivores and are one of the only canid species that can climb trees. It’s also the cutest thing in our solar system. Image via Zooillogix.

The Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus) is also sometimes called the “Red Fox on Stilts” for obvious reasons. It’s not a fox or a wolf, however; it’s something entirely all its own. Maned Wolves are native to South America and are omnivores as well. They hunt, but fruit makes up an important part of their diets. Funnest Fact about the Maned Wolf: its pungent pee smells like cannabis! Image via Wiki, Credit: Sarefo.

The African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus), also known as the Painted Dog, is an African native and the only species in its genus. This canid is a ferocious hunter and creates strong family ties with its pack. The fur coloring is beautiful and they’re easily recognized by both the pelt and those huge ears. This canid is the only canid that lacks a dew claw. Image via Wiki. Credit: Hellenabella.


The Bat-Eared Fox (Otocyon megalotis) is pictured first with the darker coat, and the Fennec Fox (Vulpes zerda) is pictured second with the light coat. Both are native to Africa and use those huge-r-ific ears for hearing prey underground and dispersing heat. Bat-Eared Foxes are insectivorous and Fennecs omnivorous. Both species are nocturnal. Bat-Eared Fox image credit: Craig R. Sholley. Fennec image via Wiki by Umberto Salvagnin

And then there’s the majestic, ferocious DOG (Canis lupus familiaris). Dog is a versatile, many-faced species that rejoices the most when placed in combination with others of its kind, humans, squeaky toys, soft beds, and jerky treats. I jest, but left to their own devices, feral domesticated dogs will form packs, hunt, and perform behaviors almost identical to their ancestor, Canis lupus. (Don’t tell my dog I put this picture up here.)

Which brings me to my next point: the domestic dog. Researchers think truly domestic dogs have been around for about 14,000 years, but some evidence suggests a longer relationship with humans. It’s easy to see why that relationship would have developed to the benefit of both parties: wolves may have protected tribes and helped them hunt, while humans may have allowed a local wolf pack access to all the scraps and waste meat they could handle. Unfortunately we don’t have a lot of evidence for exactly how dogs became domesticated, but there are some theories. We know tribal peoples around the world often adopt wild canid puppies, so that may have been the humble beginnings of domestication. One theory in particular that I think is neat is that domestic dogs came from members of the Southern Wolf clade (clade is a fun word, isn’t it?): the Ethiopian Wolf, Arabic Wolf, Dingo, and others.

See, there are two groups of wolves. The Northern clade is the one we know best: the Gray Wolf, with its thick dark coat, big brain, and propensity for howling, and others like it, that inhabit the Northern Hemisphere. The Southern Wolves, however, are a bit different. They’re smaller, leaner, have weaker carnassials, inhabit lands in the Southern Hemisphere, and don’t howl so much as bark and make other smaller vocalizations. Have a look at these three photos:

Australian Dingo (Canis lupus dingo)  via Wiki. Credit: PartnerHund.com

Ethiopian Wolf (Canis simensis), image credit: Michel Gunther

The basenji (Canis lupus familiaris), one of the oldest breeds of dogs, thought to originate in central Africa. Image via justdogbreeds.com

It’s easy to see where the Basenji might have come from; how about other breeds? Did they originate from ones like the Basenji, or do we have a bunch of breeds coming from one Canis ancestor, and a bunch from a different Canis ancestor? I don’t know, but it’s sure fascinating to consider. What we do know is that dogs learned to be happy around people, whereas most wild canids are very wary of humans. Dogs seem to look at humans as just funny-looking packmates.

Ah, I can’t wait to get home and play with my scrappy little wolf-thing. Thanks for reading, everyone! :) Happy Tuesday.



I’m taking this space as an opportunity to push my dog agenda.

#1: Support animal shelters and avoid breeders. There are millions of dogs and cats that have to be put down each year because there aren’t enough people adopting the orphaned. Instead, breeders can charge hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a “genetically pure” (read: potentially inbred if you don’t use a reputable breeder) puppy. I’ve tried, but I still find it difficult to agree with breeding when there are already so many dogs that have to die each year. We also rarely use dogs in the capacity for which they were originally bred. Also, do not ever buy a dog from a pet store, as most of those puppies come from inhumane puppy mills.

#2: Do your research when you want to take on a dog. Dogs do not understand human communication and human signals; they understand canine communication and canine signals. The best I’ve read on dog behavior (which is not the same as dog training) is Cesar Milan, who now has at least three books on the topic. I’ve never experienced a dog that didn’t understand what I wanted when using Cesar’s methods. I believe that most of bad dog behavior is caused by humans not understanding how to effectively communicate with canines.

Here are some cute mutt puppy photos for you. :) Thanks for reading!

Posted on October 12, 2010, in Fauna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks, excellent blog on canines…

  2. I enjoyed this. You’re adorable.

  3. Cindy Kurpiewski

    really enjoyed reading this. Great puppy pics.While I agree with supporting shelters and NEVER buying a puppy from a pet store, I do think that breeders of purebred dogs are important. I’m talking about the responsible breeders who breed to a standard, are active in their breed clubs, breed for conformation and show. Without these breeders many pure breeds would be lost forever to the likes of a “puggle”. I have 2 English Cocker Spaniels(before they were “Americanized) purchased for show and possible breeding. Both have been neutered after the breeder decided that there were certain traits she didn’t want to pass on.

    • Thanks for reading Cindy! I see what you’re saying, but I find little necessity in the preservation of dog breeds. I realize it’s important to some people, but realistically speaking -at least the way I see it, certainly not saying my opinion is the right one – artificial selection necessitates health problems that, without human intervention, would surely be weeded out almost immediately by nature. Dog breeding has always been a strange, fascinating hobby in my eyes. Thanks for commenting!! :)

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