Sukie notes a summary of a new Black Footed Ferret study. Extremely rare and endangered critters.
However, a new factor threatens to undermine these hard-fought conservation gains: the continued eastward spread of the exotic bacterial disease plague, which is a quick and efficient killer of prairie dogs, and is caused by the same microbe that is implicated in the Black Death pandemics of the Middle Ages.
Using a new multi-species computer modeling approach, researchers have linked models of plague, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets to explore the consequences of ecological interactions in ways not possible using standard methods.
The results of this study, published in Journal of Applied Ecology, suggest that the continued survival of black-footed ferret populations requires landscapes larger than conservationists previously thought, and intensive management actions to reduce plague transmission.
“An alarming finding of our study is that there are few prairie dog complexes left that are large enough to support black-footed ferret populations given the severe threats they face—especially plague,” says Kevin Shoemaker, a post-doctoral scientist at Stony Brook University.
Shoemaker, K. T., Lacy, R. C., Verant, M. L., Brook, B. W., Livieri, T. M., Miller, P. S., Fordham, D. A., Resit Akçakaya, H. (2014), Effects of prey metapopulation structure on the viability of black-footed ferrets in plague-impacted landscapes: a metamodelling approach. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12223
oscillatory population dynamics;
Species interactions have been largely ignored in extinction risk assessment. However, the black-footed ferret Mustela nigripesexemplifies a class of endangered species for which strong species interactions cannot be ignored. This species is an obligate predator of prairie dogs Cynomys spp., and sylvatic plague Yersinia pestis epizootics threaten to undermine recovery efforts by functionally eliminating the prey base. Multispecies ‘metamodelling’ techniques offer new opportunities for exploring population dynamics under strong species interdependencies and disease.
To investigate ferret extinction risk in plague-affected landscapes, we simultaneously modelled plague epidemiological processes, prairie dog metapopulation dynamics and ferret demographic responses. Ferret population dynamics were investigated at an important release site (Conata Basin in South Dakota) and for 500 artificial prey landscapes spanning a wide range of realistic colony configurations (e.g. total area, # colonies, spatial clustering) and demographic characteristics.
Our simulation models indicate that ferrets are unlikely to persist through episodes of plague at Conata Basin unless they can access prey resources from a wider region or unless management actions can otherwise substantially reduce plague transmission.
We show that large, diffuse prairie dog metapopulations (those with colonies spread over a region >2500 km2) are most likely to support ferret populations in plague-affected landscapes. Our results also highlight the potential importance of metapopulation connectivity in fuelling plague epizootics and thereby imperilling black-footed ferret conservation efforts.
We describe a cycle (c. 5- to 25-year period) of plague-driven population crashes that is an emergent property of our models, and which can destabilize ferret populations.
Synthesis and applications. On the basis of our models, we conclude that few North American prairie dog complexes cover sufficient land area to sustain black-footed ferret populations through plague-driven crashes in prey abundance. Consequently, our results underscore the importance of working with many constituents to conserve large prairie dog landscapes in addition to continued development of plague mitigation tools. In addition, the strong relationship between plague-induced oscillatory prey cycles and predator population persistence highlights the potential conservation benefits of imposing strategic barriers to connectivity in areas over which plague outbreak cycles are strongly synchronous.
Sukie notes the latest review of the Black-Footed Ferret recovery program by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. These guys are one of the most endangered species on the planet. A successful reintroduction depends on the re-establishment of non-trivial chunks of prairie complete with Prairie Dogs.
Ferrets noted n SciAm's Thoughtful Animal blog . The ferret is our Telemna in 2005
If a human points his or her finger at something, a dog might infer that there’s hidden food, while the chimpanzee remains more or less clueless about the meaning behind that sort of non-verbal communication. As dogs have evolved in a social space occupied by human social partners, they’ve gained the unique ability not only to comprehend human social-communicative cues, but perhaps even to manipulate humans, and certainly to initiate communicative interactions with humans.
One study found that dogs are more likely to ask a human for food if the human’s eyes are visible, suggesting that dogs understanding something about human attention. (They also might be more likely to try to eat from a “forbidden” bowl if a human’s eyes are closed.) Unlike wolves, dogs make eye contact with humans in an effort to receive help in solving an “impossible” task. All of this is to say that dogs are suited to socializing with humans in a way that even the other great apes – species more genetically related to humans – are not.
