New Species Remain in Short Supply

My money is on the strange, wolf-like canid killed by a rancher near Denton being an oddball, mange-riddled, feral mutt

By Rob Breeding

By the time you read this, or soon after, DNA testing may have revealed that the strange, wolf-like canid killed by a rancher near Denton last month was a new species, the legendary chupacabra finally confirmed.

It’s possible, though my money is on it being an oddball, mange-riddled, feral mutt. This seems to be the source of most chupacabra “sightings.” Take the dog genome, with its flubber-like flexibility, add an unplanned coupling between a pair of mutts, and let the offspring loose without their symbiotic pairing with humans and you’ll get some head-scratching results.

But the three-fanged blood-sucking monsters of Mexican legend? No, it’s just an ugly dog.

There are lots of undiscovered species roaming the planet, unconcerned by their lack of recognition from the naked apes dominating the globe. Most of these new species are small critters, however, insects, translucent fish swimming the depths of the ocean, or microbes. But newly discovered megafauna, animals that weigh more than 100 pounds, are rare.

State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry compiles a list of the top 10 new species every year, and there’s one big critter for 2018: the Tapanuli orangutan. This great ape was not so much discovered, however, since it’s been known to science for decades, but reclassified due to genetic testing. Those tests revealed this severely endangered population became isolated from other orangutans about 3.38 million years ago. Armed with that knowledge, the Tapanuli orangutan was recognized as a new species.

There are plenty of folks who will tell you there’s another great ape waiting discovery: the yeti. While some members of the NRA would like to see all Yetis extinct — youtube.com provides dramatic evidence of these extirpation efforts — the NRA’s Yeti is a real thing. A darn fine cooler, actually. If I were a passionate Yeti-owning NRA member, I think I’d go with some strategically placed, logo-obscuring decals rather than blowing up a $500 ice box that keeps beer cold for a week.

Maybe I lack conviction.

Yeti is also one of the names we’ve attached to an imaginary primate — in these parts bigfoot is more common — found only in inaccessible places humans rarely visit. The problem with this theory is that there aren’t many places like that left. The notion that huge primates could remain hidden anywhere on Earth doesn’t hold up.

Instead of discovering new animal wonders, we’ll have to settle for replacing the species we’ve messed up. Returning mountain caribou to the northwest corner of the state should be on Montana’s bucket list. That may very well be a long-range bucket list, as I’m not sure suitable old-growth forest habitat exists, in sufficient quantity, right now. Still, recovery ought to be our collective goal. I’ll add Columbian sharp-tailed grouse to that bucket list. These birds are barely discernible from the sharpies over on the Sweet Grass Hills, but they are the native grassland Galliformes west of the divide. Their continued absence reminds us we have work to do.

In the meantime, what DNA giveth it also taketh away. For the longest time, Arizonans hoped some of the state’s native Merriam’s elk survived the initial extirpation of the species in the southwest. The legend was that those remnant elk bred with animals relocated from Yellowstone National Park in the early 20th century, and that’s why Arizona now produces so many record-setting bulls.

Alas, DNA testing confirmed the elk roaming the high country of Arizona today are no different from the elk in Yellowstone. Arizona, it appears, grows bigger elk because the animals have it easier. When rough weather hits the high country, these elk just migrate downhill to the warm desert.

They’re Arizona snowbirds apparently. Frankly, I preferred the pre-DNA testing legend.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com, which covers outdoor news in Montana.