Japan's Ghost Wolf, or wild dog? Good pupper, not mythical, 14/10
November 25, 2019 10:44 AM   Subscribe

For more than two decades, Hiroshi Yagi has been searching for the Japanese or Honshū wolf (Wikipedia; Canis lupus hodophilax, whose binomial name derives from the Greek Hodos (path) and phylax (guardian), in reference to Japanese folklore, which portrayed wolves as the protectors of travelers). Believed to be extinct for over 100 years, Yagi took photos of a wolf-like animal in 1996, and recently captured a howl (BBC), which was compared to another wolf howl, and considered a close match. Skeptics see a German Shepherd hybrid (Japan Times), but Yagi isn't alone in seeing and hearing animals that seem more wolf than dog.

If Yagi or anyone else gets more than photos and audio, they can refer to a 2009 report on Mitochondrial DNA Analysis of the Japanese Wolf (Canis Lupus Hodophilax Temminck, 1839) and Comparison with Representative Wolf and Domestic Dog Haplotypes (BioOne, open article) for details to compare.

Other people aren't waiting for the Japanese Wolf, or the other extinct wolf species, the Hokkaido Wolf (Wikipedia) to make a comeback. The Japan Wolf Association is pushing to reintroduce wolves to "save Japan from overabundant wildlife like sika deer!"
posted by filthy light thief (7 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Tangentially .. a friend who's a master of Japanese calligraphy uses a brush she says is made from the hairs of an extinct Japanese wolf. Presumably she'll update her description if Yagi's sightings are confirmed!
posted by anadem at 12:34 PM on November 25, 2019

As I recall, the Honshū wolf was the smallest subspecies of wolf in existence when it was alive. Checking that tells me that the Arabian wolf is the closest in size today, and Arabian wolves are little things that look more like large jackals or coyotes than the big, furry Holarctic subspecies that we in the Anglophone world tend to think of as wolves. The photo of the canid he took... well, at the end of the day, it's certainly Canis lupus. The question is whether it's C. lupus hodophilax or C. lupus domesticus.

The color is suggestive, but there are a number of native Japanese dog breeds that have similar coats and sizes, notably the Shikoku ken. These tend to have curlier tails than this animal does, but it's not hard to envision a similar kind of canid being loose in the mountains.

I suspect that there might be a population of canids in the mountains up there, but I don't see that any of his pieces of evidence definitively rule out domestic dogs. That being said, if there's a smallish canid of this size occupying this ecological niche without reference to humans, is that qualitatively different from wolves returning? Bear in mind that smaller wolf subspecies often have more "coyote-like" social structures than big Holarctic wolves do--wolves are a tremendously flexible species with a wide range of social structures based on local contexts. Is it important to distinguish this canid, assuming it is wild, into a wolf vs. a dog? How important is the distinction between wolf and dog?
posted by sciatrix at 12:45 PM on November 25, 2019 [6 favorites]

How important is the distinction between wolf and dog?

My only thought is that it's more exciting to say "look, another species that isn't extinct!" than "oh hey, it's another type of feral mountain dog."

Thanks so much for your insights and comparisons!
posted by filthy light thief at 2:08 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Would it be possible to reliably distinguish the genome of a pseudowolf bred from local domestic dogs with some Honshu Wolf ancestry, from the genome of a surviving Honshu Wolf with some domestic dog ancestry?
posted by Not A Thing at 4:17 PM on November 25, 2019

Who doesn't want to be a zen master living in a remote Japanese mountain cave with wolf companions? This might be a koan.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:36 PM on November 25, 2019

One of my favorite recent books is The Lost Wolves of Japan from the description:
Many Japanese once revered the wolf as Oguchi no Magami, or Large-Mouthed Pure God, but as Japan began its modern transformation wolves lost their otherworldly status and became noxious animals that needed to be killed. By 1905 they had disappeared from the country...Grain farmers once worshiped wolves at shrines and left food offerings near their dens, beseeching the elusive canine to protect their crops from the sharp hooves and voracious appetites of wild boars and deer. Talismans and charms adorned with images of wolves protected against fire, disease, and other calamities and brought fertility to agrarian communities and to couples hoping to have children. The Ainu people believed that they were born from the union of a wolflike creature and a goddess.

In the eighteenth century, wolves were seen as rabid man-killers in many parts of Japan. Highly ritualized wolf hunts were instigated to cleanse the landscape of what many considered as demons. By the nineteenth century, however, the destruction of wolves had become decidedly unceremonious, as seen on the island of Hokkaido. Through poisoning, hired hunters, and a bounty system, one of the archipelago's largest carnivores was systematically erased.
I highly recommend the book.
posted by jadepearl at 11:02 PM on November 25, 2019 [2 favorites]

Will we ever know the difference between a wolf and a dog? (Katja Pettinen, a cultural anthropologist at Mount Royal University in Canada, writing for Aeon)
When distinguishing between a wolf and a dog, we face the classic challenge of being able to sort out differences on a meaningful level. Indeed, one cannot do this without engaging the issue of meaning. Do we have here essentially ‘the same animal’ or two quite clearly different species and beings, as different as humans and Neanderthals, for example (or even more so)? One of the challenges in these questions is that they do not have straightforward scientific or biological answers – we need other toolkits in our conceptual frameworks. One such conceptual framework comes from biosemiotics, an interdisciplinary approach that recognises the fundamental importance of molecules and other biological markers in shaping our existence but also readily acknowledges that there is no hard and fast line between biology and philosophy, or biology and culture.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:57 PM on November 28, 2019

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