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Tag: wolves

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!”

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)

Tweeting wolf: Olympian’s video of “wolf” in the hallway was Jimmy Kimmel hoax

With help from an Olympic luger, Twitter and a dog who is at least part wolf, Jimmy Kimmel has once again put one over on the news media.

Then again, fooling the news media has a very low degree of difficulty these days.

Kimmel conspired with 21-year-old luger Kate Hansen, under whose name the video was posted on Twitter and elsewhere.

“I’m pretty sure this is a wolf wandering my hall in Sochi,” she said in a comment accompanying the video on YouTube.

Pretty much every major news outlet quickly picked up the story Thursday, echoing the Olympian’s cry of wolf, and apparently forgetting the entire moral of that fable.

USA Today was among those setting the record straight today — generally in a humorous vein that didn’t focus on how any laziness on the media’s part might have contributed to being duped.

Hansen, who finished competing Feb. 11 and is staying at the Olympic village, tweeted the video with the hashtag #sochiproblems and #sochifail. The hashtag was commonly used by visitors to Sochi for complaints surrounding the Games, including some about stray dogs.

Kimmel came clean last night, revealing the set created in the studio to resemble the dormitory corridor, and the wolf-dog, named Rugby.

Hansen appeared, via Skype, on the show as well, and said she has experienced some repercussions for the role she played.

Heavy meddle: Creed works as wolf repellant

A 13-year-old boy in Norway credits the Creed song “Overcome,” cranked up to full volume, with saving him from a pack of wolves.

Walter Eikrem was walking home from a school bus stop in Rakkestdad, listening to the band through his headphones, when he noticed four wolves lurking nearby on a hillside, not far from his family’s farmhouse.

According to Spiegel Online, the boy heeded advice his mother had given him and didn’t start running.  “The worst thing you can do is run away because doing so just invites the wolves to chase you down,” he said, “… but I was so afraid that I couldn’t even run away if I’d wanted to.”

Instead, he unplugged the headphones from his mobile phone, and turned the volume up. Between the heavy metal, and Walter shouting and flailing his arms, it was enough to drive the wolves off.

“They just turned around and simply trotted away,” Walter said.

(Photos by Rune Blekken / TV 2)