How many generations ago was a modern dog a wolf?

Image: patchattack via flickr
Image: patchattack via flickr

When you look at a pristinely pampered poodle or a yapping Chihuahua peeking out of a fashionista’s handbag, it is hard to imagine that they once descended from bloodthirsty wolves. However, it is true that the domesticated dogs of today are actually very close cousins to the wolves of long ago.

The domestication of those fearsome pack hunters into the stick fetching, postman-chasing pets we know today is one of the most closely studied of all evolutionary changes. Putting a date on the exact moment a dog-like wolf first became a wolf-like dog is obviously challenging, but DNA evidence points to southern China roughly 16,000 years ago as being the ‘birthplace’ of the modern dog.

Fossil evidence gives us a broader range of 10,000-7,000 years ago for our canine companions to become widespread across Europe, Asia and America. Dogs tend to reach sexual maturity at about a year old, so it’s a good bet to use the same number for an estimate of the number of generations from wolf to today’s pooch. Making that assumption means that it was your pet’s great great great (insert roughly 10,000 more ‘great’s) grandfather that was out howling at the full moon*.

How to evolve your own dog in 35 easy steps

Now 10,000 years may seem like a lot to you and I, but when you think that animals emerged from the primordial soup 590 million years ago, mammals developed 220 years ago and Homo sapiens 200,000 years ago, in evolutionary terms 10,000 years is basically yesterday.

In fact, just how quickly savage canines can be turned into cute pets has been the subject of some interesting evolutionary research. In the 1950s, Russian geneticist Dimitri Belyaev tried to find out more about dog domestication while he was in charge of a fox fur farm. Although wild foxes might not be as terrifying as wolves, they are still wild beasts and far more difficult to handle than docile pooches. In the name of science (and an easier life), Belyaev set about finding a way to tame his charges.

He selectively bred the least aggressive pups of each litter, and within just 35 generations, 80% of the pups born were ‘eager to establish human contact, whimpering to attract attention and sniffing and licking experimenters like dogs’. Not only did the selective breeding make the foxes behave in a more friendly way but their appearance also changed remarkably. Their pointy fox ears became soft and floppy, their tails became less brush-like, and their coats became distinctly dog-like. They weren’t just starting to behave like dogs, they were becoming dogs – and all after a mere 35 generations of selective breeding.

So just think, all it takes is 35 generations to turn an aggressive wild animal into a friendly ball of fluff. Ever wanted to snuggle with a grizzly bear or cuddle up to a kangaroo? Just 35 generations…

* Yes, before you email me, I know that wolves don’t really howl at the moon.


References:

Pang, Jun-Feng, et al. “mtDNA data indicate a single origin for dogs south of Yangtze River, less than 16,300 years ago, from numerous wolves.” Molecular biology and evolution 26.12 (2009): 2849-2864. PMCID: PMC2775109

Raisor, Michelle Jeanette. “Determining the antiquity of dog origins: canine domestication as a model for the consilience between molecular genetics and archaeology.” Vol. 1367. British Archaeological Reports Ltd, (2005)

Dawkins, Richard. “The Greatest Show On Earth” (2009)

Answered by Nick Waszkowycz. Question from @bucksci on Twitter.

 

Article by Nick Waszkowycz

July 30, 2014

Nick studied Chemistry at university but decided that the pen was mightier than the conical flask. He decided to set off in search of a way to make his fortune from writing. He is still looking. But like all young men, Nick enjoys football, theatre and debunking conspiracy theorists. He shares his adventure in Berlin at theberlinfiasco.com and writes nonsense about football at tikitakatargetman.com. Follow him on twitter at @nwaszkowycz.


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4 thoughts on “How many generations ago was a modern dog a wolf?”

  1. Dear Scott ,

    May I ask what your reference happens to be , please .
    Mine (a Scientific American article from 1998 or 1999) used a range of 60,000. to 100,000. years .

    Thanks in advance

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