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Tag: science

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)

Two charged in PETA’s continuing protest of Texas A&M muscular dystrophy research

Two PETA protesters were forcibly removed from the University of Texas Board of Regents meeting Wednesday after demanding the board stop funding research at Texas A&M that breeds dogs with muscular dystrophy to create puppies with the disease for use in experiments to find a cure.

PETA has long been campaigning to bring an end to the long-running research project — a cause whose supporters include comedian Bill Maher, and former A&M quarterback Ryan Tannenhill, both of whom have characterized the research as cruel.

The leader of the research, Joe Kornegay, has defended the project by saying it seeks to find a cure for the debilitating disease in both humans and dogs, and that — doomed as they might be to a life of suffering — dogs brought into the world for use in the experiments are treated well.

He says they breed dogs with the disease because they can’t otherwise find enough canine participants who are already afflicted.

On Wednesday, in PETA’s latest protest, two shouting, sign-carrying members of the organization were removed from the meeting and charged with hindering proceedings by disorderly conduct.

A second protest, with fewer than a dozen participants, was staged along the Capital of Texas Highway, near the hotel where the regents were meeting, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

“We’re asking them to stop funding Texas A&M while these labs continue,” said Matt Bruce, an organizer for PETA.

PETA says the dogs spend their short lives in cages and struggle to swallow and walk as the disease progresses. They are also subjected to being placed in a mechanical device that stretches, and often tears, their muscles, PETA says.

PETA says the experiments have failed to produce a single effective treatment for human muscular dystrophy in 35 years and don’t justify the misery the dogs are put through.

Do we really need Dog Fart Awareness Day?

DFAD_HHS_2Dog Fart Awareness Day came and went over the weekend — and I wasn’t even aware of it!

Nor was I aware that such a day has apparently existed for at least three years.

My tendency is to question whether it is “a real thing” — sorry, but a Facebook page alone is not ample proof of that — and yet People magazine has written about it, and so have some dog writers I actually respect.

The recent People article was basically an interview with a veterinarian, and said nothing about the special day’s origins — or who was behind it. (Though the veterinarian did share that, in his experience, bulldogs fart more than any other breed.)

It’s hard to find any serious discussion, or background information on Dog Fart Awareness Day, also called Dog Farting Awareness Day. Just about everything you call up on the Internet seems to have been written more for the pun opportunities than to provide information.

You’d assume such a day would have some veterinary group behind it, telling us that, if our dogs are farting excessively, we should bring them in at once for an expensive battery of tests.

I could find no sign of that — and no explanation of why we need a Dog Fart Awareness Day. When they fart, and we are at home, don’t we quickly become pretty aware of it?

DFAD_LingerScanning legitimate news media, I found only a few references to it.

Twincities.com recently included it in a list of “officially” proclaimed days, but added, “not sure if this is a serious thing.”

Scientific American used the annual day as an opportunity to delve into dog fart research, producing a pretty fascinating article on its blog, Dog Spies.

Then again, the blog’s writer, Julie Hecht, was reporting about dog fart research even before the awareness day existed — proof that she is on top of things, or a little weird. Either way, her posts are always fascinating.

This one goes into some 2001 research at the Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in the UK where researchers, with help from a special dog fart jumpsuit and “odor judges,” measured the flatulence of dogs and assessed the odors on a 1 to 5 scale — 5 being “unbearable,” 1 being percussion without any noticeable odor.

The research was aimed at rendering dog farts less foul smelling, which is possible with dog farts (as it also is with humans).

Despite the day being mentioned in such a scholarly publication, I’m still suspicious of it.

Generally, such days have an organization behind them — one that has procured a proclamation for such a day in hopes of increasing awareness or sales, but DFAD, as it’s called, lists none.

National Hairball Day (April 28th) is recognized by the American Veterinary Association. National Dog Fighting Awareness Day (also April 8) is sponsored by the ASPCA. This is also National Dog Bite Prevention Week, sponsored by, among others, the U.S. Postal Service.

But National Dog Farting Awareness Day seems to have wafted in out of nowhere.

If “bogus” — and my suspicions lean that way — does DFAD take away from more serious issues, like dogfighting awareness, or, as some maintain, is it a good thing even if it is all in jest, because it allows dog lovers to share and celebrate their dogs, and create their own memes.

