Three cheers for the dogs

I’ve always been a cat person.  I like dogs well enough, but I’m allergic to them, and cats are a lot less work.  And they don’t slobber.  Nonetheless, I’ve been paying more attention to dogs (and canids in general) lately.  My title comes from Ed Larson’s new book on early Antarctic exploration, which quotes Lord Curzon’s sardonic response to Roald Amundson’s speech to the Royal Geographical Society after his conquest of the South Pole.  Amundson, unlike his British rival, the unfortunate Robert Scott, used sled dogs to carry his gear, which the British considered déclassé.

There has been much discussion of dog domestication of late in the scientific literature.  My main interest in this is in the co-evolution of domestic animals, particularly dogs and cats, and humans.  But the most interesting development of late concerned the origins of dogs and dog breeds.  Previous scientific thought, based on mitochondrial DNA analysis, showed the origin of dogs in wolf breeds from east Asia.  But the more recent analysis, based on haplotypes and SNP (single nucleotide polymorphisms), shows that modern dogs share the most genetic similarity with Middle Eastern gray wolves.  The analysis appeared in a research letter in Nature last fall.  This kind of very detailed work promises to tell us a lot about the origins of domestic dogs.  For a nice summary, see this news release from Science Daily.

Wolves continue to get a bad rap here in the west.  Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) and  Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) inserted a rider into the April budget bill which delisted gray wolves from the Federal list of endangered species.  There have been a flurry of lawsuits challenging the delisting.  Oregon had a total of 20 wolves, which remained on the state endangered species list but are no longer on the federal list as of May 5.  Oregon Fish and Wildlife killed two members of the pack in May and plans to kill one more because of lifestock predation.  In addition, it has issued 24 private landowner permits to kill wolves –i.e. more permits than there are wolves.   (Eugene Weekly June 9)

National Geographic had a great article on domestication in its March issue which featured the fox breeding program of Dmitry Belyaev in Siberia.  Over 50 years of breeding for gentle and kind behavior has led to a new breed of apparently completely domesticated foxes which are like beautiful big furry dogs.  Gareth Cook mentions this in his lovely column last Sunday in the Boston Globe which talks about canine intelligence.

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