Man’s Underground Best Friend: Domestic Ferrets, Unlike the Wild Forms, Show Evidence of Dog-Like Social-Cognitive Skills
Anna Hernádi, Anna Kis, Borbála Turcsán, József Topál
Recent research has shown that dogs’ possess surprisingly sophisticated human-like social communication skills compared to wolves or chimpanzees. The effects of domestication on the emergence of socio-cognitive skills, however, are still highly debated. One way to investigate this is to compare socialized individuals from closely related domestic and wild species. In the present study we tested domestic ferrets (Mustela furo) and compared their performance to a group of wild Mustela hybrids and to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). We found that, in contrast to wild Mustela hybrids, both domestic ferrets and dogs tolerated eye-contact for a longer time when facing their owners versus the experimenter and they showed a preference in a two-way choice task towards their owners. Furthermore, domestic ferrets, unlike the wild hybrids, were able to follow human directional gestures (sustained touching; momentary pointing) and could reach the success rate of dogs. Our study provides the first evidence that domestic ferrets, in a certain sense, are more dog-like than their wild counterparts. These findings support the hypothesis that domestic species may share basic socio-cognitive skills that enable them to engage in effectively orchestrated social interactions with humans.
Domestic dogs have long been referred to as “man’s best friend" and not without a reason. Although some would claim that the dog-human relationship is merely a special form of social parasitism , many see it as an extremely successful interaction founded on dogs’ human-like social skills , . In recent years dogs have become famous for their sophisticated socio-cognitive abilities as it turned out that they are able to follow human momentary distal pointing gestures in order to locate hidden food , . To utilize this challenging form of pointing gestures flexibly, dogs must infer something about the communicative-referential meaning of the human’s gestures. Dogs’ high performance in these tasks are surprising because even our nearest primate relatives, the great apes, fail at it , , as do wolves ,.
Dogs have demonstrated their excellent socio-cognitive abilities in several other tasks as well. Although no differences were found between dogs of blind versus sighted owners in their way of communicating visually about an inaccessible toy object  or their sensitivity to human pointing cues , dogs are able to take into account the attentional state of humans in a wide range of situations. For example they prefer to beg for food from a human whose eyes are visible , , and they are less likely to approach forbidden food when a human’s eyes are open than when they are closed , (but see  for controversial results about dogs and wolves in a similar experiment). Besides being sensitive to the open eyes of a human, dogs also tend to seek eye-contact with the human partner when facing an unsolvable task, contrary to wolves . Face-to-face communication is of great importance for humans  and seems to be a crucial aspect of the dogs’ behaviour as well .
Many think that these abilities have been formed by the cognitively challenging complex human social environment ,  and, as a consequence of the shared environment, some rudimentary social-cognitive skills such as interspecific attraction and/or sensitivity to human social cues may have developed in some of the domestic species. Through this evolutionary process, the dog as a species has moved from the niche of its ancestor to the human niche. In this new niche dogs have formed a close social relationship with their human partners (e.g. “attachment") , and a flexible system for interspecific communication has also emerged . Alternatively or in parallel to these hypotheses, one might expect the socio-cognitive abilities of dogs resulting from their extensive hand rearing and individual socialization to the human environment from a very early age on. One way to find out the role of domestication in the emergence of these special abilities is to study other domesticated species as well.
Although surprisingly little is known about the socio-cognitive abilities of domesticated species other than dogs, the effects of domestication are probably not limited to canids and therefore the comparative exploration of the phenomenon is important. Recent studies found that domestic cats , horses  and goats  are also able to follow human pointing gestures in order to locate hidden food. Furthermore, experimentally domesticated fox kits (selected for tameness for over 45 years) were also found to be more skilled to follow human pointing gestures than fox kits from a control population . These findings indicate that, in line with previous findings on dogs, domestication as a special evolutionary process leads to increased susceptibility to human communication.
Ferrets – a carnivore species of the Mustelidae family originating from wooded and semi-wooded areas  – have not yet been experimentally studied in socio-cognitive tasks relating to humans. Although their early history in service of man is obscure, ferrets have probably been domesticated for more than two thousand years  by selective breeding from the European polecat (Mustela putorius). Similarly to dogs, ferrets have been bred originally for practical functions (hunting) , but nowadays many of them are merely kept as pets (for more details about the history and domestication of Mustela see ). This makes ferrets an ideal subject to study the effect of domestication on their human related socio-cognitive skills as it seems likely that similarly to dogs (and potentially other domesticated pets), ferrets also adopted to the human niche. Therefore we assumed that in contrast to wild Mustela domestic ferrets will show similar behavioural patterns as dogs in socio-cognitive tests. We predicted that both domestic species will show (i) increased tolerance of eye-contact with their owner vs. a stranger, (ii) preference towards their owner as opposed to a stranger when they have to decide from whom to get a piece of food and (iii) utililization of human pointing gestures in order to locate hidden food.
Citation: Hernádi A, Kis A, Turcsán B, Topál J (2012) Man’s Underground Best Friend: Domestic Ferrets, Unlike the Wild Forms, Show Evidence of Dog-Like Social-Cognitive Skills. PLoS ONE 7(8): e43267. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0043267