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Tag: wolves

The history and science of dog comes to life in … Zounds! … a comic book!

hirschcoverThink “dogs and comics” and many canine characters comes to mind:

Marmaduke and Snoopy, Underdog and Scooby Doo, Pluto and Goofy –a plethora of cartoon pooches ranging in size, intellect, shape, and colors from blue (Huckleberry Hound) to red (Clifford).

Most of them did little more than provide laughs. Some of them actually passed along some life lessons and knowledge. But none — not even the professorial Mr. Peabody — has displayed the scholarly knowledge of this one.

Meet Rudy, and the man behind him, Andy Hirsch.

Hirsch, through cartoons, words and an energetic narrator modeled after his own dog, tells the story of how wolves transformed into domestic dogs, what’s behind their behaviors and how their relationship to man has evolved in “Dogs: From Predator to Protector“.

It’s the latest title in a graphic nonfiction series from Science Comics that examines science topics ranging from animals, to ecosystems, to technology.

Through Rudy, writer/illustrator Hirsch explores what led wolves to be transformed into the diverse shapes, sizes and breeds of dogs we know today — namely, man.

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“I think it all falls under the umbrella of humans having had a profound influence on dogs. They simply wouldn’t exist without us, especially any sorts of artificial breeds, so a good portion of the book is really about our methods of influence,” Hirsch told Live Science.

The comic-science book gets into the intricacies of doggie DNA and genetics, their exceptional senses, their sociability and their capacity for cross-species communication.

“Humans and dogs have an unmatched partnership all the way at the species level, and to me that means we have a responsibility to understand and care for them,” Hirsch says.

It’s the Texas author’s first nonfiction book, based on his own research, and advice from science consultants including Julie Hecht, a canine behavioral researcher and adjunct professor at Canisius College in New York.

Readers follow Rudy, and his bouncing ball, through a lively series of discussions dealing with the history and science behind how dogs live and behave.

“Maybe it’s something of a cheat to let a tennis ball bounce 25,000 years between panels, but that’s the magic of comics!” Hirsch said. “… The tennis ball was a good way to, well, bounce from one thing to the next. Rudy is our friendly narrator, and though he’s very knowledgeable, he still has the distractible nature of an average dog. That means the bouncing ball never fails to move his attention from one topic to the next.”

Hirsch2-banner“This isn’t a textbook, so when there’s the opportunity to present some facts through an entertaining narrative aside I let the story follow it.”

Rudy is modeled after Hirsch’s own dog Brisco, who he and his partner (all shown at left) adopted.

“Rudy was his first shelter name, and it’s a good fit for a comic book dog,” Hirsch said. “If you get a chance to draw a book full of dogs, of course you’re going to make yours the star.”

A truly commited artist — or at least one who maybe should be

smr3ekar2

What do you say about an artist who lays naked with wolves, breastfeeds a puppy, and fertilizes one of her egg cells with a dog’s cell?

Among the words chosen by those commenting on websites describing her work are these: “Psychopath,” “Dear God, the world has gone nuts,” “Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting” and “Someone tell me this is fake news.”

Sorry, it’s not.

Artist Maja Smrekar’s four different projects, combining art with scientific research, go under the name “K-9_topology.”

They started with a fairly tame researching of the physiology of the relationship between humans and dogs. That was followed by posing naked with wolves.

Then she got weird.

smrekarfacebookThe Slovenian artist lived in seclusion for three months with her dogs as part of one.

During that time, she used systematic breast pumping to stimulate a hormone and trigger production of breast milk, and breastfed her puppy Ada to explore “the social and ideological instrumentalization of the female body and breastfeeding.”

That piece of work would go on to be exhibited as “Hybrid Family.”

Then — to explore her “reproductive freedom in a dangerously traveled multi-species world” — she took a fat cell from another dog, Byron, and used it to fertilize one of her eggs using a method similar to IVF. No true pregnancy resulted, according to RT.com.

The artist said on her website that the project grew out of the “observation of zeitgeist through the so called thanatopolitical dimension of contemporary biopolitical practices.”

Do not even ask me what that means. (A video in which the artist explains one of her projects can be found here.)

Despite the bizarre nature, Smrekar’s project has received accolades from art critics and was awarded the top prize in the Hybrid art section of the Prix Ars Electronica, one of the best known prizes in the field of electronic and interactive art.

What did they have to say about it?

“What is making this artwork so special is the total commitment of the artist,” the jury said in a statement.

That commitment, they said, was reflected by “exposing her body to hormone roller-coasters of false pregnancy and organizing the lab infrastructure to execute the complicated biotech protocol in order to create a poetic masterpiece evoking the challenges of post-humanistic dilemma.”

(The word “commitment” does come to my mind in looking at her work, but a different kind of commitment.)

“K-9_topology is a true hybrid artwork with a profound bio-political message,” the judges concluded, “and is certain to bring a lot of discussion to the audience from both the art and science sides.”

Not the words I would choose. To me, it serves as proof that, as weird as scientific research can get, as weird as art can get, combining the two can get exponentially weirder.

Lost in translation: In shedding their wolfish past, dogs lost ability to cooperate

wolfanddog

There’s one thing that wolves are still way better at than their domesticated descendants (aka dogs) — cooperating with their own kind.

Domestication may have led to canines becoming more skilled at cooperating, manipulating and melting the hearts of people, but they lost something in the transition.

While they’ll still run together, play together and display other pack-like tendencies, dogs are less likely than wolves to work together as a team to accomplish a goal, says a new study.

