by Pam Bonsper
Is your dog part wolf?
If you answered yes, you are correct. Even if your dog doesn’t look at all like a wolf, the truth of the matter is…all dogs are part wolf.
Until quite recently, it was thought that the evolution of dogs went something like this:
1) About 14,000 years ago, in what is now China, humans began to interact with and tame wolves.
2) From China, the wolves and their nomadic human friends migrated across the continents, establishing the presence of domesticated wolves throughout the world.
3) These wolves, over time and through the evolutionary process of adaptation, became dogs.
4) Different dog breeds were created by breeding in (or out) specialized characteristics.
5) All dogs (from Chihuahuas to Mastiffs) share the same great, great, great, great…you get the idea…grandparents.
However, new evidence changes this narrative. In 2008, a 33,000-year-old dog skull was found in a cave in Siberia. Dog remains of about the same age were also found in a cave in Belgium, and more recently in the Czech Republic. This disproves the theory that all dogs originated from wolves in China, suggesting instead that the domestication of dogs occurred repeatedly in different locations. Another way of saying this is that modern dogs have multiple ancestors rather than a single common one. It also proves that domestication of wolves began earlier than was previously believed.
So now we’ve got it all sorted out, right? Not quite. The scientists who used radiocarbon dating to determine the ages of the skull from Siberia and the remains from Europe do not disagree that the animals were domesticated. This simply means they were not wolves. (Wolves have a longer snout and their teeth aren’t crowded like dogs’ teeth). However, modern-day dogs don’t seem to share the same traits as these ancient domesticated dogs. The theory is that people were living with wolves before the last glacial maximum (when ice reached its greatest extent) and then were severely disrupted during that time. Climate change! The European domesticated lineages don’t appear to have survived. So where do our modern-day dogs come from? We really don’t know.
But there are many theories as to how and why the domestication of wolves took place. Some say humans sought wolves, with their better sense of smell, to help them hunt. Or they were used as pack animals and perhaps for fur or meat. Prehistoric hunters could have found wolf pups and brought them back to their caves, raising them to provide protection or companionship. Some say wolves who started eating scraps of food from humans evolved into domestic companions (dogs), while wolves who kept a distance, remained wolves. So…putting together the puzzle pieces is still a game afoot and there are still many questions as to the origins of our four-legged friends.
What we do know is that at the molecular level, the DNA makeup of wolves and dogs is almost identical. So identical, in fact (different by only 0.2 percent or less), it is difficult for scientists to differentiate between the two.
Geneticists have traced dogs’ ancestry to around 40 to 50 million years ago when carnivores emerged from two superfamilies: the Canoidea and the Feloidea. All breeds of the domestic dog are, in scientific terms, Canis lupus familiaris. The wolves are Canis lupus. The two species share 78 of the same chromosomes, meaning all modern dog breeds could, theoretically, crossbreed with wolves. However, due to the over 300 diverse breeds of dogs today, wolves and dogs often physically appear as different species--with the exception of the Malamute and Husky breeds that still most closely resemble the wolf.
There are a number of other similarities. Dogs and wolves both have 42 teeth, they interact socially in the same ways, they prepare places to give birth, and they teach their young the same life basics. They both travel in packs, need an alpha leader (this should be the owner for a dog), and are are territorial so will protect their territory (try getting on Fido’s couch!). Both have acute hearing and strong sniffers. They both perk up their ears when they hear a sound (or try to), send out warning signals when they sense danger, lie low when submissive, and put their tails up when on guard or between their legs when scared.
The differences are based on thousands of years of evolution and the process of domestication. One interesting difference is that dogs seem to more closely resemble juvenile wolves—it is almost as if dogs never go past their adolescent stage and remain permanent juveniles when compared to wolves. This may be due to the fact that over the years, dogs were bred based on their docility and helpfulness; friendly canines were easier to train.
Also, wolves rarely bark, whereas dogs have made barking an important means of communication and have been selectively bred for their barking, a necessary quality when livestock needs to be protected.
So, both scientifically and behaviorally, dogs and wolves share many traits. However, the fact still remains: wolves are wolves and dogs are dogs. Even though dogs are part wolf and we humans love so many of the characteristics that were passed on to our canine friends, bringing wolves into our modern day caves may not be such a good idea.
But someone had to do it. Maybe someday we will know exactly when that first happened and where our dogs’ great, great, great…ancestors came from. Until then…wolf wolf!
Pam Bonsper is a freelance writer who has lived in the Monterey/Carmel area for over thirty years. She presently lives in Cachagua. She loves dogs and all critters. She writes short stories and articles for children and adults. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.