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Tag: domestication

Researchers say the hyper-friendliness of dogs results from gene mutation

Researchers say they have pinpointed a gene mutation that explains why dogs are so hyper-friendly — one they believe could have played a role in their domestication.

The scientists say they have isolated two genes, variations in which lead to the hyper-friendliness and tail-wagging sociability that most dogs exhibit.

When I read the headlines I had two reactions. First, I didn’t want to believe that the love dogs display resulted from something as stark sounding as a “mutation.” Second, I decided I wanted those genes, and those mutations, inside me — and all humans.

Imagine how much better a place the world would be if we all got so excited we nearly peed when we greeted each other, covered the faces of friends and strangers with licks, and had that unconditional love and loyalty that dogs possess.

Interestingly, though, similar variations in those same genes are already inside a small number of us. The genes at issue — GTF2I and GTF2IRD1 — are the same ones that have been associated with a human disease called Williams-Beuren Syndrome (WBS), which causes developmental disabilities and many other health issues.

The condition is characterized by mild to moderate intellectual disability, unusual facial features, cardiovascular problems and other health issues. But it also can often lead to affected individuals having highly outgoing, engaging personalities and extreme interest in other people.

Having written about people with developmental disabilities for eight years as a reporter, I met more than a few people like that — in institutions, group homes, and living with their families. They’d come up and hug a complete stranger. They’d follow me around, paying attention to everything I did and said. They seemed to indiscriminately love everybody. They were hard to say goodbye to.

I didn’t know it was a result of their Williams-Beuren syndrome, or that there even was a Williams-Beuren syndrome (this was the 1980’s), just that they possessed an innocence and trust uncommon in our species. I can’t remember if, at the time, I saw that behavior as “dog-like.”

But some researchers did.

vonholdtBridgett vonHoldt, an evolutionary geneticist at Princeton University, and Monique Udell, who studies animal behavior at Oregon State University, met three years ago and started talking about dogs.

In an earlier study, vonHoldt had identified a gene that’s mutated more often in dogs than wolves — one that possibly led to their domestication.

Together, Udell and vonHoldt decided to examine the social behavior of a group of dogs and a group of wolves and then analyze their DNA in the region that included the genes in question.

The study they co-authored, using a combination of genetic sequencing and behavioral tests, pinpointed a couple genetic differences that seem to track with friendliness.

Using 16 dogs and eight captive, socialized wolves, they were able to establish that the dogs showed a greater variation, or mutation, of those genes. Animals with these mutations appeared to pay more attention to the humans than those without, the researchers said.

“We find that hyper-sociability, a central feature of WBS, is also a core element of domestication that distinguishes dogs from wolves,” the study concluded.

brubaker

The findings, in addition to providing new insights into the human disorder, could explain a large part of what led wolves to become domesticated, and how dogs evolved to become man’s best friend.

To learn more about the study, check out these reports from the
Los Angeles Times, Science and Princeton University.

(Photos: At top, Bridgett vonHoldt, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton and the study’s lead co-author, cuddles with her Old English Sheepdog, Marla, by Chris Fascenelli, Princeton University Office of Communications; at bottom, Lauren Brubaker, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the study’s authors, interacts with a gray wolf, by Monty Sloan, via Princeton University Office of Communications)

How farming changed dogs — and us

bread

It’s no big surprise — given it’s what led them to befriend us in the first place — that dogs have been dining on our scraps since early in their domestication.

What’s more interesting is how dogs adapted to our junk food ways.

A team of researchers from France, Sweden and Romania has found evidence indicating that domesticated dogs underwent a genetic transformation, developing multiple copies of a gene that aids in the digestion of starch.

That’s the same thing we humans did, when we made the transition from a hunting to a farming society, consuming more starches and vegetable and less meat.

In their paper published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the team describes what they found out by conducting a DNA analysis of ancient dog teeth and other bones.

They conclude that, around 7000 years ago, domesticated dogs were eating so much wheat and millet they made extra copies of starch-digesting genes to help them cope.

starchIn other words, as we began consuming more starches, so too — via our leftovers — did the dogs that were compromising their wolfy ways to hang around with us.

