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In praise of the Mutt

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Many people buy a dog as a status symbol and so go for a certain breed to mirror their own lifestyle. Still more have a particular attachment to the specific look and behavior of pure breeds. However, for personality, joie de vivre, unadulterated love and many other positive traits, can anything beat a good old fashioned mutt?

Mutt! There is something in the word that the snob will naturally be disinclined to countenance. It just doesn’t fit in with what many potential owners would like to project about themselves when it comes to a canine best friend. The polite description, of course, is mixed-breed but it is amazing how many people consider it a form of doggy miscegeny and would never consider one as a pet. Just look at the names we have for these dogs – mongrel, bitzer, random-bred, tyke. It doesn’t really reflect positively, does it? Yet mixed-breed dogs can often make the best pets in the world ever. So, let’s take an affectionate look at the mutt.

The writer could be accused of using this space as simply an excuse for posting up a series of impossibly cute photographs of mixed-breed mutts – and that is something that is difficult (OK, impossible) to deny. However, many mutts end up in animal rescue centers and if this can convince one person that a rescue dog is just as good as a pedigree that costs a thousand dollars, then it is a job well done.

Many shelters are full of 57s as they are sometimes called and this is one of the more endearing names for a mutt. The slogan of the JH Heinz Company, boasted fifty seven varieties. When a dog is so called it is a jocular reference to the fact that its component breeds may be far too many to ever possibly trace.

Words are tricky things and so it is with the term mixed-breed. Most people assume that mutts are a product of the pairing of two specimens of defined breeds. These by definition are known as pure and they have been, predominantly, created by the meddling fingers of humanity to enhance specific characteristics of a certain dog. Mutts do not necessarily have to be a product of a mix of two pure-breed specimens. When two pure breeds are intentionally mated then that is known as a crossbreed.

The humble mutt is the product of two dogs of unknown breed – even though they can sometimes be fairly accurately guessed. Dogs will do it like they do it on the lDiscovery Channel with anything else that remotely resembles another dog. Often they get it right, though it must be said that sometimes the human leg is used as an occasional stand in. It is only when there is a massive disparity in size that interbreeding is impossible. That means the mutt comes in a huge variety of shapes, color and size and often they can defy physical classification.

In the Bahamas, mutts are generally called Pot Cakes, in reference to the leftovers which they are fed. The Brazilians are somewhat more forthright and they call them vira-lata which literally means trash-can tipper (and if you just went aaw, then you are quite possibly the converted being preached at already). This of course is a reference to the fact that these dogs are more often than not ownerless and because they have to fend for themselves have to resort to feeding off the detritus that mounts up on the streets of urban areas.

Bitzer is a term that is often used and does in fact sound like a proper dog breed! However, it stands for bits of this and bits of that. The denizens of Newfoundland will call a smaller mutt a cracky which is almost a ten on the cute scale in terms of names. The Americans – as well as having possibly the worst names – also have the most politically correct ones too. Some dog clubs that will accept mutts refer to them generally as All American. If it were not for our ‘interference’ the dog as a whole would have fulfilled the melting pot ideal long ago. Perhaps the funniest name for a mutt comes from South Africa where they are generally referred to as pavement specials.

The melting pot effect generally settles in to a norm after several generations. It has to be said, though, that adorable as many mixes are, some have the appearance that only a mother could love ! Broadly speaking mutts produced from many generations of other mutts are usually black to light brown and weigh in at about forty pounds. In terms of height they are usually between forty and sixty centimeters. And they have masses and masses of bounce.

Much has been said about the health advantages that mutts have over many pure-breeds and this too is generally true. Hybrid vigor is a theory that holds that dogs which have a varying ancestry will be healthier than those who are consistently bred pure. Why? When purebred dogs reproduce with each other they will carry a lot of the same alleles (which are discreet versions of the same genes). Some of these alleles will mean that the resulting offspring may have defects, particularly when the parents are closely related (as they occasionally are in pure-breeds). Inbreeding means that genetic health problems are far more likely to be exposed than in the 57s.

Put simply – the mutt has – to put it kindly – some rather haphazard parentage and this means greater genetic diversity. As there is less chance that the parents will carry the same recessive allele then genetic disorders are considerably less likely to become an issue among mutt society. Please note though that this is in praise of the mutt and that does not automatically make it a critique of the pure-breed.

If two unhealthy mutts mate there is no guarantee that the puppies will be healthier. In fact genetic law has it in for them and it is more than likely that the offspring will inherit the worst traits of both parents. Generally though, studies have consistently found mutts to be healthier and more long-lived than their pure-breed contemporaries.

Plus, of course, if you adopt or buy a puppy mutt then you may not get simply a larger version of the puppy when it matures! With purebreds, however, the adult appearance of the dog is predictable. The ‘fact’ that mutts are more intelligent than pure breeds is also something of a myth. Both types of dog have the ability to produce Einstein canines or indeed slow learners. There is no absolute scientific evidence to suggest that mutts are generally more intelligent than pures – but of course the debate will continue among owners for many years to come.

Most mutt owners take delight in the unique appearance of their own animal. You know absolutely what you are going to get with a pure breed but with mutts it is something of a lottery. Mutt lovers will insist that their dogs are, by the simple fact that each is different, preferable to a pure.

Choice of dog is, of course, up to the individual. However, if you are considering the acquisition of a NBCF (New Best Canine Friend) then stop for a second before you stretch the plastic even further than it is already. The great advantage that the mutt has – and always will – over the pure is that they are cheap, quite often free.

The Strange Life Cycle of the Ladybug

Saturday, 3 November 2018

The Ladybug has something of a strange life cycle and one that surprises many people. From egg to fully grown ladybug, join us on a journey of a lifetime - literally!

