The Dubois Jackalope: A Unique Genetic Variant?

Adding to controversy about a remarkable hybrid

Advertisements

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.

On the Meaning of Snow

Back in the city, this would have much less significance.

FirstBigSnow_110217_editedWinter dropped by yesterday morning. Evidently it plans to stay for the weekend.

Early in the morning, I watched a line of cattle trudging resolutely through the snow from their trough toward the aspen grove.

This is the time when town grows quiet and the out-of-state license plates dwindle. For all those creatures that the visitors like to watch in summer and target in the autumn, it is the start of the season of endurance.

“Are you glad to see all this snow?” I asked a man in camouflage who was filling up at the next gas pump.

“You bet,” he said. “It drives the game downhill.”

Horse_in_Snow110217Driving home, I saw large herds of antelope and deer in the fields between the houses and the highway right at the edge of town. Among them I saw a four-point buck. These game aren’t dumb, as any hunter would tell you.

Last evening, I watched horses behind the house nosing through the snow to graze.

The dog enjoyed nosing through it for fun, but his ball got lost in it. Next week, we know, the ball will emerge again and grazing will be easier for a while. This is just a brief reminder of what is to come.

For humans, it’s time to relocate the snowshoes or check the engines on the snowmobiles. Next time, we will remember to lift the wipers off the windshield when we see it coming. Home changes from breezy to cosy.

Back in New York City, this kind of snowfall would have had altogether less significance.

BrooklynSnow

The kids would have the day off school. I would take them to the park with the $10 plastic saucer sled. Someone else’s kid would ask to borrow it for a run and not return it afterwards

We would have to break out the ice melt and shovel our 14-foot patch of sidewalk. The corner grocery store would have been stupidly crowded. Some folks would complain that the mayor wasn’t sending the plows out fast enough or to the right neighborhoods.

The snowstorm would make national news coverage.

“How are you getting by?” gasped a customer-service agent over phone during one such “blizzard.” I laughed.

© 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.

The Unanticipated Pleasures of Commuting

What’s causing this slowdown? (No ordinary jam.)

TrafficOne major advantage of working remotely, of course, is that you no longer have to deal with this.

(I have the impression that the word “telecommuting” has fallen out of favor. Nobody wants to think about commuting, even in the context of avoiding it.)

It’s always a jolt to return to a city while traveling somewhere, and have to encounter the reality of rush hour. There’s nothing novel about it. I did this for quite a while back in the day, on the Long Island Expressway and in New Jersey.

It was worth it at the time. I loved my job.

Then I found myself lucky enough to do a job I could love without ever having to hit the brakes. Out here there is rarely any traffic to speak of (except during total eclipses of the sun and the high summer tourist season). Once during eclipse week I actually had to wait several minutes to take a left turn onto Horse Creek Road. Shocking!

DuboisEastbound030116“I think I’ll just slip into traffic,” my husband (that native New Yorker raised in Manhattan) will intone as he pulls onto the highway, with not a car in sight. It’s rarely difficult to catch a picture like this one, which I snapped from the passenger seat as we were heading toward town.

Nearly all the roads out here are two-lane, but I’m not at all nervous about passing. You don’t have to wait long until absolutely nobody is in sight coming the other direction.

The trade-off is that often we have to commute away for errands, such as visiting the county seat, going to a medical specialist, or shopping at a big box store. The larger towns are more than an hour away. So we do have something of a commute now and again.

This seemed a burden at first, but I’ve realized that my neighbors take it for granted. You have to go “down county” on Thursday. Big deal. I used to take the subway to the Bronx to see my ophthalmologist. Took just as long on the subway, and let’s not even talk about that view.

100_0112

It can actually be a pleasure to take the drive down county, someone reminded me the other day. It’s nice to see how the view changes in different light as you cross the reservation.

I like to listen to the Native American station from Ethete, and rest my mind on thoughts of the people who crossed this plain long before my kind of folk did. How did they see these vistas?

The landmarks pass, just as they did in New York City. Not 14th Street, 34th Street, Times Square, crowds and noise and subway tiles, but Red Rocks. Crowheart Butte. Antelope there. Fort Washakie. Miles and miles of grass and sage and sky.

TogwoteeAutumnFog3Now and again we have to head over the pass to Jackson, where we can’t avoid contending with traffic. Some people like Jackson. I think of it as something I have to endure, now and again. The compensation is eating at a Thai restaurant for a change.