That we and dogs can have our genes altered by the food we consume and the repeated behaviors we engage in, is kind of intriguing, and kind of scary — and it brings new credence to the old phrase “you are what you eat.”

Some of the first insights into how farming changed the canine genome came three years ago, according to Sciencemag.com

That’s when a team led by evolutionary geneticist Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden discovered that dogs have four to 30 copies of a gene called Amy2B, whereas wolves typically only have two.

The new study sought to get a better handle on when that happened.

Axelsson teamed up with Morgane Ollivier, a paleogeneticist at Ecole Normale Supéieure de Lyon in France and others, who extracted ancient DNA from the bones and teeth of 13 wolf and dog specimens collected from archaeological sites throughout Eurasia.

Four of the ancient dogs — from a 7000-year-old site in Romania and 5000-year-old sites in Turkey and France — had more than eight copies of Amy2B, Ollivier and his colleagues reported in Royal Society Open Science.

The findings rule out a modern origin for the increase in the number of Amy2B genes in dogs.

pastaDogs were likely domesticated more than 15,000 years ago, and likely continued eating mostly meat after that, as they became hunting companions to humans.

As humans turned to farming, the number of copies of Amy2B increased — first in us, then in dogs.

Being able to survive on whatever humans discarded likely enabled dogs to become widespread as people migrated across the globe, the scientists say.

It’s food for thought — how what we eat, or other repeated practices, can lead, far down the road, to alterations in our DNA.

Might scientists discover, generations from now, for example, that we humans have developed a selfie-taking gene that won’t let us stop taking excessive photos of ourselves?

They’ll name it 02BME.

Dig this: Uncovered tooth shows Mesolithic man took road trips — and with dogs

stonehenge

Archaeologists say they have uncovered evidence that dogs weren’t just already domesticated by man 7,000 years ago, but they were taking road trips with him as well.

They say a dog’s tooth found one mile from Stonehenge is the earliest evidence of people traveling to the site of the prehistoric monument — even before its famous rock formation was constructed, believed to be 5,000 years ago.

An isotope analysis of the tooth’s enamel at Durham University showed the dog originally hailed from York, or at least had consumed water there. Bones found near the site suggest the dog feasted on salmon, trout, pike, wild pig and red deer.

toothThe dog most likely resembled a German shepherd, but with a more distinctly wolf-like appearance.

Researchers believe the dog made the 250-mile trip from York to Wiltshire 7,000 years ago with a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer.

Possibly, they say, he was taking it there to trade.

Archaeologist David Jacques, who leads the team digging at an encampment site called Blick Mead, said the findings show that dogs were domesticated by Mesolithic times, and that, contrary to popular thought, man was doing some long distance travel back then.

And it shows that what’s now the world’s most famous prehistoric monument was drawing people from afar even before whoever arranged those rocks arranged those rocks.

“The fact that a dog and a group of people were coming to the area from such a long distance away further underlines just how important the place was four millennia before the circle was built,” said Jacques, a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham.

As the decade-long dig continues, The Guardian reported, evidence is accumulating that Stonehenge — as long as 7,000 years ago — was a gathering place.

“It makes us wonder if this place is a hub point, a really important place for the spread of ideas, new technologies and probably genes,” Jacques said.

Our guess? It was a flea market.

Did greedy moms fuel domestication of dog?

Mother-dog-overwhelmed-by-pack-of-hungry-pups

Some researchers are suggesting that selfish mama dogs may have played a role in the early domestication of the species by keeping the good food to themselves, as opposed to sharing it with their pups.

As a result, the researchers theorize, pups and young dogs ventured out of the wild and into human communities where they didn’t have to compete as hard for food — at least not with their own mothers.

(Being a cartoonist at heart — albeit one who can’t draw — I am picturing a young pup, sneaking away from the home of his domineering mother with one of those sacks on a stick over his shoulder, muttering to himself, “That bitch. That bitch. That greedy bitch!”)

Sure, there may be some substance to this research, but it mostly makes me laugh.

The researchers conducted experiments with feral dogs in India, then theorized that ancestral dogs thousands of years ago must have behaved the same way.

First, they offered low-quality biscuits to mother dogs, and the mother dogs tended to share those with their pups, with no conflicts arising.