To provide a human equivalent, wolves will work together like a team of Navy Seals, while dogs are more like, well, Congress.

Sarah Marshall-Pescini, from the University of Vienna, has found that dogs lag far behind wolves when it comes to accomplishing a task that requires them to cooperate.

She conducted a simple series of experiments in which dogs have to pull on two pieces of rope to bring a piece of distant tray of food within reach. While the dogs almost always failed, the wolves, working together, frequently succeeded.

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“The idea is that we’ve changed their psychology to make them into super-cooperative beings,” says Marshall-Pescini. But that’s only true for their relationships with humans, she added.

By domesticating dogs, humans ruined the pack instinct that makes wolves such great hunters and survivors.

“They adapted to the niche we provided for them and it changed their sociality,” Marshall-Pescini says.

That applies even to dogs living in the wild. They mostly keep to themselves, scavenging alone on human garbage. When they do form packs, they are usually small and loose-knit.

By contrast, wolves live in extremely tight-knit family groups. They rely on their pack-mates to bring down large prey, and they work together to rear each other’s pups.

Fifteen wolves and 15 dogs currently live in Vienna’s Wolf-Science Center, a facility established to look at the differences between wolves and dogs “in as fair a way as possible,” says Marshall-Pescini.

“They’re raised in exactly the same way, with a lot of human contact. This allows us to test a lot of different things without the confounding variables of wolves not being used to humans and pet dogs being super-used to humans.”

In the experiment, a string was threaded through rings on a tray of food on a side of a cage the animals could not access.

If one animal grabs an end of the string and pulls, it just comes out of the rings. If two animals pull on the two ends together, the tray slides close enough for them to eat the food.

All in all, the dog teams did terribly. Just one out of eight pairs managed to pull the tray across, and only once out of dozens of trials. By contrast, five out of seven wolf pairs succeeded, on anywhere between 3 and 56 percent of their attempts.

As The Atlantic explained it in an excellent summary of the study:

“It’s not that the dogs were uninterested: They explored the strings as frequently as the wolves did. But the wolves would explore the apparatus together — biting, pawing, scratching, and eventually pulling on it. The dogs did not. They tolerated each other’s presence, but they were much less likely to engage with the task at the same time, which is why they almost never succeeded.”

“The dogs are really trying to avoid conflict over what they see as a resource,” said Marshall-Pescini. “This is what we found in food-sharing studies, where the dominant animal would take the food and the subordinate wouldn’t even try to approach. With wolves, there’s a lot of arguing and it sounds aggressive, but they end up sharing. They have really different strategies in situations of potential conflict. [With the dogs], you see that if you avoid the other individual, you avoid conflict, but you can’t cooperate either.”

(Bottom photo: Wolf Science Center/Vetmeduni Vienna)

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)

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)

If not for dogs, we’d all be Neanderthals

evolution

There’s no question humans played a major — you could even say heavy-handed — role in the evolution of dogs.

But might dogs and their predecessors have played an equally significant role in our’s?

invadersA new book by Pennsylvania State University anthropologist Pat Shipman, “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction,” suggests that having wolves/dogs on our side allowed humans to survive while Neanderthals went extinct.

(Well, maybe not totally extinct; I know at least two.)

In reality, most humans today — thanks to long-ago couplings between humans and Neanderthals — have anywhere from one to four percent of Neanderthal genes in their systems. (Those genes, I suspect, are responsible for making us tailgate, become bodybuilders and cut in line.) 

Neanderthals lived, evolved and pretty much ruled for about 250,000 years. After humans came along, about 40,000 years ago, the numbers of Neanderthals declined, then vanished, falling victim, some think, to the superior intellect, skills and weapons of early humans.

Shipman agrees with that theory, but argues humans having wolves on their side was a critical factor.

Neanderthals, the author says, never buddied up with the wolf, while humans would go on to form an alliance with them, tame them, breed them and assign them the kind of tasks that helped with survival — like hunting, guarding and chasing away enemies.

Given dogs were once thought to have been domesticated only 10,000 to 15,000 years ago — long after Neanderthals and humans had it out — little attention was paid to what, if any role, they might have played in the conflict.

But newer evidence, suggesting the domestication of dog goes back 25,000, 35,000, or even more than 100,000 years ago, lends credence to the conclusion dogs were a factor in the survival of our species.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff — from whence we came, from whence dog came, and how, when and why we seemingly became allies.

But, other than the fact that knowing how our species has managed to survive this long might help it continue to do so, I’m not sure how relevant it is to modern times — unless, as one writer semi-playfully suggests in a piece for WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, how much an individual likes or dislikes dogs is related to the amount of Neanderthal within.

“Depending on the individual, you might just wonder if dog loving might be an indicator of the ratio of Neanderthal genes you’ve got,” Vicki Croke wrote on the WBUR blog, “The Wild Life.” She quotes Lauren Slater, author of  “The $60,000 Dog:”

“What this may mean: all those ‘not dog’ people, the ones who push away the paws and straighten their skirts after being sniffed, well, they may have one foot in the chromosomally compromised Neanderthal pool,” Slater wrote, while dog lovers “may be displaying not idiocy or short-sighted sentimentality, as our critics would call it, but a sign of our superior genetic lineage.”

So the next time some small foreheaded, prim and proper, club-carrying type asks that you keep your dog away from them, by all means comply, but feel free to mutter under your breath as you walk away:

“What a Neanderthal!”