Amazing Radio Show

October 22, 2009

I love the show Radio Lab from WNYC. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore science topics with a cool attitude and an edgy sound mix. Last week they ran a show called “New Normal”. It’s a must-listen for any Robert Sapolsky fan.

If you haven’t heard of Robert Sapolsky and have any interest in Evolutionay Biology, Human Origins, Animal Behavior, life in the African bush or the effect of stress on people and animals run out and get a copy of A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons.

Actually, you should read the book and then do the radio show because the interview with Robert Sapolsky gives away the wrenching ending to A Primate’s Memoir. Anyone who has read this book – you must listen to this show. There is an incredibly uplifting revelation about how things have worked out for Sapolsky’s baboon troupe.

The 3rd segment is about the Balyaev fox breeding experiments where Dr. Balyaev bred tame foxes in 10 generations and how that changed the animals.

Direct link to download the RadioLab MP3 podcast.

Our Sophie

February 27, 2009

In 1996 just outside of a small West African village my wife (though at the time we were just dating), Christie, recovered a tiny, wailing puppy in the Bush. The puppy was alone without littermates and with no bitch in sight. We later learned that when a bitch has an undesirable litter of puppies one way of getting rid of the problem was to have boys spread the puppies out into the bush as far apart as possible in hopes that they will die before the bitch finds them. In general this was a practice of people who considered the dogs to be a sort of large rat in the first place and never wanted the bitch hanging around in the first place. Among the Mandinka people with whom we lived in that particular corner of Africa, dogs are absolute pariahs who survive on the food waste and trash that is discarded over the compound wall.

Sophie from infant to adult

Sophie from infant to adult

The puppy was so tiny that her eyes were not yet open. It was much too young to have been weaned. We didn’t have anything like bottles or formula to nurse this dog. Christie bought a can of condensed milk at the little village store and dribbled it into the puppy’s mouth with her finger. I found out about the new little family member by bush letter, which is to say that Christie wrote me a letter and gave it to a passing car headed in my direction and which was eventually delivered to me. At the time I was working a couple of hundred miles away. When I read the letter I as completely stunned. I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly take care of a tiny puppy, but we did and I managed to overfeed her so that she was fat. When it was time for us to return to the USA we brought her with us.

A friend asked me what was wrong with her tail because it looks like it is chopped off in the top photo and the other two photos don’t show it. The answer is nothing was wrong with it. She had a normal tail. The top picture is just framed awkwardly and the tail is hidden rather abruptly by a tree stump that is barely visible at the edge of the picture.

West African Working Bush Dog

February 26, 2009

These are photographs of photographs I took in 1997 in The Gambia. The dog is one of three that serve as guardians for a beautiful herd of Fulani cattle. The structural conformation is very much like an Azawakh but many of the “bush dogs” in that area tend to be quite rustic and unrefined. Specimens with one or both ears erect were not uncommon, tails tendto be thick-ish and the hair was usually somewhat longer than is typical of Azawakh. The temperament is the same as typical of Azawakh. I believe these dogs and Azawakh are very closely related.

It was common practice for male working dogs to have cropped ears. I’m not sure if the primary purpose was to proactively prevent torn ears or to identify the dog as owned by someone (and therefore not to be killed).

West African bush dog protecting his cows

West African bush dog protecting his cows

After thieves, the biggest risk to cattle might have been hyenas. The bush dogs that guard herds were expected to keep hyenas at bay.

West African Hyenas, the enemy of the bush dog

West African Hyenas, the enemy of the bush dog

This video is from the PBS series, Nature. The clip is from part II of the two-part episode, “Dogs that Changed the World”. It shows desert bred saluki being coursed by Bedou in Jordan. There’s also a cool computer-generated sequence of the dog running with it’s skin off so it is a running skeleton.

Click to watch video

Click to watch video

Tirout has whelped 5 pups at Idiyyat-es-Sahel. The puppies are sired by Tigidit Fasiqqi. I’m tremendously excited about this litter first because Tirout and Fasiqqi are great dogs to be around and beautiful, but also because they represent an injection of new blood from the Sahel that is essential for the survival of healthy Azawakh.

Tirout was imported from the Sahel by the Association Bukinabe Idi du Sahel (ABIS) 2007 expedition. Fasiqqi is the son of a dog collected in a previous expedition. They are also unusual in Western breeding because they carry recessive color combination genes which have been eliminated in the West by a combination of selective breeding and the random chance that the original foundation dogs were a particular color combination. While color is superficial, it is visually striking. Two of the puppies are particolored. They are mostly white.

Tirout's particolor whelps

Tirout's particolor puppies

I hope that these pups find wonderful owners who will breed them to carry their lines forward into the general Azawakh population. It is critical that breeders continue to embrace desert bred dogs into the Azawakh breeding population because the Azawakh gene pool in the West is founded upon a handful of dogs imported in the 1970s. Without the efforts of ABIS and like-minded breeders, the dogs will become hopelessly inbred. In Europe, the dog show scene exerts a powerful and unnatural selection pressure. Not only are champions preferred for breeding but dog owners must request permission to breed a dog. Permission to breed requires a minimum of something like three “very good” ratings at shows. If permission to breed is not granted, then the offspring of that dog cannot be entered into the registry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Azawakh gene pool in the West became increasingly restricted. In aggregate, the inbreeding coefficients were steadily increasing while the ancestral loss coefficients were declining. The inbreeding coefficient is a rough measure of the genetic sameness of a dogs ancestors. The ancestral loss coefficient is a measure of the number of distinct ancestors relative to the whole population. Rising inbreeding coefficient tends to indicate increasing sameness. Falling ancestral loss coefficient indicates that breeding lines are being eliminated from the gene pool.

genetic loss

Inbreeding coefficient (IK) vs. ancestral loss coefficient (AVK) in Azawakh bred in France.

This graph shows an alarming bottle-necking trend which can only end very badly for the dogs. Consider the Basenji, which is closely related to the Azawakh. Contemporary Western Basenji have a very high incidence of a number of serious genetic ailments including digestive disorders, hip displasia, progressive retinopathy (blindness) and Fanconi’s syndrome (kidney failure). They also no longer look very much like hounds in the Congo. Breeders must out-cross back to desert bred dogs or there is no doubt in my mind the Azawakh will suffer a similar fate.

These whelps are part of the key to maintaining Azawakh as a viable, healthy breed. I am very excited about these puppies.

Congratulations, Daoud.