Man’s best friends may have started off as European wolves, according to scientists whose research is challenging earlier thinking around how dogs became domestic animals. (National Geographic News, New York Times)
- The idea that dogs evolved from wolves or a common ancestor is hardly a new idea. In fact, dogs’ scientific name, Canis lupus familiaris, derives from the scientific name for wolves, Canis lupus. Why is the result of the study covered in the Nat Geo News article so important, then? (This article from the New York Times might give you a better idea.)
- It has to do with where domestication happened. Prior to the current study, much scientific evidence pointed to southern China as the birthplace of domestic dogs. This study pushes the domestication of wolves thousands of kilometers west, to southern Europe.
- How did researchers conduct the study? What data did they use?
- Researchers used DNA. They collected and compared DNA from four related species of canids, a family of mammals that includes dogs, wolves, and foxes. The DNA studied came from modern dogs, modern wolves, modern coyotes, and fossils of ancient European canids.
- What is the leading criticism of the study? (The last several paragraphs of the NY Times article might give you a good idea.)
- “[I]t’s geographically biased,” says one scientist. The study only uses DNA from ancient European canids, not fossils from East Asia or the Middle East, where earlier research had found evidence for wolf domestication. “You just need to have samples from everywhere” for such a survey to be complete, the scientist says.
- Review the NY Times article. How did domestication change the behavior of wolves? How did it change the lifestyle of people? (The first section of our short encyclopedic entry on “herding” might give you an idea.)
- Dogs: According to the NY Times, dogs “evolved not only a different body shape, but also a different behavior. Instead of traveling in a pack to hunt down prey, dogs began lingering around humans” and relying on them for food.
- People: People have bred dogs for wildly different purposes, from hunting to guarding to astrophysics. One of the smartest and most sophisticated breeds of dogs are herding dogs, which continue to be used by farmers and ranchers today. Herding dogs have been bred to respond to the whistle or other commands of the herder. They keep a herd of sheep, goats, or cattle together. Herding dogs, such as kelpies and koolies, can also guide herds through dangerous terrain. Larger dogs are often used by herders as livestock guardian dogs. These dogs even use LEDs to play Pong.