Appearing in the Oligocene and peppering the fossil record into the Miocene (from approximately 25.8 - 10.3 million years ago), Leptocyon is a genus of small bodied canids endemic to North America. These canids, consisting of three species, L. gregorii, L. vafer, and L. vulpinus, represent the origins of the canine family tree as it diverged away from the feliniform carnivorans and the other caniforms. The caniforms include not only dogs, foxes, and wolves but also bears, seals and sea lions, and mustelids. For the approximately 15 million years of the fossil record that Leptocyon appears, it is the only canid that appears. Around the time that Leptocyon disappears from the fossil record an explosive diversification of foxes, wolves, coyotes, and wild dog begin to appear in the fossil record.
In the vein of an animal of importance to the native peoples of this continent, this precursor to so many different types of canines is the grandfather genus to many very impactful animals on the mythos and lore of those peoples. Wolves and coyotes are extremely important to many cultures of North America. Foxes, though, are just as important but not as prominently featured in Native American cultures as the other cultures. All of these animals star in other cultures globally (I wrote an honors thesis in undergrad on foxes in Japanese Shinto, for example) as well. Our discussion this week will elaborate on the origins of all of these animals from their humble beginnings in North America. The story of Leptocyon is the story of some of our favorite pets as much as it is the story of animals important to the native peoples of North America.