The destination is a grind, but the journey is a reward.  There’s the Pass in autumn, with morning fog rising from the slopes.

Again, observe the traffic.

I keep my eyes glued to the sides of the road for wildlife, but rarely see any. (More likely closer to home, I’ve found.) But neighbors told me there are grizzlies that hang around out here. I’ve seen their pictures on Facebook.

PassHighway022514_2A few miles along from here, the vista opens up and you see those Tetons, which so many people travel so far to admire. (They’re the white stripe at left in the image, sunlit beneath the winter clouds.)

Personally, I prefer our own Winds and Absarokas, but it’s always pleasure to see these peaks looming up as we head to Jackson. We drive into the tangle, accomplish our errands, and head gratefully back toward Moran Junction, hoping not to encounter another jam.

What’s causing this slowdown? Ah, there’s a moose over there and people are pulling off and pulling out their binoculars.

As my husband would say: High-class problem.

© 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.

Fake News About Dubois, and the Facts

Groceries, grizzlies, antelope farms, and more …

Most of what follows is hearsay. In the past few weeks, several people have told me about some remarkable comments they’ve heard from visitors to town. I’ve also run across some other amusing misconceptions on my own.

I decided I should set the record straight:

Outfit1. We don’t dress this way as part of a historic re-enactment. This is really how we like to dress, and for good reason. We wear brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts for protection against the fierce sun. We wear vests because it’s just enough to keep us warm in the high-desert cool. We wear jeans because they’re comfortable and sturdy. We wear boots because they keep the rocks out. (Here’s what I might be wearing today, if I hadn’t chosen a different shirt, vest, and jeans.)

2. Whatever that person in Jackson may have said, there’s no need to stock up before heading this way. Dubois does have an amply stocked grocery store, a gas station (well, actually four of them), and many places to buy a cup of coffee (or even a latte, a cappuccino, or a chai).

3.  There probably isn’t a grizzly bear in the Town Park just now.  Our bear expert Brian does say that, in theory, except in the dead of winter, a grizzly could be anywhere. But a grizzly doesn’t want to see you any more than you want to see her. We know better than to leave trash around for her to find, and she prefers to be in the forest anyway. Everybody knows how to recognize the signs that a bear has been around, and if any had been seen recently, you can bet that (1) everybody would be talking about it and (2) it would have been taken care of long before they began talking.

Antelope_1006174. We do not “farm” deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, or other animals you may see behind fences near town. This is actually the wildlife you have come all this way to view. They come here of their own free will, probably because they like it around here as much as we do. They leap the fences, live in peace with the livestock, and like to graze our fields. (Please drive with care.)

5. We’re not all cowboys in Dubois. Indeed there are many working cowhands, retired cowboys, former cowboys, and would-be cowboys. But the population also includes (off the top of my head) a computer architect, a designer of medical devices, a lobbyist, and many painters and photographers.

stopsign6. Dubois does have stop signs.“There’s not even really a stop sign in town,” Jeda Higgs said on the video “Chasing Totality: Making the Eclipse Megamovie.” I probably would have been dazzled by the exposure too, but that was hyperbole. More accurately, there is no stop sign, yield sign, or traffic light for cars making the 90-degree turn on the highway as it passes through the center of town. They have the right of way (and locals know it). People do face stop signs as they enter the highway from many side streets in town, and there are more in the residential parts of the village.

7. Dubois is not the most remote town in the lower 48 states. I dealt with this long-held and much-quoted myth in a previous post. The following is true: Dubois is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest large towns. A remarkable proportion of the surrounding landscape is publicly owned wilderness. The nearest Interstate is about 3 hours away. On the other hand, goods and services are easily accessible and residents take the commute to big-box stores and other conveniences as a fact of life (just as people elsewhere endure traffic, which we don’t have). Besides, those “commutes” are unusually scenic. But by any published criterion, Dubois is not the most remote town in the US. Maybe the most interesting or most charming or most authentically Western or most friendly remote town in the lower 48, but not the remotest.

100_06658. Winters aren’t brutal in Dubois (generally). Last winter may have been tough, true. But in general, temperatures here are several degrees warmer than in Jackson. Most of the snow (usually) gets dumped on that side of Togwotee Pass or on the Pass itself, giving us wonderful opportunities for snowmobiling and snowshoeing. The dry climate keeps winter temperatures surprisingly tolerable. And the air is magically clean.

© 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.