Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Junco By Any Otter Name

Since I was just complaining about taxonomists throwing all my varied juncos into the same bucket but separating identical chickadees, I thought I'd revisit what constitutes a distinct species. Seems to me there was something about a group of organisms being a species if individuals in the group are able to interbreed.

Which of course made me think of sea otters, because sea otters like to breed with anything. They don't really care. If it has a hole, they're going to poke it. If your cocker spaniel is off leash on the beach and you hear it go bark bark blub blub, you should run hurry and get ready to whack the otter. Because they'll just keep hammering away at your dog, and holding its head underwater until it's dead, and then they'll keep going, because it takes a while to notice a cocker spaniel is dead in cold water, plus they don't care.

So are otters and cocker spaniels the same species? Most experts agree they are not. The breeding may have been successful from a recreational standpoint, but a total bust from a viable-offspring standpoint. One successful pairing of a sea otter with a basset hound was ruled as an outlier when the resulting pups failed to thrive. The long ears of the mother were able to keep the pups from floating off, but were subject to an unfortunate kelp entanglement.

Okay. I just checked, and there hasn't been a recorded case of sea otters attacking cocker spaniels. That turns out to be a part of my fevered imagination, poor data retention, and the fact that sea otters are known to rape seal pups. Someone in Alaska did report an assault on his sled dog, but you never know about those stories. It's lonely up there. Could be the guy just likes to whack his otter.

The whole species business gets crazy with birds. We have this urge to drop every living thing into its own slot, but birds have a way of ignoring the boundaries, and things change, and sometimes we decide to split a species, and sometimes we decide to lump two or more together, as was done with my juncos. There's a whole committee devoted to this, and every year it gets together and decides if a given bird deserves its own designation or has to keep pretending it's the same thing as a whole other bird. It's like the Hall of Fame, and it's contentious. Just ask Pete Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. But if you're lazy and have a bird list, you could check it against the new lumps and splits every year, and maybe you'll be able to add a Purple-Capped Fruit-Dove to your Crimson-Crowned Fruit-Dove without even getting your ass out of the Barcalounger. Birders love splits. I want my juncos re-split.

Meanwhile, dozens of gulls are soberly proclaimed to be different citizens on the basis of invisible dots on the bill and random imaginary variations on white and gray, seen against a mottled gray sky. I am willing to go along with lumps if we can call them all Seagulls, like everyone else does.

20 comments:

  1. I say go ahead and re-split your Juncos. Set a trend, start something big. Who knows? A few years or decades from now they might decide you were right after all and you can bask in the knowledge. Maybe even gloat a little.

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    1. I have to admit right here, it's not like I actually write anything down on a life list. I just like to whine.

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  2. ...So what you're saying, I guess, is that if you put politicians, Hollywood producers, and sea otters together in a room, they will be indistinguishable from one another? Perhaps they are all the same species?

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    1. Sea otters are still dang cute.

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    2. Which is a HUGE difference from the other decidedly sub species mentioned.

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    3. If you've been keeping an eye on the news, though, his cuteness is wearing pretty thin.

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  3. Don't forget dolphins. They'd give sea otters some serious cocker spaniel molesting competition if they were mobile on land.

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    1. I've heard that. Basically, we need to keep our cockers out of the water.

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  4. You had me when you circled back from para. 2, and mentioned the Alaskan in para. 4: "Could be the guy just likes to whack his otter." From my experience, most people who live in Alaska for more than a year or so are either nuts and/or drunk..... :)

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    1. Well, you gotta do something with that nice oil industry check!

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  5. We call them all seagulls here, and we live on the ocean, so we're experts, right? So you go right ahead ;D

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    1. I hang out with too many birders. I just keep my mouth shut around gulls.

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  6. Yet another area where we thrive on inconsistency. And many still try and classify other races of people as a different species, despite the evidence that we CAN interbreed.
    And yes, gull is as far as I can go too. I have learned not to call them sea gulls but...

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    1. Yeah, that sets people off. Not normal people: birders.

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  7. Successful interbreeding used to be the gold standard of whether or not species were true or not. Successful is here termed as a fertile offspring, with the caveat that it also needs to know all the proper cues to attract a mate and needs to look sufficiently like other individuals in its area so that it will be allowed to breed. Genetic assays can show species level differences, but might miss out on things like breeding cues. There are many bird species that will freely interbreed and produce viable offspring. Male birds will generally try to have sex with any other bird that looks marginally like themselves regardless of whether it is breeding season or not. I suspect that if the dark eyed juncos were assayed across North America, we'd probably find that there were at least distinct sub-species and quite possibly some distinct species. Some grad student ought to get on that. As far as people go, the idiot ad campaign that tried to claim that race didn't exist is just that, an idiot ad campaign. When differences can be seen externally (skin color, hair color and texture) and internally (bone structure), but individuals can still interbreed successfully, you've got a race. There's been some suggestion that _Homo sapiens_ came close to forming sub-species before the rise of transportation (primarily by boat) put an end to the population isolation effect. But we as a species are wanderers, so isolation never lasted for any significant amount of time.

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    1. I'm all in favor of bringing back isolation, myself. Wake me in time for din-din, though.

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  8. So since Dumpster has successfully interbred with humans, we have to claim him as one of our own? I cry foul. Very, very foul!

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  9. You're right, seagulls are all the same. Some are hering gulls, but when they are all over the dumpster at the McDonalds in Duluth they are just rats with feathers.

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