Old dog reveals new tricks

  • May 04, 2016 | Stuart Buchanan

The Earth is heating up. While some are still arguing about whether this is down to humans or not (spoiler: it is), we are already seeing changes taking place in the environment.

In Siberia, global warming is thawing permafrost. This is rock and soil that remains below zero degrees Centigrade, and some of it has remained so for thousands of years.

It turns out to be very good at preserving trapped remains, as several recent discoveries have revealed – the latest being a particularly pristine example.

On a riverbank in Russia's Yakutia region, a pair puppies belonging to a now-extinct species of dog were found in the permafrost, and considering their age, they are quite extraordinary specimens:

“To find a carnivorous mammal intact with skin, fur and internal organs – this has never happened before in history,” Sergei Fyodorov, head of exhibitions at the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, told The Guardian.

Looking at the remains, it's hard to imagine that they are more than a few decades old. In truth, they are nearly twelve and a half thousand years old!

“Puppies are very rare, because they have thin bones and delicate skulls,” Fyodorov said.

Having access not only to the animal's bones, but also its skin and internal organs should yield lots of new information about how these animals lived. And that can tell us more about humans, too.

Man's best friend

Take a walk to your local dog park. Check out the various shapes and sizes of canine we see today, including the little ones: pugs, chihuahuas, poodles.

How is it that these animals evolved from wolves?

The answer: humans. We've been in a symbiotic – mutually beneficial – relationship with these creatures for tens of thousands of years.

Thanks to selective breeding, we've amplified certain qualities, like cuteness and friendliness, and bred out others, into the wide variety of breeds that exist today.

In exchange, dogs have helped us hunt, protected our homesteads, and become extended members of our communities. Perhaps domesticating wolves was one of the key survival tactics that led to the success of our species globally.

“Thus far, the lineages of wolves that likely gave rise to dogs have not yet been discovered and it’s possible that these puppies could be on that lineage, which would be very exciting,” said Greger Larson, a evolutionary biologist at Oxford University.

In you have a spare eight minutes, this piece from Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey does a fantastic job of explaining this concept of “artificial selection”:

There is still a lot to learn about dog domestication, and discoveries like this will do a lot to help us advance our understanding.

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