18,000-year-old puppy could help explain how wolves became dogs
Scientists are all about new discoveries. As it turns out, we get especially excited when those “new discoveries” are thousands of years old. Researchers in Russia recently unveiled an 18,000-year-old puppy that was preserved in permafrost. The animal is somewhere between a wolf and a dog, and that ambiguity speaks to the oft-pondered mystery of how the two species diverged.
Researchers named the pup Dogor, which translates to “friend” in the area where the puppy was found. Scientists hope this new friend will reveal some of the secrets of dog domestication.
Let’s take a look at what his genetics can tell us about some of our favorite furry companions.
The Incredible Sample
Dogor is an incredible specimen, with even its fur and teeth being almost perfectly preserved over millennia. The quality of the sample matters for a few different reasons. For starters, there’s something truly awe-inspiring about being able to look at history up close. However, the quality of the sample also means more readily available data for research.
So how did scientists obtain such a perfect example of history? They found Dogor in a remote corner of Siberia; the nearest town is hours away. Another reason for Dogor’s spectacular condition—he was retrieved from a tunnel of permafrost, meaning he was preserved undisturbed.
Scientists cleaned the dirt off the pup, fluffed up its fur and revealed a nearly fully preserved specimen. The pup still had its milk teeth and researchers think it was about two months old when it died. The only area of apparent decomposition was along the spine and rib cage.
Caught between Dogs and Wolves
The people who found Dogor ran genetic tests on the puppy, hoping to learn more about him. Genetic testing of ancient DNA has its own particular set of challenges, as the sample is typically fairly degraded and often contaminated by microbial DNA. The Siberian cold minimized these issues, but Dogor has kept some of his mystery. Scientists were able to confirm it’s a boy. However, they were not able to confirm whether the beast is a dog or a wolf.
A researcher explained the significance to CNN:
“It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” David Stanton, a researcher at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, told CNN.
“We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both — to dogs and wolves,” he explained.
The most recent science suggests dog domestication happened between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago. That could mean Dogor represents a bridge between wolves and modern dogs.
Many of the conclusions about Dogor’s importance stem from genetic comparisons. Researchers take samples of Dogor’s DNA, then compare them against markers common in wolves but not dogs and vice versa. That comparison should reveal whether Dogor himself is a wolf or a dog. Instead, the results came back muddled.
Those initially-unclear results could lead to the much debated common ancestor for modern wolves and dogs.
Stanton told Metro in the UK that dogs were apparently domesticated from a lineage of wolves that went extinct, which is why it’s so hard to pin down where and when dogs were domesticated. Without a genetic reference point to compare to, scientists are left with a number of important questions. Researchers are planning an additional round of sequencing that they hope will firmly place Dogor in the dog or wolf branch of the mammalian family tree.
Dogor would be an incredible discovery even if no genetic data had been recovered. Any time you can stare back 18,000 years and get a picture of what things were like in living color, you have to appreciate it. However, in this case, the genetic sequencing we’re capable of could help us understand when and how wolves were domesticated, providing better insight into some of our favorite companions.
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