When Wolves Turned Into Dogs...

May 26, 2013 By Deepa Gopal
Deepa Gopal's picture

Did you know that man's best friend was not always the cute, cuddly canine that we know today? In fact, these docile creatures once descended from the gray, shaggy wolf -- the hunter of the night. Where the two diverged so dramatically is still a matter of great debate and mystery among scholars.

Recently, new research has revealed a piece of this puzzle. Scientists from all over the world, led by Ya-Ping Zhang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, compared fragments of DNA of different canines, coming to the conclusion that wolves started their transformation into dogs in East Asia, about 32,000 years ago.

Interestingly, they conclude that domestication of dogs might have not been a result of human efforts, but due to changes in the animal's brains. 

The Study

Dogs are known to have evolved from wolves, based on similarities in their behavior and looks. Since wolves live and hunt in the wild, they have longer snouts, thinner jaws and spaced out teeth. However, when dogs came to live with humans, they lost their ability to live in the wild and began to depend on humans. They adapted and developed shorter snouts, wider jaws, and crowded teeth. 

In the recent study, scientists sequenced the genome of Chinese native dogs which are more wolf-like in appearance and compared that with genomes of Asian wolves and pure-breeds such as German shepherds. They noticed changes in genes which are involved in the sense of smell, hearing, and in behavior and decision-making, among others. The study also suggests the changes began 33,000 years ago -- around the same time that early man was going through changes himself, triggered by the environment.

Who Chose Whom?

Did man pick the wolf cubs to be domesticated or did wolves choose to live with humans? It may have been the latter, as wolves started lingering around humans, feeding off the carcasses left behind by the hunter-gatherers. While the aggressive wolves would have been chased away or killed by humans, the gentler ones survived. And in a process of natural selection -- these animals slowly changed, or in other words, became domesticated. 

Over time, when man settled down and began to farm, dogs helped humans with many chores such as herding cattle. When he invented sleds and other mechanisms of transportation, dogs would pull them. In recent times, dogs act as human companions, household pets, service and guide dogs and police dogs. 

Courtesy National Geographic, NYtimes