Literature Review: Dog Breeds

by Carl Strang

Part of my approach to natural history inquiry is to follow at least some of the scientific literature relevant to my interests. This is by no means necessary for hobby level inquiry. In my case it’s in part to feed my general curiosity, and in part force of habit established as a grad student and assistant professor of biology early in my career. Today I would like to review an article describing a paper that appeared in Nature this year by Bridgett M. vonHoldt and, as expected in a study of this magnitude, a long list of co-authors. The article I saw was here.

The group looked at a large number of nuclear genes in all major dog breeds and worldwide wolf populations. Wolves long have been known as the wild ancestors of dogs, but there has been some debate as to where their domestication occurred.

VonHoldt and company found a strong match to Middle Eastern wolves. An earlier study which pointed to an East Asian origin was based on a small segment of mitochondrial DNA, and so has less credibility. The oldest dog in the archeological record is 31,000 years, from Belgium. The oldest Middle Eastern find is 12,000 years old.

Comparing dog breeds, they found that relatively few genes account for differences in color, size and body proportions.

Focusing on their results for one oddly proportioned breed (and one I knew through Tag, the childhood pet in the above photo), I see that the dachshund is in a group with the basset hound, beagle and bloodhound. The closest (sister) group to them contains the spaniels. Here again I find a childhood connection through the first dog I knew, Timmy the springer spaniel.

The most distant group from these is composed of the basenji and husky-like dogs, which in turn are closest to wolves. Genetic dog groupings correspond well to established breed groupings (for instance those in kennel club dog shows) with exceptions, notably the toy dogs, which are smaller versions of diverse dogs scattered across the various kennel club groupings.

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