(Memes and farts have a few things in common by the way. They can erupt spontaneously, grab everyone’s attention and then quickly dissipate. You’re never sure who was behind them, and the perpetrators — whoever they were — probably feel better after expressing themselves.)

It’s important to keep in mind anyone can go online and get a national day of pretty much anything proclaimed, like at this website.

These informal national days are not to be confused with official ones — those proclaimed by Congress and our president, such as a National Missing Children’s Day, or National America Recycles Day.

Dog farts and hairballs are not among issues Congress considers pressing, but luckily entrepreneurs are there to fill the void, and give your cause the attention you feel it deserves — a day of it’s own. And maybe someday your day will show up in an esteemed publication like Scientific American, or People, or ohmidog!, thus adding credence to the belief your day is a real thing.

I don’t believe there is an officially sponsored, organizationally-backed Dog Fart Awareness Day. And I don’t think we need one.

As for the one that seems to exist, for purposes that seem limited to giving us a chuckle, I’m hoping it doesn’t linger too much longer.

(Photos: From the Dog Farting Awareness Facebook page)

Pawprint in the mud leads to discovery that New Guinea highland wild dogs still exist

hihgland2

After nearly half a century of fearing that the New Guinea highland wild dog had gone extinct in its remote and inhospitable habitat, high in the mountains of New Guinea, a pawprint in the mud has led researchers to confirm the existence of at least 15 of them.

Photographs taken with camera traps and DNA analyses of biological samples confirm the dogs — considered the most ancient breed on earth — are living along New Guinea’s remote central mountain spine.

“The discovery and confirmation of the highland wild dog for the first time in over half a century is not only exciting, but an incredible opportunity for science,” says the group behind the discovery, the New Guinea Highland Wild Dog Foundation (NGHWDF).

hihgland1An expedition by the foundation last year led to the discovery of the population — after a member of the group noticed a pawprint in the mud.

New Guinea highland wild dogs were only known from two unconfirmed photographs in recent years — one taken in 2005, and the other in 2012.

They had not been documented with certainty in their native range in over half a century, and experts feared that what was left of the ancient dogs had dwindled to extinction.

Last year, a NGHWDF expedition led by zoologist James K. McIntyre, was joined by local researchers from the University of Papua, who were also seeking the the elusive dogs.

A muddy paw print spotted in September 2016 finally gave them what they were looking for — recent signs that the wild canids still wandered the dense forests of the New Guinea highlands.

The footprint was one McIntyre had left, with his bare feet, while going up the mountain. On the group’s way down the mountain, he noticed it had been joined by a paw print.

Bait was laid. Camera traps were set. And the cameras captured more than 140 images of Highland Wild Dog.

highland3

DNA analysis of fecal fecal samples confirmed that the breed is related to Australian dingos and New Guinea singing dogs – the captive-bred variants of the New Guinea highland wild dog.

The species established itself on the island at least 6,000 years ago, either arriving with human migrants or migrating independently of humans.

The dogs most commonly have a golden coat, but can also be black, tan or cream colors. Their tails curl up over their backsides and their ears sit erect on their heads.

According to the NGHWDF, there are roughly 300 New Guinea singing dogs remaining in the world, living in zoos and private homes. They are known for their high-pitched howls, often carried out in chorus with one another.

A scientific paper on the discovery is expected to be released in the coming months.

(Photos: NGHWDF)

Nervous dog owners = nervous dogs

nervousdogs

Leave it to scientists to confirm what we already know, and to do so using words we don’t begin to understand.

Case in point: Nervous dogs often have nervous owners. This is not to say a nervous dog can’t have a cool as a cucumber (coolus cucumberus) owner. Nor is it to say some highly twitchy (humanus nervosa) folks can’t have calm dogs.

Only that, as anyone who visits a dog park knows, nervous owners tend to have nervous dog at the end of the leash.

The new study buttresses the concept that our dogs tend to take on our personalities, and that tension — while it may not actually “flow down the leash” — is picked up on by our dogs, and often reflected in their own behavior.

It looks at the chemistry behind that.

