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Dog Fossil Represents New Species of 'Bone Crusher'

A 12-million-year-old fossil unearthed in Maryland was a canid from a family with a strong bite.

<p>Mauricio Antón<span></span></p>

A 12-million-year-old fossil unearthed in Maryland represents a new dog species with a strong bite.

In a study published in the Journal of Paleontology, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania describe Cynarctus wangi, a creature roughly the size of a modern coyote that likely would have behaved a bit like a hyena.

The canid lived during the middle Miocene and was part of an extinct family of dogs known as bone crushers, due to their strong jaws and big teeth.

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The "bone crusher" family of dogs (Borophaginae) lived all over North America between 10 million to 30 million years ago. The researchers think the new dog likely went the way of extinction because it wasn't able to compete with the ancestors of modern wolves, coyotes and foxes.

Notwithstanding the fierce nickname of its overarching family, the scientists don't think C. wangi was 100-percent carnivorous. Its teeth lead the researchers to believe about two-thirds of the dog's meals would have been non-meat, the animal getting by on plants and insects and "living more like a mini-bear than like a dog," according to the study's lead author, Penn doctoral student Steven E. Jasinski.

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The specimen was found in the Choptank Formation of Maryland's Calvert Cliffs, on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

According to Jasinski, the location of the find was especially significant, offering a new window into the North America of 12 to 13 million years ago. Fossils from the region and time in history, he said, tend to be of seafaring creatures.

"Most fossils known from this time period represent marine animals, who become fossilized more easily than animals on land," he said in a statement. "It is quite rare we find fossils from land animals in this region during this time, but each one provides important information for what life was like then."

Shown is a representation of the new dog species Cynarctus wangi.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.