Then they brought out the good stuff. Protein-rich meat seemed to make the mother dogs forget their motherly ways, growling at their pups to keep them away, and even grabbing meat from the mouths of their puppies.

The authors, Anindita Bhadra and Manabi Paul of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, say ancestral dogs, once they reached 8 or 9 weeks old, became able to clearly distinguish between protein rich food sources and the un-nourishing filler their mothers were trying to pass off on them.

At that point, the researchers theorize, many young ancestral dogs would set out for farming communities where they had access to what humans threw away. There is evidence also that the earliest farmers fed these dogs, making life among humans even more appealing.

The theory, outlined in the journal Royal Society Open Science, could help to explain the origins of dog domestication and how some ancestral dogs so willingly elected to live with people instead of with their own kind, Discovery reports.

“Ancestral dogs” is kind of a safe term scientists use — just in case dogs didn’t evolve from wolves, but from some other species.

As for why ancestral dog moms turned so selfish when a good cut of meat became available, Bhadra said, “We feel that the mothers just tend to grab the best resources when available.”

Ancestral mother dogs are not available to respond to those charges, so I will speak for them:

“Hey, you think it’s easy giving birth to 14 kids at once, and then raising them? Alone?

“Yeah, where IS dad? Good question. Haven’t seen him since he knocked me up.

“So, yes, I get a little anxious, a little snippy. But I’ve got to feed the whole lot of them, and protect them. It’s not like I can walk into the Food Lion and get all I need. You have no idea how tired I am. And yes, I get hungry, too. If I am not nourished, how do you expect me to nourish all of them? Go research that, why don’t you?”

(Photo: From Lovethesepics.com)

Why dogs are smarter than wolves

cartoon

An Oregon State University scientist’s study, published yesterday, is drawing a lot of attention for concluding (as scientific studies often do) the obvious:

The longer dogs live with us, the more dependent they become on us, and, as a result, their problem solving and survival skills aren’t what they were back when they were wolves.

Not to sound stupid, but duh.

This, friends, is evolution. Just as our ancestors could once shred apart a mastodon leg without using an electric carving knife, the ancestors of dogs — i.e. wolves — did, and do, what they have to do to survive.

But to say dogs are “dumbing down” as a result of the cushy life we are affording them, well that’s just a little narrow-minded.

I prefer to think of it as their skills taking a new direction.

Do we say children are becoming more “stupid” because they can’t use a manual typewriter or blacksmith tools?

Of course the scientist and author of this study didn’t use the word “stupid” — only headline writers do that.

More “dim” is how the Smithsonian put it. “Stupid” and “lazy thinkers” is what the Daily Mail called them. “Poor problem solvers” was the phrase of choice for Discover magazine. “Rubbish at solving problems,” reported the International Business Times.

Kinda makes you think the dog world could use a public relations pro at least as adept as the one who garnered the author of this study so much press.

Up to now, canine cognition studies have mostly marveled at how dogs have learned to interact with humans — and cited that as proof of how incredibly smart they are.

This new study, and some earlier ones, however, are portraying how much dogs are relying on humans as an example of how we are “dumbing them down.”

Yes, dogs are growing ever more dependent on humans. Just as humans are growing ever more dependent on computers. Who does that make stupider? Or is “more stupid” the righter way of saying that?

The study at issue is by Monique A.R. Udell, an assistant professor of animal and rangeland sciences at Oregon State University. In it, she compared the problem solving skills of dogs and wolves.

Ten pet dogs and ten wolves were presented with a solvable puzzle. Sausage was placed inside a sealed plastic tub with a hard to open lid. Just one of the dogs was able to open the tub, while eight of the wolves were.

Dogs often gave up more quickly, and turned to their human masters for guidance, often with that cute head tilt they use to manipulate us. (It’s only fair after the thousands of years we’ve been manipulating them, starting with their domestication.)

The wolves, meanwhile, sought out no such help, and spent more time trying to get in the box. It should be noted they also spent more time trying to get into an impossible to open box.

How smart is that?

Udell believes depending on humans for help is not necessarily a cognitive asset. She calls the response a “conditioned inhibition of problem-solving behavior.”

