The Dubois Jackalope: A Unique Genetic Variant?

Adding to controversy about a remarkable hybrid

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As a former science writer with a special interest in genetics, I hardly expected to find something of professional interest in my tiny, remote home town of Dubois, Wyoming. My hearfelt thanks to the Riverton friend who sent me a document someone left on the photocopy machine in her workplace. This gives me a rare and unexpected opportunity to revive my old skills.

I have traced the document to Steven J. McAllister, a biology professor at Central Wyoming College. It contains a description of the genetic characteristics of “the rarely seen and little studied Dubois Jackalope.” I was aware that the elusive jackalope is sighted throughout the state of Wyoming, but not that there is a specific Dubois variant—let alone that it has been the subject of scientific study.

JackalopeThe Dubois Jackalope is beloved of tourists, who like to take selfies on a statue of the creature, which has stood for years outside a small private museum dedicated to the animal. In fact, my own husband recalls passing through on vacation as a child and begging his parents to stop and let him ride the jackalope.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says they told him. “That’s just a tourist trap.”

Not so! Described as a hybrid between an antelope and a jackrabbit, the creature had an illustrious history long before biologists began to document its genetic characteristics. Accounts by cowboys describe a fearless and ferocious “warrior rabbit” that fought with its horns and could imitate the songs they sang around the campfire.

Kathy Weiser writes in Legends of America  that the “antlered species of rabbit” are  “brownish in color, weight between three and five pounds, and move with lighting speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.”

HornedHareAccording to Weiser, our esteemed local explorer John Colter, who passed through here en route to what is now Yellowstone Park, was the first to report sightings of the antlered rabbit in North America. But it has a much longer history in Europe. The Flemish painter Joris Hoefnagel included the image at right in his book Animalia Qvadrvpedia et Reptilia (Terra) [Terrestrial Quadrupeds and Reptiles], published around 1575.

I have discovered information about jackalope genetics in three college tests, which we can assume refer to reports that the students have read in preparation for the tests. Unfortunately,  none of these quizzes offer journal citations to the relevant publications.

However, they do provide a fascinating glimpse of this esoteric field.

As always in science, there is considerable controversy about the genetic qualities of the jackalope – especially with regard to coat color, as I will describe later.

Inheritance of other jackalope characteristics seems to follow the simplest rules of Mendelian genetics: Each parent possesses two genetic factors (known as “alleles”) for a property, of which one is passed on to offspring. Inheriting one from each parent, the young have two copies of each allele. “Dominant” alleles always win out over “recessive” alleles; the only way to inherit a “recessive” characteristic is by getting a recessive allele from both parents.

A document from the Missouri University of Science and Technology describes this phenomenon in mating experiments between long-horned and short-horned variants of the jackalope. The inheritance patterns suggest that the gene for long horns is dominant. Therefore long horns will be far more common among jackalopes than short horns. (This makes sense, as long horns would help them to be fierce fighters.)

Jackalope_croppedThe Wyoming report also describes a quality that follows this pattern: ear length. The Dubois jackalope has long-eared and short-eared variants, it says, with short ears being recessive (and therefore much less common). For whatever it’s worth, both jackalopes represented in the museum in Dubois appear to have long ears.

Controversy has arisen about the inheritance of coat color. A test question from the American School of Warsaw says that the fur color of jackalopes is inherited through “incomplete dominance,” in which an animal that inherits one dominant and one recessive allele winds up with a color that is a mix of the two. In this case, it says, the alleles are for red or white, but the heterozygote (which inherits both) turns out pink.

Another document about jackalope genetics, this one from North Central College in Napierville IL, concurs that coat color is inherited through incomplete dominance, but describes the colors differently. Jackalopes can inherit alleles for either brown or white, it says, and animals with one brown and one white allele have gray fur.

Descriptions of color are always subjective; one wonders whether these two reports describe different subtypes or just use different words for the same thing. Of course “red” and “brown” can sometimes be conflated (note that Weiser described the color as “brownish”.)

However, it is difficult to see how gray and pink can be confused as the same color. Most likely, heterozygous jackalopes in Poland are indeed pink and those in Illinois are actually gray. These kinds of geographic variations are common in nature, as Charles Darwin himself recognized.

Jackalop_sketchThe Dubois test, not available online, describes a different system for inheritance of coat color: Orange as recessive and gray as dominant. Is “orange” equivalent to the “pink” of Warsaw jackalopes? Or is the evidence behind the Dubois report in error?

