Two early dogs, Hesperocyon, left, and the later Sunkahetanka, were both ambush-style predators.
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.
The first canines emerged in North America, where climate change transformed them from mongoose-like forest dwellers into pursuit-and-pounce predators, new research finds.
The discovery adds to the growing body of evidence that climate change dramatically affects the evolution of both predators and their prey.
“It’s reinforcing the idea that predators may be as directly sensitive to climate and habitat as herbivores,” co-author Christine Janis, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University, said in a press release. “Although this seems logical, it hadn’t been demonstrated before.”
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, also reinforces prior findings that the earliest ancestors of dogs were native to North America.
“Dogs, that is the family Canidae, originated in North America, and did not spread to other parts of the world until around 7 million years ago, when they turn up in Africa and Eurasia, and they got to South America around 2 million years ago,” Janis told Discovery News.
Janis conducted the new research with lead author Borja Figueirido of the Universidad de Málaga, Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History and their team.
The scientists examined the elbows and teeth of 32 species of dogs spanning the period from around 40 million years ago to 2 million years ago.
Janis explained, “The elbow is a really good proxy for what carnivores are doing with their forelimbs, which tells their entire locomotion repertoire.”
As a result, the researchers were able to identify distinct patterns in the fossils that they believe corresponded to climate change.
The scientists determined that as forests slowly gave way to open grasslands due to cooler yet drier conditions, canines evolved from being wily ambush predators into hunters like modern coyotes or foxes that are known as pursuit-pounce predators.
As time went on, the predators further evolved into what the researchers say were “dogged, follow-a-caribou-for-a-whole-day pursuers like wolves in the high latitudes.”
Canine elbows at first could swivel (palms could be inward or down), permitting grabbing and wrestling prey. They gradually evolved to become always downward-facing and specialized for endurance running.
While all of this was happening, the canines’ teeth evolved to become more durable, perhaps with, as the researchers noted, “the need to chow down on prey that had been rolled around in the grit of the savannah, rather than a damp, leafy forest floor.”
The authors further explained that it was not advantageous to operate as a pursuit-and-pounce predator until there was room to run.
“There’s no point in doing a dash and a pounce in a forest,” Janis quipped. “They’ll smack into a tree.”
Since canines and other predators appear to have evolved with climate change over the last 40 million years, then they likely will continue to do so in response to the human-created climate change underway now, according to the researchers.
The new findings could therefore help to predict the effects we are setting into motion.