Udell’s findings were published yesterday in the journal Biology Letters.

So, no, I don’t buy that a wolf being able to open a box, or spending more time on the task, is proof they are any smarter. They use their paws and claws and teeth, and perhaps some brute force — but they don’t take a second to consider other alternatives.

Dogs on the other hand, have an entire arsenal — from head tilt to sympathy-invoking whimper, from batting their big eyes at us to licking our hands as if to say, “If you love me, you will help me with this.” To me, that’s proof dogs are smarter.

After all, which is more easy to manipulate, a can of Spam or a human being?

(Cartoon by Charles Barsotti / The New Yorker)

Study says dogs go back no more than 12,000 years

skulls

A new study has a bone to pick with earlier researchers who concluded the domesticated dog has been around for 30,000 years.

New 3D analysis of skulls that had been identified as two of the earliest dogs shows they were actually wolves, a research team writes in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.

Fossilized remains that scientists said showed dogs date back at least 31,680 years — specifically those remains unearthed at Goyet Cave in Belgium — actually belonged to a wolf, according to a new study. So too, the new study says, did a 13,905-year-old fossil that was identified as belonging to a dog after it was found at a site called Eliseevichi in Russia.

The new study concludes that the the domestication of dogs happened during the Neolithic era (10,200 B.C.-2,000 B.C.) as opposed to the Paleolithic era (2.6 million years ago to 10,200 B.C.)

“Scientists have been eager to put a collar on the earliest domesticated dog,” lead author Abby Grace Drake said. “Unfortunately, their analyses weren’t sensitive enough to accurately determine the identity of these fossils.”

“Previous research has claimed that dogs emerged in the Paleolithic but this claim is based on inaccurate analyses,” Drake told Discovery News. “We reanalyzed some of the fossil canids from the Paleolithic and show that they are, in fact, wolves.”

“We did confirm that the Neolithic specimens Shamanka II (around 7,372 years old) and Ust’-Belaia (about 6,817 years old) are dogs, and therefore domestication took place by this time period or earlier,” added Drake, an assistant professor of biology at Skidmore College.

That means the wolves — who are generally (but not unanimously) believed to have evolved into dogs, possibly as a result of their interacting with humans — first appeared on earth after humans were farming and living in settlements, as opposed to when they were living in caves and hunting and gathering.

Drake and colleagues Michael Coquerelle and Guillaume Colombeau used scans and 3D visualization software to study the shape and size of the two oldest skulls and compare the data with measurements from the skulls of other dogs and wolves, according to a report on Phys.org.

That technique allowed the team to identify subtle morphological differences between dogs and wolves, such as the direction of the eye cavity and the angle between the muzzle and forehead.

(Photo: Abby Grace Drake, Skidmore College)

Why beagles will one day rule the world

The reason dogs are still around — and probably will still be when we’re not — is their uncanny ability to adapt.

Since wolves were first domesticated, becoming dogs, they’ve been on a continuous learning curve, learning how to live alongside man, and taking advantage of everything from his good nature to his furniture to his kitchen appliances.

Perhaps no breed is more adept at working these angles than beagles. They are master escape artists, wily hunters and accomplished problem solvers whose cuteness and charm trumps those occasions when they are — dare we say it — pains in the ass.

This one found a way to get chicken nuggets out of a toaster oven on the kitchen counter.

And his owner caught her in the act.

After Lucy came under suspicion for the disappearance of a roast that had been cooking in the oven, her owner set up a hidden camera. It caught Lucy as she nudged a chair next to the counter, jumped up on said counter, opened the toaster oven, removed some chicken nuggets, and enjoyed a snack.

 “A few weeks before she took a roast out of the oven that had been cooking for a few hours … So I set her up. I put some nuggets in the oven… Pressed record and left,” her owner, Rodd Scheinerman, said on his YouTube post. “This was 7 minutes into the video.”

We present this as proof positive that dogs just keep getting more clever while we humans … well, I’ll refrain from badmouthing an entire species.

But given Lucy’s kitchen skills, and the possibility she could be injured, we think her owner might want to consider limiting her access to the room when he’s not there and the oven is on, maybe with a dog-proof barricade.

A very dog-proof barricade.