University of Manchester
A pointer named “Major” is identified as the first known example of a modern dog. A description of the dog was found in a now-obscure 1865 edition of a Victorian journal called The Field. It marks the earliest reported dog breed based on physical form and pedigree. “The invention of ‘breed,’ physically and imaginatively, still shapes how we see and think about dogs today,” Michael Worboys, Director of the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, told Discovery News. Worboys and his team found the information concerning “Major” while preparing a new museum exhibit on dogs.
The first domestication of dogs was thought to have taken place 31,680 years ago -- but new research suggests the skull in question likely belong to a wolf. This particular specimen was found with a still-visible mammoth bone in its mouth.
The paleolithic dog remains resembled a modern Siberian husky, but suggest an animals that was significantly larger. Today, the Siberian husky, Samoyed and Alaskan malamute breeds are all closely related. "The most remarkable difference between these dogs and recent dog breeds is the size of the teeth,” paleontologist Mietje Germonpré said. Other early dog breeds, with a focus on the U.K., are featured in the museum exhibit curated by Worboys and his team. Entitled “Breed: The British and Their Dogs,” the exhibit runs at the University of Manchester museum through April 14.
Another team of researchers, led by Heidi Parker of the National Human Genome Research Institute, used DNA analysis to determine the genetic relationships of numerous dog breeds. One such ancient breed is the Afghan hound. As its name suggests, it's native to the Middle East. It’s one of the oldest dog breeds in existence, and was originally used for hunting hares and gazelles.
Parker and her team found that Akitas are yet another ancient breed. These dogs originated in Asia and are genetically similar to chow chows. The breed was not included in the first dog show. “The first dog show was in 1859 when only two varieties were shown: pointers and setters,” Worboys said. It had nothing to do with the handsome Akita’s looks, as he explained that the first dog show was “for gun dogs only.”
The sleek-bodied saluki comes from Iran, where its distant ancestors might have once lived near the earliest farmers from the Fertile Crescent. Dogs in this region evolved the ability to eat a starch-rich diet around 12,000 years ago. “Our findings show that it was crucial to early dogs to be able to thrive on a diet rich in starch,” Uppsala University’s Erik Axelsson, who led a related study, told Discovery News. “That indicates that dog domestication may be linked to the development of agriculture. It is possible that dogs may have been domesticated independently at locations where agriculture developed early, such as the Fertile Crescent and China.”
One of the most ancient dog breeds native to the United States is the Alaskan malamute. The DNA study found that they are genetically similar to Siberian huskies. This large, muscular dog was used -- and still is -- for pulling sleds, hauling freight by other means, and for additional work tasks.
The basenji is “an ancient African breed,” according to Parker and her colleagues. While “Major” the pointer is the first documented modern breed of dog, the basenji is arguably the first dog to be heavily bred by humans. Although this dog hails from central Africa, paleontologists believe its wolf ancestors originally came from eastern Asia.
Remigiusz Józefowicz/Wikimedia Commons
In China, the chow chow is affectionately referred to as Songshi Quan, meaning “puffy-lion dog.” It is genetically close to the Akita, also from Asia. It represents yet another early breed.
Of the four most ancient known Asian dog breeds, the shar-pei was the first to diverge from a wolf ancestor, suggesting it is the oldest known Asian breed. This dog is famous for its deep wrinkles and blue-black tongue. Mutations of the same gene that causes wrinkles in these dogs can also cause wrinkling of human skin.
Advances in forensic science have resulted in a worldwide effort to identify dog owners who do not properly dispose of their pets' waste.
Recently, for example, the vice mayor of Naples, Italy, announced an initiative that would use DNA profiling to nab negligent dog owners whose pets leave steaming mounds of number two on city streets.
Close to 5,000 miles away in Jacksonville, N.C., apartment complex owners are also using DNA samples to crack down on owners who do not clean up after their dogs.
“This is happening all over the world,” Eric Mayer, spokesman for PooPrints, told Discovery News.
PooPrints, a subdivision of BioPet Vet Lab, is processing the dog poo samples from Jacksonville. It's also working with communities in Canada, Singapore, Israel and in 43 U.S. states, including Hawaii.
As for why not all states are participating, Mayer said, “We don’t have any samples coming in from Wyoming, for example, which has a lot of grass and not as many dogs.”
The process of matching dog owner to poo pile is a two-step process, he explained. First, dogs are registered and cheek swabs are taken to provide cells for DNA profiling. Just knowing that all of this info is on record causes most owners to think twice before leaving behind their doggy’s doo.
“Next, at the tail end of the process, a thumbnail-sized sample of the waste is sent to the lab where it is analyzed for DNA and a match can be made to the dog and its owner,” Mayer said, adding that PooPrints provides special leak-proof containers and spatulas to make the task easier.
“Accuracy for the matches is close to 100 percent,” he said.
At that point, the guilty owner is then usually fined. In Naples, the fine has been set at 500 euros, or approximately $685.
Many apartment complex owners are now requiring, in their leases, that dogs of tenants undergo DNA testing for such reasons. Naples vice mayor Tommaso Sodano proposes that every dog in his city should undergo a blood test for DNA profiling.
The efforts are in response to a global problem that is no small matter, both literally and figuratively.
A University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science study found that the U.K. dog population is estimated to be around ten million, with those canines producing well over 2 million pounds of excrement each day. Much of it winds up in parks, on sidewalks and on city streets.
Eric Morgan and his colleagues at Bristol who conducted the study found that dog poo can act as a major source of the parasitic egg of Toxocara, which can potentially contaminate the environment and infect humans. Human victims may suffer from abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and other problems.
Each adult female worm can lay 12,500 eggs or more per day, equating to around 3.7 billion eggs shed each day in any given city, Morgan said. Toxocara, as prevalent as it is, represents just one of many health threats associated with dog waste.
Cat waste may pose health risks too. Mayer said PooPrints can tell whether or not a fecal sample came from a cat, but DNA profiling of felines is not common.
“A lot of people hesitate taking a cheek swab from a cat, considering their sharp teeth and claws,” he explained. “Also, cats tend to bury their waste.”
Whether the offending pooper is feline or canine, Mayer reminds that only one individual is to blame: the owner.
As he said, “The pets are just doing what comes naturally. It is up to owners to clean up after them to ensure cleaner, greener communities.”