Sunday, January 31, 2016

The maned wolf (not a real wolf, but real enough for this blog)

This guy's got the gams!
(Sage Ross / Wikipedia Commons)

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we've written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

I know what you're thinking: "That's not a wolf! That's a fox! With elegant long stems! That's a real fox, if you see what I'm saying." Well, sorry weirdo, you're only half right.

The maned wolf is actually not a wolf, and also not a fox. It does belong to the canidae family, so it's a distant cousin of wolves, foxes, and domesticated dogs. It is the largest canid you can find in South America, unless you bring your Saint Bernard there on vacation. Obviously it looks like a fox on stilts, but that doesn't make it a fox, okay?

The maned wolf is named such because it has... a thick black mane. The hairdo's primary purpose is to intimidate other animals in the grasslands our not-fox calls home. The spindly legs are also thought to be an adaptation for these high grasses.

When I say the grasslands are the maned wolf's "home," I suppose I should really say "fiefdom." Maned wolves hunt alone but mate for convenience, needing a partner to help defend territories of up to 12 square miles (seems a little greedy, but okay!). They mark this territory with some extremely stinky excretions, which is why they're also known as "skunk wolves." Allegedly their urine smells similar to marijuana — so much so that a busybody at a zoo in the Netherlands once called the cops to shut down a joint-smoking youth who turned out not to exist.

The sound that the mane wolf makes is referred to as a "roar bark," because its appearance and smell aren't the only things that are weird about it!

Mane wolves are native to Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and require large swathes of open land, making them particularly susceptible to the disastrous effects of habitat destruction. Compounding the effect of shrinking habitats, when mane wolves come closer to human settlement they are often hunted in defense of chicken coops, which they are apt to pillage. Right now the maned wolf's official IUCN designation is "near threatened," but this standing is likely to slide as more and more of South America's open grassy areas are burned for agricultural use.

The maned wolf actually has a strained relationship with humans for a whole bouquet of silly reasons. In Brazil, it was once fairly common to carry maned wolf eyeballs as good luck charms, for example. Due to their uncommon height they often take the blame (and subsequent bullet) for killing large livestock such as cows and sheep when in fact their small jaw size would not even permit it. Mane wolves actually prefer to hunt small rodents, fish, and birds when they want meat. They're also big fans of tubers, and a fruit called the "wolf apple," which is similar to a tomato. They have a serious sweet tooth, and are known to munch on sugarcane whenever they can.

A fully grown maned wolf really looks like it wants you dead, so even tough they don't pose any particular threat to humans, they're often hunted for sport. We kill things we're scared of — it's kind of our thing!

Augsburg Zoo / Oliver Feller

The maned wolf is a misunderstood beauty, with very little in common with most of its closest relatives. In fact, a recent study points to the extinct dusicyon genus as the maned wolf's next of kin. The Falkland Islands wolf was the last living species in this genus, but was hunted and poisoned into extinction in 1876 by sheep farmers and fur trappers. At this point they're without a friend in the world, save for the leafcutter ants who use their poop to fertilize tiny fungus gardens. In exchange, the ants drop seeds from the poop just outside their nests, where they're likely to germinate and grow in the ants' nutrient-rich "trash" piles. Nice!

The best thing about these unfairly vilified not-wolves is that they give birth to uncommonly darling babies, which look like they belong in my home with me, if you want my opinion! I will check back in to see if they're interested once I've acquired a 10 million square foot house.