The Naturalist's Notebook has an unofficial mascot: Wooster, our eight-year-old Wheaten terrier. As you can tell from the undoctored photo above, she is an example of how far dogs have advanced with the help of evolution and breeding.
She does have trouble parallel parking.
Though we don't know much about Wooster's roots (she is not exactly a pedigreed show dog), Pamelia and I have been studying canine evolution as part of our Notebook exploration of DNA. That broader topic is, of course, fascinating. We are currently having our DNA analyzed by researchers from the Genographic Project (https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/index.html) so that we can see where our distant ancestors lived, and how they migrated around the world from their initial home in Africa. (Yes, if you go back far enough, say, 60,000 years—maybe less, maybe more, depending on which scientists you believe—you'll find that you too come from Africa.)
We know from dog-history books that the four-pawed forebears of our loveable pooch lived in Ireland, where the breed was created. Wheatens worked on farms—ratting, herding, hunting small game—and according to at least one source they were known as the "poor man's dog." (Sorry, Wooster.) But where did their ancestors live 60,000 years ago?
We know that dogs descended from wolves. But different breeds originated in different parts of the world from different types of wolves—or from a mixture of wolf sub-species. Logic tells me that European wolves contributed to Wooster's ancestry, though the story surely isn't that simple. One of my dog books tells me that "European wolves probably added their genetic lines to dogs that evolved from Asian wolves." Perhaps that Asian connection explains Wooster's peculiar fondness for edamame and chicken tikka masala.
Canine history, it turns out, is a somewhat contentious topic of study. New DNA and fossil evidence keeps altering estimates of when dogs diverged from wolves on the evolutionary tree (15,000 years ago? 40,000 years ago? 140,000 years ago?). There is some disagreement among scientists over whether in the first millennia after encountering human settlements, dogs evolved purely on their own, through natural selection (an unplanned process that over time favored more human-friendly traits). In more recent centuries, as humans came to understand and use selective breeding (or artificial selection, as Charles Darwin dubbed it), dogs were manipulated into hundreds of vastly different breeds, becoming the most varied of all animal species.
To be sure, all that breeding—or should I say, overbreeding—has been a mixed blessing. It has given us a comic collection of canine characters and a hilarious movie in Best In Show, but also created all sort of serious medical problems for purebreds. The close similarity between human and canine genes makes you wonder: What wildly varying types of humans would dogs have intentionally bred as pets had canines been the species that evolved the more advanced brain?
A Great Danish blonde standing eight feet tall? A Standard Mandoodle? A Chihuahua-sized Paris Hilton?
If you stop by the Notebook this summer, we can talk dogs and perhaps sketch yet-to-be-invented breeds (either human or canine) in the shade of the white ash tree that grows up through the Natural History Deck. We'll also need help assembling a DNA model we just bought. If you know how to put it together into dog DNA, Wooster would be most appreciative. She might even drive you home.
Did You Know…
…that though some sources claim the word April comes from the Latin aperire, to open, and refers to the opening of flowers, it may more likely derive from the Latin aprilis, meaning second. In the Roman calendar, March was the first month and April the second.