Do the “orange” jackalopes in Dubois actually represent incomplete dominance, not recessive inheritance? Or is it just that, like so much else in Dubois, the Dubois jackalope is unique? One hopes the scientists involved can reconcile these issues.

In the interests of completeness, I must report that alternative theories for the origins of the jackalope have been reported elsewhere. These arguments hold that horns arising on the head of ordinary jackrabbits are the result of a disease (appropriately called “jackalopism”) caused by a papilloma virus, which induces tissue to harden on the top of a rabbit’s head.

In his book A Planet of Viruses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), my fellow science journalist Carl Zimmer described experiments in the 1930s that validated this theory. A scientist ground up the horns of a creature with this condition, dissolved them and filtered the solution so viruses could get through. He applied the liquid to the heads of other rabbits which, sure enough, grew horns.

Are there genetic factors that determine susceptibility to this virus? How do they relate to ear length and, more importantly, coat color? I will end with the conclusion common to so many scientific reports: Further research is necessary.

© Lois Wingerson, 2018
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Capturing Night Stalkers in Dubois

Who has been casing the joint while we’re asleep?

Bunnytracks

In Dubois, we sleep soundly and don’t fear intruders in the middle of the night. But we do know that often someone is out there casing the joint while we’re snoozing.

It’s easier for us to track them, of course, in the dead of winter. This morning we woke to discover that a rabbit had been exploring the back porch.

fox night Dubois WY

Our neighbors across the highway set up a night camera, to capture images of these visitors that come by while we are quietly tucked in bed.

The folks to the north sometimes lose one of their chickens during the summer when the birds are free to range in the yard. This critter must be a bit hungry this time of year, when they’re safely cooped up.

mountain lion Dubois WY

Now here’s a startling image!

We know that mountain lions are indigenous to the area, and some people have actually seen one.

But who knew that they wander so close to our homes?

I wonder how this fellow lost his team, and came out so far ahead of schedule. I do hope they have located him by now, and have him well fed and ready to travel again.

Rudolph reindeer Dubois WY

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Holiday Special on a Mountain Top

I wondered why a horse would be on the loose so far up-mountain.

JacksonView_121117When I came down the steep, snowy slope a few minutes later, leaning on my walking stick, I could see why she had started to run.

In a spot like that, when you have strong legs and plenty of traction, it’s only natural to take advantage of gravity and momentum.

It was a beautiful winter day, but I hadn’t set out on my workout hike with a sense of joy or anticipation. You know how they say to seize the day? Sometimes it’s the day that seizes you.

For me this far, it had been all uphill. I had been keeping a close watch on the time, and my knees were complaining. A half hour up, I told myself, and then back down.

At the point when I’d clocked the half hour, I could see the road curve ahead and dwindle to a trail. I couldn’t resist. In hopes of a splendid view, I went on.

Then suddenly, the sound of galloping. Briefly I wondered why a horse would be on the loose, way up here on the mountain. But of course this was no horse.

Moose_121117There she was, huge and beautiful. She skidded to a halt, and I stopped too. We looked at each other, motionless.

I have never had the privilege of looking a moose in the eyes before. I do not try to get close to moose. They are powerful and unpredictable, I know. But we were staring.

Her gaze was like my dog’s–gentle, brown, and intent. I sank down on the steep slope beside the trail, hoping to look as much as possible like a boulder (an eggplant-colored Thermasilk-lined boulder with a fur-edged hood, wearing a houndstooth visor cap).

I risked snapping a picture. She watched quietly.

Moose_121117_croppedAfter several heart-pounding moments (my heart, I mean), she moved slowly toward me on the trail, then stopped and stared again. She turned hugely around and paced back uphill a ways. Then she reversed course and came slowly toward me.

What would she do? Was she going to sniff me? Or kick me?

Perhaps five feet away, she turned again and ambled down the slope into the woods.

I watched her descend and disappear into the trees before I rose from my crouch and regained the path. She didn’t turn to look back at me.

MoosetracksShadow2_121117I stopped to take a picture of her huge hoofprints at full gallop in the snow.

Then I continued on up into the woods whence she had come, returning later down that same steep slope that had set her off on her joyous run.

 

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Racing Thoughts on a Winter Hike

I was a little nostalgic, but not for long.

JH_emptylift3A friend from back East has graciously lent me her ski condo in the late off-season. New trails take me to unfamiliar places, with sights I will not see back home in Dubois.

For instance: An unused ski lift waits motionless and silent, a ghostly reminder of another life. I recall the creak of the lift chair as it swings around to grab you from the rear. The reach back and up to grab the overhead bar and bring it down across your lap.

