Dogs inhabit the Americas

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The history of dogs in the Americas is filled with hypothesis and speculation. Genetic studies answer many of these questions. An mtDNA examination of Native American people from throughout North, Central and South America as well as of native people such as the Yakut from Eastern Siberia, cast new light on exactly when people migrated over the Bering land bridge and inhabited the Americas. Published at the end of 2007, this most extensive yet study indicates that only one migration occurred from Asia to North America and this took place around 12,000 years ago. This single wave of people came from a single source in Eastern Siberia. Without doubt they brought their local dogs with them or at the very least, dogs accompanied them as uninvited fellow travellers. We know this because of mtDNA studies of ancient American dog bones.

Genetic dissimilarities increase with distance

These first Americans migrated along coasts and major rivers throughout the continents. Those who settled closest to the Bering land bridge, eventually became the Chipewyan, Ojibwa and southern Cree. These are the Native Americans who genetically most resemble the indigenous people of Siberia. The farther away people migrated, the greater the dissimilarities became. The same is true of their dogs.?The oldest dog remains discovered in the Americas, around 10,000 years old, were found in Danger Cave, Utah. DNA studies of other ancient dog bones found in archaeological sites in Peru, Bolivia and Mexico, sites that predate the arrival of Europeans in the New World show that these dogs are genetically more closely related to the Eurasian grey wolf than they are to the North American grey wolf. That means that these dogs must have had their origins in Asia, although, as people of East Asian origin spread through the Americas, taking their dogs with them, there could have been some small admixture of North American wolf.

Many of the oldest remains found in American archaeological digs are of dogs that are roughly the size of the modern Dalmatian but by 4,000 years ago size differences had developed. While dogs in Alaska and Greenland were the size of dingos, those living in what is now Kentucky and Alabama were much smaller although there’s nothing to suggest this was through deliberate breeding. Regional dogs probably naturally adapted to local pressures. By the time Europeans arrived in the Americas, most ‘Indian’ dogs from the eastern forests to the great plains and down to Mexico were the size of dingos but there was one notable exception.

Controlled breeding rarely occurred

On the northwest Pacific Coast from southern British Columbia and the Fraser River to northern Washington State and the Columbia River but also including southeastern Vancouver Island, there were in addition to the coyote-sized Indian “village dogs”, smaller long-haired dogs. The local Native People kept no written records but archaeological remains, oral histories and accounts from early explorers who visited this region in the late 1700s suggest that these “wool dogs” were intentionally bred and reared for their long hair, which wasused to weave blankets. Genetically speaking, long hair is ‘recessive’. If a longhaired dog breeds with a shorthaired dog their descendants will have middling or short hair but not long hair. Long hair can only be assured when a longhaired dog mates with another longhaired dog. That ‘wool dogs’ existed extensively in this local region means that their owners must have controlled their breeding, allowing only longhaired males to mate with longhaired females. That involves a degree of husbandry, a system in which longhaired females are isolated during their heat cycles from the more common ‘village dogs’. Local people may have done this by transporting their ‘wool dogs’ to an island where they were ‘safe’ from ‘village dogs’ during their heat cycle. When brightly striped Hudson’s Bay blankets became available in the early 1800s, local weavers stopped using dog hair and the economic value of the “wool dog” was lost. By 1858 the small, longhaired dogs of the northwest Pacific Coast had become extinct. Around the same time commercial sheep’s wool became available and local weavers resumed their craft using this rather than dog hair.

In the north, Inuit dogs are likely to have occasionally interbred with Arctic wolves, probably male wolf to female domesticated dog, adding wolf genes to the domestic dog population but rarely the reverse although recent evidence suggests that the reverse does happen. Swedish scientists investigating the mtDNA of one of the very few wolves that survive in Sweden discovered that the animal was a hybrid between a Scandinavian female wolf and a male dog. Their finding confirmed that inter-specific hybridization between wolves and dogs does occur in natural wolf populations.?Contrary to the many “coy-dog” stories in circulation, genetic studies show that few coyotes and wolves living in the wild today actually carry domesticated dog genes. Coat colour however is sometimes a clue that a wild animal is not as wild as it seems. Although solid black does occasionally occur in wolves, fawn coat colour doesn’t. The mutation for fawn coat colour exists only in dogs. If you’re ever approached by a fawn-coloured wolf, it may be a dog in disguise.

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