Grey wolf at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, howling on top of a snowy hill. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The domestic dog, (Canis familiaris) has been a loyal companion to human beings for thousands of years, but until relatively recently, nobody knew with any certainty exactly where the species came from. It was clear that the dogs we love evolved from other canid species from the Canidae family, but whether that meant that our dogs are descendants of wolves, jackals, foxes, or coyotes was an open question until the late 1990?s. The application of modern DNA sequencing techniques finally proved without any doubt that all domestic dogs are descendants of wolves, and specifically, of the Grey Wolf (Canis lupus), making them Canis lupus familiaris.
Based on the archaeological evidence, it appears that human beings formed social relationships with dogs long before they even became the domesticated species known today as Canis familiaris. That evidence includes ancient burial plots containing two human skeletons and a dog-like skeleton in Germany dating back to 14,000 years. Meanwhile, the famous Chauvet caves in France provide archeological evidence of human-dog relationships in some of the earliest known human footprints on the European Continent. In particular, the 26,000 year-old footprints of a child are preserved next to those of an animal whose paw prints clearly indicate that it was an intermediate species of canid that had not yet evolved into a domestic dog.
Without doubt our ancient ancestors found it extremely useful to have a companion whose sense of smell and hearing, not to mention fighting abilities, were vastly superior to that of our own. Bear or cougar poised to attack? No problem. Man?s best friends used their super-human abilities to alert the sleeping community and saved the day.
Japanese Chin Dog with Doctor Paul Sedlacek of Animal Clinic of Morris Plains, NJ
The other fascinating fact about dogs is that all modern breeds of dogs are actually genetically identical. This means that the largest Great Dane, the smallest Yorkshire Terrier, and every other dog in between are the exact same animal except for their external physical features and behavioral tendencies for which we have selected in breeding them. That may seem surprising until you consider that domestic dogs share more than 99.9% of their genes with their wolf ancestors. Still, DNA only answers the question of genetic identity and physiology without addressing the more interesting question about how dogs and humans formed their first relationships and social bonds. ?By piecing together what we know about early human societies and canid behavior, evolutionary historians and archeologists theorize that the first canid-human relationships were formed when wolves began associating human settlements with a source of food. Initially, they probably remained at a safe distance from humans, only scavenging human food scraps at the fringes of their territory. Individual wolves who were less fearful than others probably began taking food from people more directly and eventually, some of their pups became familiar with people before they developed the natural fear of human beings that all wild adult wolves share.
Puppies – Wolf or Dog?
The first ?pet? wolves were likely those pups who were kept because they were the friendliest and least afraid of people. By ?breeding? the friendliest wolves, early human beings actually conducted a form of artificial selection that produced more friendly wolf pups every generation. Believe it or not, all of the behavioral and obvious physiological differences between wolves and domestic dogs are attributable to breeding for particular physical traits and for behaviors desired by human beings in their pets. Domestic dogs are friendly and easily socialized to bond with humans precisely because we have continually bred individual dogs with those traits ever since. So the next time that you play with your friendly Golden Retriever, think about the fact that, genetically, your best friend is actually more than 99.9% Grey Wolf!
These are the European grey wolves, out and about! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It?s interesting to note that wolves have a proportionally larger head than dogs, in fact about 10% larger. Wolves are also known to be more intelligent than dogs, able to solve logic tests that would leave a dog baffled. Perhaps that?s why wolves have pointy, Vulcan-like ears (just kidding). But dogs are more synchronized with human thought. For instance, a dog can understand a human pointing signal and will usually look in that direction. A wolf will not.
It?s amazing to see the emotion that holding a puppy evokes in many people, the sort of mternal/paternal feelings normally reserved exclusively for human babies. So before we become too smug about our ability to shape the planet?s co-inhabitants, let?s recognize that the co-evolution of humans and dogs went both ways. Dogs worked their magic on us and benefited with a generally better life, just as we benefitted by their presence. What a perfectly symbiotic relationship!