I recall the enforced strut of skiers in molded boots, conveying a sense of arrogance as they clattered past in the slopeside cafe.

I used to love downhill skiing. In fact, it was my enthusiasm for my first ski trip, at the age of 19, that made my husband notice me in the college dorm.

JH_emptylift1Once we took ski trips every winter, as a matter of course.

On this morning, at the spot where the lift chairs swing around and dump you off, only footprints led away. I remembered the exhilaration of the smooth, winding sail as the momentum carried you on downhill. The wonder (on the first run) of what awaited around that curve. The sense in my knees of being one with the slope.

For this one morning, I was a little nostalgic. I quit skiing a decade ago, after I got a mild knee sprain in deep powder.

JH_snowytrailWas that an early sign of aging? I don’t think so.

I didn’t want any more injuries to deter me from hiking, because I knew there are better ways to understand a mountain.

This trail led off away from the top of the motionless lift. I saw that a man and his dog had gone that way not long ago. It beckoned, and I followed.

Just as I can learn a back road far better on foot than in a car, I gain a much closer friendship with a slope by pushing off the boulders on my way uphill and sidestepping over the rocky gullies on my way back down than by gliding down a well-groomed avenue.

The challenge I seek is not for the speed downhill, but for the strength uphill.

The pleasure I’m after is not the joy of following a crowd or a well-marked route, but the difference between getting lost and just exploring.

TracksFar better than the jostle of strangers speeding past is my own solitude, and the delight of unexpected encounters. In truth, I’m the stranger this morning, to the foxes and deer who own these slopes when there are no crowds.

Yesterday, we ran across each other in person. We did not stop to introduce ourselves; we just stared. This morning, I see they’ve been here ahead of me.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Background Checks

What isn’t obvious at first glance about Dubois.

JacksonArch_editedThe man who had ordered the lattes was tall, patrician, lantern-jawed. He wore a fitted, aqua-blue down jacket. His female companion wore her hair cut blunt to the chin. I didn’t believe we had met.

“Where you from?” I asked (always eager to welcome visitors or newcomers).

“Jackson,” he replied. He seemed un-motivated to continue the conversation.

I explained the reason for my approach: We’re surveying tourists about how they plan their vacations. “I guess you didn’t have to do very much planning to drive over the Pass,” I said.

He gave a little laugh. “Nah. I’ve been coming out this way for years. In fact, my family is from Dubois.”

“Quite a bit different in Jackson,” I ventured.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I could never come back here. Not enough cultural interest.”

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this kind of comment from someone in Jackson. The slight double-take when you say that you’ve come over from Dubois, that dull little back-country cowboy town.

His remark brought to mind the memory of breakfasts on road trips, at a diner in some small farm town. The old men in suspenders and baseball caps trading barbs with the waitress. The sense of inexorable boredom.

“You’re right,” I told the man. “You’re not likely to find a string quartet here in Dubois. I do enjoy coming over to Jackson for the summer music festival.”

JacksonSmiths“Yeah,” he said. “I hear it’s nice.”

This made me wonder exactly what he meant by the “cultural interest” he enjoys over there in Jackson. Maybe he meant the Asian tourists who crowd the Thai restaurants in off-season. To judge from the folks I see in the supermarket over there, it’s not exactly a melting pot.

I also wondered whether the owner of the coffee shop in Dubois had overheard the man’s remark as she was preparing his latte, and if so, what she was thinking about it. Being shy and soft-spoken, she wouldn’t join the banter.

As it happens, she comes here from the Philippines by way of Abu Dhabi.

Before the couple walked in, I had been telling my neighbor, a biology professor who runs the wildlife education program here. about someone she hasn’t yet encountered in town. A retired nuclear physicist, he always goes to Nepal for fun and has hiked Mount Everest several times.

One of my best friends in Dubois grew up in Pakistan and Singapore. A woman who lives up-mountain used to work for the Fed. The yoga instructor used to head a wilderness program for kids with learning disabilities. The man who takes the terrific nature photographs actually designs medical equipment by profession. Another man who worked for a long time here as a wrangler actually comes from Sweden.

Dubois1913“Tell me about yourself” usually starts a conversation well worth the time.

Dubois is in the middle of wilderness, true. Our most famous cafe is named Cowboy, and we keep our main street looking like something out of an old Western.

But there’s far more to it than you can see at first glance. One of the joys of being here is what we see as it reveals itself, but only slowly.