The study at the University of Vienna — published in the journal PLOS One “investigated dyadic psychobiological factors influencing intra-individual cortisol variability in response to different challenging situations by testing 132 owners and their dogs in a laboratory setting.”

You might understand that, or, you (like me) might not know spit — or that cortisol levels can be measured through it.

In the study, the researchers measured the levels of cortisol — and the variability of those levels — in the saliva of dogs and owners put through stressful situations.

In addition, they assessed the personality of both dog and human participants — ranging from highly sensitive and neurotic to secure and self confident.

“We calculated the individual coefficient of variance of cortisol (iCV = sd/mean*100) over the different test situations as a parameter representing individual variability of cortisol concentration,” the study’s authors wrote. “We hypothesized that high cortisol variability indicates efficient and adaptive coping and a balanced individual and dyadic social performance.”

For a more reader-friendly account of the study, check out Stanley Coren’s Psychology Today blog:

“You can think of people who are high in neuroticism as being sensitive and nervous while people who score low in neuroticism are secure and confident. In this study, the dog owners who scored high in neuroticism had dogs with low variability in their cortisol. This suggests that dogs with highly neurotic owners are less able to deal with pressure and stress.”

“Conversely, dog owners who were more laid back and agreeable had calmer dogs. Those folks have greater variability in their cortisol response, suggesting that they are better able to cope with situations involving tension and strain.”

The study says the male dogs of female owners often have less variability in their cortisol responses and are often generally less sociable and less relaxed than male dogs belonging to male owners.

(That’s the study saying that females generally score higher on measures of anxiety and neuroticism — not me. I would be way too nervous to say that.)

“Owners behave differently because they are pessimistic or neurotic, and perhaps dogs read the emotions of their owners and think the world is more dangerous — so they are more reactive to it,” the study says. “It looks like people who are pessimistic have dogs which are worse at coping with stress than others.”

Of course, where a dog was before ending up with its owner can play a pretty big role, too.

I, for example, am the cool as a cucumber owner of a nervous dog. He came from a farm in Korea where he was being raised to become meat. That would tend to instill some nervousness in anyone.

Three months after being adopted by me, he still gets pretty nervous — around large groups, when hearing loud noises. I don’t know about his cortisol levels, but at these times he whimpers, sheds profusely — is there such a thing as projectile shedding? — and pees in inappropriate places, such as on my leg.

He is making great strides in every way, but Jinjja still needs to chill, and get less worked up by new situations.

Of all the factors that shape our dogs — genetics, environment, owners — time (and its cousin, patience) may be the most important ones of all.

So my game plan is to provide him with plenty of both, expose him to new settings and situations, and show him that not all the world is a dangerous place — all while being a mellow role model.

In other words, impossible as it might be, I’m going to have to become EVEN cooler.

Study finds dogs prefer reggae

A new study by the Scotland SPCA and the University of Glasgow reveals that dogs have a preference for reggae music.

The study concluded that, while each dog has its own musical preferences, reggae and soft rock were the two most favored genres of the five that shelter dogs were exposed to during the tests.

“Overall, the response to different genres was mixed highlighting the possibility that like humans, our canine friends have their own individual music preferences,” said Neil Evans, professor of integrative physiology at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine.

“That being said, reggae music and soft rock showed the highest positive changes in behavior,” he added.

Five types of music were played for the shelter dogs used in the experiment — Motown, pop, classical, soft rock and reggae, according to the BBC.

The dogs’ heart rates showed a decrease in stress levels while listening to soft rock and reggae, and researchers suspect that could have something to do with the tempo and repetitive themes of those genres.

The experiments were conducted at a rehoming center in Dumbarton, and based on its findings the Scottish SPCA says it plans to invest in sounds systems for all its kennels.

“At present both our Glasgow and Edinburgh centers are able to pipe music into their kennels,” said Gilly Mendes Ferreira, education and research manager. In the future every center will be able to offer our four-footed friends a canine-approved playlist, with the view to extending this research to other species in our care.”

Scotland’s animal welfare charity released research in 2015 that showed classical music led dogs to become more relaxed, but that those effects were only short term.

Both that study and the new one were published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour.

(The video above, showing a dog howling along with a Bob Marely song, is unconnected to the study and not presented here as either anecdotal or scientific proof of absolutely anything)

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.