The ladybug will always try and mate as close to a colony of aphids as possible. The ladybug loves aphids and will eat many of them each day.

Welcome to the Bee Hotel

Sunday, 28 October 2018

This remarkable structure can be found in Place des Jardins  in Paris and is known as a bee hotel. You may be wondering what bees need a hotel for, when they make their own hives. The truth is that many species of bees are solitary – the do not live in hives but instead construct their own nest. The main reason for this is because in these species every female is fertile and this would not make for comfortable communal living in a hive.

Bee hotels are necessary for a number of different reasons. To begin with bee populations have been on a decline in recent years. Part of the problem is that their natural habitats have been cleared to make way for intensive agriculture. Pesticides have also been instrumental in their decline. 

Magpies: Not only Black and White

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

The Eurasian magpie (left) is one of the few species of birds which can recognise itself in a mirror test.  As they stand out so much with their black and white plumage you might imagine that this is something which is relatively easy to do.  After all, when we think of magpies we think in black and white too!  Yet magpies are not only black and white.  There are other species which belie the general belief that all magpies are: here are some exceptions that prove the rule.

The Common Green Magpie
Image Credit Jasonbkk
Around the size of a Eurasian jay this magpie is a vivid green with a thick black stripe from the bill to the nape which crosses the eyes, giving it a vaguely superhero-in-disguise look (although this bird is probably more villain than hero).  To see one in the wild you would have to go to the Himalayas, central Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Broneo.  The common green magpie (Cissa chinensis) makes its home in evergreen forest and is hunts small mammals and reptiles.  It will often raid the nests of other birds and carry away young birds or, if they are not yet hatched, will devour the eggs before making their getaway.

Cats In Sinks

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The old proverb is true. In a cat's eye, everything belongs to cats. That includes, well, everything - including your sink. What has a certain use for us may be interpreted as useful in an altogether different way by our feline friends.  So it is with that useful household item, the sink.  Cats love them - but for very different reasons to us.  Prepared to be bemused and amused at the same time.  The words are related - we need no better excuse. So, because they can so can we - welcome to the world of cats in sinks.

They may always be quite certain what they are doing there themselves, as Phoebe the gorgeous Persian here seems to be indicating with that rather sullen but perplexed look on her face.  Perhaps that old Moroccan saying is true, after all - you cannot teach an old cat to dance.

Sticky: The Fascinating Story of How the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect was Saved from Extinction

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Can you bring a species back from extinction? Despite fictional accounts in books and movies like Jurassic Park the answer remains a very definite no – not in any complete way for sure.  Yet species on the edge of destruction can be saved even if they are dodging extinction in the most unlikely of places.

This is the story of the rediscovery of the Lord Howe Stick Insect (Dryococelus australis) which had also been known as the tree lobster due to its size and color at maturity.  It was thought to have been made extinct by 1920 – game over.  Yet Lord Howe Island has an islet – a sea stack – called Ball’s Pyramid.  It had been suggested that the insect may have survived there, although most thought that highly improbable.

However an Australian team of etymologists journeyed to the islet in 1981 and the rest as they say is history.  Instead of telling you the whole story here, however, watch this beautifully made animation by Jilli Rose which tells the whole story.  It is without words for the first few minutes but after that the oral history of the Lord Howe Stick Insect and how it was saved from almost inevitable stochastic extinction. 

Don’t be put off by its length either – this is entrancing viewing.

The Ribbon Seal: The Seal with Stripes

Sunday, 23 September 2018

What do you get if you cross a zebra with a seal?  There is no sensible answer to that question, of course, but there is a species of seal which lives in the Arctic and subarctic regions of the North Pacific Ocean which could (however unfeasibly) be the product of a chance romance between the two species.  It is the Ribbon Seal and it is remarkable for its stripes.

Like many seals, the ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) has dark brown to black fur.  Yet what makes it standout is its remarkable and conspicuous coloration.  It has two white stripes and two circles which pattern its body in a particularly striking way.  Its genus – Histriophoca – has a single member: you’re looking at it.  The ribbon seal is one of a kind.

The Kangaroo that Went Back to the Trees

Saturday, 15 September 2018

When you hear the word kangaroo what you may well imagine is the large marsupial bounding with immense speed across the Australian landscape – and you would not be wrong.  However, at one point the ancestors of one particular family of kangaroos did something strange.  They returned to the trees whence they had come.  This is the tree-kangaroo and they are the marsupial equivalent of monkeys.

The Holy Rats of Karni Mata

Sunday, 9 September 2018

From the outside the Hindu temple of Karni Mata in the small town of Deshnoke in the Indian province of Rajasthan looks much like any other. Ornate and beautiful and with a steady stream of worshippers arriving it holds a surprise for the unsuspecting visitor.

The temple is inhabited by rats: thousands of them.

The Spectacular Nests of the Sociable Weaver

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Not all bird species build nests.  Some, like the razorbill, lay an egg on a rocky ledge and hope for the best. Others, like the king penguin, have no access to nesting materials so keep their egg warm by squatting directly over it, covering it with their feathers.  Then there is the cuckoo, a brood parasite that lays its eggs in the nest of others.

Yet most species of birds do indeed make nests and they come in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps the most spectacular of all these is that created by a rather plain looking African bird, the sociable weaver (also known more simply as the social weaver).

Image Credit
They sociable weaver male is small – about 14cm (that’s 5.5 in) in length – and brown.  It is by no means unattractive – it has black barring on its back, a black chin and a nicely scalloped back.  As for the female… it’s identical.  They are not sexually dimorphic and to the naked eye the male and female are indistinguishable.  They may not stand out in a crowd, as it were, but as you can see their nests are another thing entirely.

Amung Feedjit