Wildlife

Wildlife Wednesday: revealing the life of the Coast Salish woolly dog through oral histories and ancient genomics

Plus: experience life as a Toronto raccoon, red-throated loons learn an icy lesson, and orca use icebergs to scratch their itches

Bred for its unique thick woollen undercoat that was shorn for weaving blankets and textiles, the Coast Salish woolly dog was once integral to the way of life in Coast Salish Indigenous communities. (Illustration: Karen Carr)
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Sqwu’mey, ske’-ha, sqʷəméy̓, sqwbaý, and q’əbəɫ. These are just a few of the ways to write the Coast Salish woolly dog’s name among the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest. Bred for its unique thick woollen undercoat that was shorn for weaving blankets and textiles, the Coast Salish woolly dog was once integral to the way of life in these communities but declined throughout the 19th century due to the increasing impact of settler colonialism. “When the Catholics came, they said ‘you can’t bring these dogs to church, so you cannot keep them,'” says Dave Bodaly, a knowledge keeper from Snuneymuxw First Nation. “So, they disposed of all the dogs. And that’s when things changed.”

The woolly dogs were soon gone, the breed extinct. As a result, little was known about these fluffy canines. 

But, thanks to a collaborative effort between Coast Salish nations and evolutionary biologists from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in the U.S., the Coast Salish woolly dog’s story is being pieced back together. With permission from Steven Point, grand chief of the Stó:lō Nation on whose land the dog was born, the researchers performed genomic and isotopic analyses on the only known Coast Salish dog pelt — belonging to a dog named Mutton that died in 1859. They found very little genetic introgression from European colonial dogs, suggesting the Coast Salish peoples carefully and successfully maintained the genetic integrity of the woolly dog’s genetic lineage after first contact with colonizers.

The exterior view of a pelt belonging to Mutton, as Coast Salish woolly dog. (Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian)
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The interior view of a pelt belonging to Mutton, as Coast Salish woolly dog. (Photo: Brittany M. Hance, Smithsonian)
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An advisory committee of Coast Salish elders and weavers from both sides of the US-Canada border provided traditional knowledge and historical records that aligned with and validated the researcher’s findings. Genetically and historically, the Coast Salish woolly dog is absolutely unique.

Editor’s note: The above story was corrected on April 22, 2024 as a result of a conversation with Dave Bodaly of Snuneymuxw First Nation. He provided an improved spelling (sqwu’mey rather than sqwemá:y) and correct explanation for the dog’s decline. Originally, we attributed the primary cause of the decline to the arrival of inexpensive Hudson’s Bay Company-manufactured woollen blankets, offered in trade for sea otter skins and leading to the dogs becoming redundant. Bodaly corrected this, sharing with us that when the Catholic Church arrived, they forbade the ownership of sqwu’mey and “disposed of all the dogs.”

“10/10 would become raccoon again”

The game is set on the streets of Toronto where — in racoon form — you can explore Algonquin Island, Cabbagetown, the Beach, Swansea and the Water Treatment Plant, which were created using real-world street data. (Photo: Pexels)
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Have you ever wished you could be a raccoon? Running around, knocking over trash, doing what you want and generally making a mess? Be the trash panda you wish to see in the world with Trash Panda, a new low-fi raccoon simulator that was released last month.

The game is set on the streets of Toronto where — in racoon form — you can explore Algonquin Island, Cabbagetown, the Beach, Swansea and the Water Treatment Plant, which were created using real-world street data. The game’s creator is hoping to add more Toronto neighborhoods in time.

“I want it to be disgustingly Canadian,” said creator Jason Leaver in an interview with CTV Toronto when the game was in beta testing.

So far, Canadians seem to be loving it. “It was fun tipping over trash bins and eating garbage,” reads one review on Steam, while another player wrote: “10/10 would become raccoon again.”  

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Innovative skincare

As highly migratory mammals, orcas travel thousands of miles each year to warmer waters where they will molt their skin. (Photo: Jonas Bratland/Pexels)
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The feeling of having an itch that can’t be scratched is a frustrating experience all humans share. However, according to drone footage taken by National Geographic, orca may also experience this aggravating sensation and are using icebergs to relieve their itchy discomfort.  

In an episode of the new documentary series Incredible Animal Journeys, filmmakers have captured orcas living in the waters of Antarctica rubbing against icebergs in what is assumed to be an act of exfoliation. As migratory mammals, orcas travel thousands of miles each year for various purposes, one of which is to molt their skin in warmer waters. But until then, this temporary solution of exfoliating built-up algae has captured the attention of many viewers with this behaviour that has never before been captured on video.

Much like humans, orcas continuously shed their skin, but because of the cold Antarctic waters, thermoregulation (the process of keeping an organisms body temperature regular) can become difficult, potentially inhibiting orcas from mating. In places like the Pacific Northwest and B.C., similar behaviours have been reported with orcas rubbing up against rocks on the seafloor. 

Cold shower

The wings of loons, like planes, in the right weather conditions, can ice-up as they’re flying. (Photo: Dave Menke/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
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A trio of red-throated loons got a crash course in when not to fly last week as an icy storm saturated their wings and forced them to crash land near Glens Falls, New York. The story was reported in the local newspaper, the Post-Star, which noted that the three had simply dropped from the sky and were subsequently discovered flailing along on area roads.

The loons, which migrate from their breeding waters in northern Canada and western Greenland to spend the winter on the Atlantic Coast, tumbled earthward after their wings became waterlogged. “Loons, like planes, in the right weather conditions, their wings can ice-up as they’re flying,” the newspaper quoted Dr. Nina Schoch, a wildlife veterinarian and executive director of the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, explaining. “With a sudden snow-storm with over a foot (of snow) in a matter of a couple of hours, that could cause problems too.”

After good samaritans rescued the three birds, they were examined at the Centre, then tagged and released in Lake Champlain once the weather cleared (loons cannot take off from dry land and need to start on water).

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