Lander to Dubois: The Great Surprise

A flat plateau, a sense of anticipation …

Plateau111417
Returning from Lander always summons a memory: the end of the long commute we used to take back from New York. (I also think of the many people on bicycle tours who head this way each summer, and of what they’re coming to.) Nearing the end of our own four-day westward journey, after enduring the madness of the eastern Interstates and the endless trek across flat Nebraska, I always had a strong sense of anticipation at this point. Crossing a long, fairly featureless plateau with rolling hills, there is a distant view of our mountains.
Decline_111417_1
Suddenly, without much warning, the highway drops into a long decline. It’s a scene of wind-blown hoodoos up close, with a distant view of hills and buttes. You start to see hints of the river valley ahead. I always love this moment. Dubois waits down there.
UpValley111417_1
You reach the bottom, and there it spreads out before you: The beauty of the Wind River Valley. I gasped the first time I saw it. This is dull November. At other times, of course, it’s green.
DuboisMileageSign_111417_AM
Homeward. At this point, cyclists may notice only the mileage figure. The landscape offers no hint of the delights that lie ahead: the red and blue roofs on the ranch buildings in the culverts, the red rock cliffs, the striped badlands, the winding riverbed lined with willows. What lies beyond the curves are landmarks to me now, not surprises. But I never tire of them.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

 

Why a Cybersecurity Pro Chose a Cowboy Town

GarethWhitePaperI ran into Gareth a few days ago at the Cowboy Café. Over breakfast he was working on a draft of a white paper.

“There are more technology choices than ever before,” it reads, “but little certainty around which are the best investment.” Not the kind of thing you’d expect to find someone poring over in a restaurant by that name in a remote Wyoming mountain town. But I wasn’t surprised. This is the new Dubois.

I know that most technology workers still go into concrete-block offices every day, and that the bright millennials who crowd the digital world prefer big cities with microbreweries and “coworking spaces.” But I also know that a fortunate few are finding their way here, where they can see mountains from their desks and find bald eagles and moose to post on Instagram. Gareth is one.

I met him last summer at a community meeting. I introduced myself to his wife Sharon, and was startled to hear her reply: “You want to meet my husband.” During the careful process of planning their relocation from Colorado, she had seen this blog and knew of my interest in telecommuting.

Mensing3The first step in investigating Dubois, Gareth told me this week, was contacting DTE, our Internet provider. This wasn’t so crucial for Sharon, the former head of a private school in Steamboat Springs. But it’s essential for Gareth, who is an information architect with a firm that provides cybersecurity services for large corporations around the world. His work demands peerless high-speed Internet, and the fact that DTE provides fiberoptic service in town was a strong selling point for Dubois.

Colorado’s new marijuana law was a prime reason for the relocation, Gareth told me. They had grown weary of Steamboat Springs, because it had quickly changed “from a funky family town to being party central.” This echoes what I’ve heard from tourists in Dubois over the past year: Traffic (the ordinary kind) is building in the state to the south, and it’s no longer easy to find a campsite on the spur of the moment there, or an uncrowded spot in those high Rocky Mountains.

Mensing1It’s only a six hour drive north through Baggs and Rawlins to reach Dubois, but for Gareth and Sharon, the trip took far longer. Finding their next home, Gareth said, required “a lot of traveling in our RV.”

Having lived in 17 other states, mostly in the East, Gareth had a fairly strong feeling for where he didn’t want to live. During our chat over breakfast, he recalled the daily commute that took place at 80 miles an hour. I get the picture.

They looked carefully at the West Coast. He kind of liked San Francisco, but Sharon hated it. They explored Oregon and Washington, but no place sat exactly right with them.

“We began to realize that the closer we got to the mountains, the happier we were,” Gareth said. “We could just feel it.”

What drew them to Wyoming, besides the mountains, was the fact that there are no taxes to speak of, and that the cost of living is generally low. But why Dubois?

“We’ve always liked small towns,” he said. “The fact that there’s no traffic. New York burned us out for that.”

They did look at Jackson Hole, but the sight of the real estate prices quickly inspired a look away. They drove over the Pass to Dubois, and came home.

Mensing4“Dubois has everything Jackson Hole has to offer,” Gareth told me. “You just hop into the car, and you’re in the Tetons. It’s all great.”

The move offers Gareth plenty of opportunity to pursue his off-duty passion: photography. As for Sharon, she has joined two nonprofit boards here as well as setting up www.wyophoto.com, a website that sells images of Wyoming. It’s the source of the beautiful pictures on this page.

© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.