The Nature of Wolves – #02 Evolution of Wolves

On 21 May 2015, results of research into the genetic makeup and ancestry of wolves and dogs was published in the Current Biology Journal. Genetic evidence from an ancient wolf bone discovered lying on the tundra in Siberia’s Taimyr Peninsula reveals that wolves and dogs split from their common ancestor at least 27,000 years ago.

“Although separation isn’t the same as domestication, this opens up the possibility that domestication occurred much earlier than we thought before,” said lead study author Pontus Skoglund, who studies ancient DNA at Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute in Massachusetts.

The genetic legacy of the now extinct prehistoric wolf that goes back 34,000 years lives on in Arctic sled dogs, such as Siberian huskies. One of the researchers Skoglund declared “It’s pretty amazing that there is a special genetic connection to a wolf that roamed the tundra 35,000 years ago.” Dogs from Greenland also carry some of this ancient wolf DNA, as do the Chinese Shar-Pei and the Finnish spitz.

Through genetic studies, researchers now know that dogs and wolves share a common ancestor instead of a direct lineage. Their common ancestor was a prehistoric wolf that lived in Europe and Asia between 9,000 to 34,000 years ago. Several subgroups of prehistoric wolves went extinct about 10,000 years ago, at the same time as the mammoths, giant sloths and sabre-toothed tigers.

Although we still don’t know what kind of wolf gave rise to all of the amazing dog breeds living today, the Taimyr wolf genome helps scientists fine-tune the genetic timeline (which they call a molecular clock). This measures the rate of genetic mutations that build up through time. Genetic evidence from this 35,000-year-old Siberian wolf rib suggests dogs split from their wolf ancestors much earlier than thought.

Mutations in the Taimyr genome revealed the wolf evolutionary clock ticks more slowly than previously thought. Skull changes leading from wolf to dog start to appear about 33,000 years ago.

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