Ben Sacks, the director of the Canid Diversity and Conservation Group in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine has a dream: to take on the huge task of compiling an “atlas” of all the world’s dogs — whether wild, domestic, stray, or something in-between — that includes information on what they eat, how they relate to humans in different cultural contexts, what they look like and other physical data.
Newly published results from one project that involved Sacks, along with UC Davis post-doc researcher Sarah Brown and UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine professor Niels Pedersen, as well as other researchers from around the world, point toward surprising conclusions in the field. After careful genetic analysis of 642 dogs, and also some wolves, in areas as varied as Canada, Israel, Iran, China, Australia and Bali, it appears that modern European dogs stem mostly from Southeast Asian dogs that were brought to Europe as a result of the Silk Trade.
This is important because it was previously believed that European dogs descended mostly from Middle Eastern dogs, which in turn descended mostly from Southeast Asian dogs. Now there appears to be very little genealogical linkage between modern European dogs and modern Middle Eastern dogs.
“This was kind of a surprise,” Sacks said . “It’s not what we did the study to look for.”
One of the main purposes of the study was to find out if modern Middle Eastern dogs and modern Southeast Asian dogs are indigenous, meaning they descend from long lineages of dogs in their respective areas. The study supports this conclusion.
Another important ramification of the new study is that now, Europe is once again a candidate for the ultimate historical origins of the world’s domesticated dogs. According to Sacks and Pedersen, there could have been multiple domestication events in Eurasia.
“Europe is back in the game,” Sacks said.
Sacks and Brown are also working with UC Davis anthropology professor Christyann Darwent in a project involving the genetic study of Arctic dogs and their relationship to Inuits. Studying the DNA of ancient dogs found in archaeological sites is helpful as a substitute for studying ancient human DNA, since genetic testing of this type involves the destruction of parts of the remains.
“I’m interested in how dogs were used by prehistoric and historic groups — for example, in sled pulling, pack carrying, hunting assistance [and as a] food source,” Darwent said. “Our recent research has pushed the Canadian Inuit dog breed back to at least 1300 to 1400 AD. Further studies are underway to understand the antiquity and migration of dogs across the Arctic.”
Brown is enthusiastic about interdisciplinary work involving dogs and humans.
“Blending veterinary genetics with anthropology and archaeology research is definitely increasing in popularity,” Brown said. “There are so many types of questions that can be answered in ways never thought possible by the simple combination of these disciplines.”
BRIAN RILEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.