Daughter of wolves

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It’s easy to forget that our beloved pets are descended from wild species that can still be found roaming the forests and hunting down prey. After all, they’re so friendly and lovable, and put up with our molestations with good humour. And many of them barely resemble their ancestors anymore, their appearance so greatly modified through selective breeding. So it sometimes comes as a bit of a surprise or even a shock to see them engaging in behaviour that we don’t typically associate with a housepet.

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Since getting all this snow, Raven has been channeling her inner Wild, and on any given walk she’ll pause many times to investigate something she thinks she’s discovered under the snow. To try to get at the perceived critter, she rears back on her hind legs, then drives her front ones down onto the target spot. The extra force punches through the layers of crusty snow underneath, exposing the tunnel network that rodents would create close to the ground. She then buries her face in the snow, perhaps whuffling once or twice, as she tries to locate the mouse she just knows is under there. This can be repeated several, sometimes dozens of times, in a location. She never finds any animals, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she is actually smelling their scent in the tunnels they’ve made.

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This is undoubtedly an instinctual behaviour, drawn from her ancient Wild DNA. My assumption is that it would be more logical for her to dig to try to expose what was underneath, the way she might dig into a burrow in the ground in the summer, and that the odds would be slim she’d develop it as a learned behaviour in the absence of a teacher. We as humans tend to be very detached from our instinctual Wild side, it being buried long ago with the increasing brain size and formation of civilization.

It’s an interesting form of genetic “memory”, behaviour. Phenotypic DNA sequences act more like a blueprint, telling the construction workers which types of bricks to use and where to lay them down, but behavioural DNA is much more subtle, and presumably codes for certain ways that the neurons all fit together. At what point does a learned behaviour cross the threshold to become an instinctual and inheritable behaviour? Do some behaviours happen by random neuron-crossing, and then when they turn out to be beneficial to the organism they end up getting passed down to the next generation? Undoubtedly someone somewhere has asked these questions, but they’re not the topic for today’s post, so looking up the answers will have to wait.

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I wanted to talk about domestic dogs today. Back when binomial nomenclature was first introduced, Linnaeus classified domestic dogs as Canis familiaris, their own unique breed. Relatively recent research, in the early 1990s, examined the DNA of the various Canid species to determine hierarchical relationships between the different species. Results of the research showed that dogs share 99.8% of their DNA with the Gray Wolf, Canis lupus, but only 96% with the Coyote, Canis latrans. Two humans may share 99.9% of their DNA; humans share 98% with chimpanzees. (For a really interesting statistic, humans share 50% of their DNA with bananas.) The results strongly suggested that the domestic dog was not in fact a unique species, but simply a subspecies of the wild Gray Wolf, with a genetic predisposition to accepting humans as friends and a great deal of variation in their appearance, the way eastern Asians developed black hair and Europeans evolved blond, but we’re still the same species. This reclassification was adopted by the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammalogists in 1993, and the dog became Canis lupus familiaris.

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There are two theories presented for how Canis lupus familiaris came to be. The first is that humans intentionally domesticated the dog, searching out and stealing puppies from their mothers and raising them in a human setting, and then selecting and breeding the most human-tolerant individuals. The second, and the one that seems to have greater popularity at the moment, is that as humans started forming more permanent settlements, and accumulating refuse at the edge of the community, wolves started to sneak in to scavenge from the waste piles. Wolves with a greater tolerance for a proximity to humans would be able to scavenge more food, and therefore would gain a greater fitness that in turn would help them win more mates and make more pups.

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As they became tamer, the wolves would have been allowed to enter the camp and/or humans would have started approaching and interacting with the most tolerant individuals, much like we enjoy feeding chickadees seeds from our hands. Wolves that associated with humans would have benefited greatly over those who chose not to. Humans might have discovered they could get the tag-alongs to help bring down a wounded kill that might otherwise have gotten away from the hunter; as a reward for its effort, the wolf would have been given the innards when the animal was gutted. Around camp, the wolves might have been fed scraps that helped to keep the place cleaner. Over time, the tame wolf population became functionally separated by behaviour from the wild population, and the domestication of the dog had begun.

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Using both archeological and DNA evidence, it’s estimated that dogs diverged from wolves around 15,000 years ago, although some estimates may put it as long ago as 40,000 years. By using the DNA of the world’s different breeds and “mapping” where each breed originated, it appears that the domestication of the dog occurred in eastern Asia, and presumably they traveled with humans to new areas from there. Domesticated dogs arrived in North America over the landbridge about 8000 BC (10,000 years ago), and gradually diverged into many breeds. Nearly all of these indigenous North American dog breeds are now gone, having died out with traditional practice of Native American culture, or, even before that, having been bred with or replaced by European dogs.

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We would have to go back a long ways to find any trace of east-Asian wolf in Raven’s pedigree, but the behavioural instincts of her wild counterparts have been faithfully passed down from one generation to the next, across centuries. They cause her to punch holes in snow, chase deer across meadows, sniff other dogs’ bums and circle three times before lying down. (Okay, I’ve never actually seen her do the last one, but it’s a dog stereotype.) Her mama never had a chance to teach her these things, and we certainly haven’t, so they must be inherited. Although, I wonder what sort of bedtime stories Mama Dog tells her youngsters…

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I couldn’t find a good Creative-Commons-licensed photo of a wolf or coyote exhibiting this behaviour, but here’s another canid, in an appropriately wintery scene:

"Pounce" by EricMagnuson on Flickr

Edit: Ken/Randomtruth of Nature Of A Man offered this great capture of a coyote mid-pounce. You can read about the encounter at his blog, here. Thanks, Ken!

"pounce! got her in mid air" by Randomtruth on Flickr

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16 responses to “Daughter of wolves

  1. Absolutely delightful photos! I love seeing this side of Raven.

    And great write-up, too. Domestic cats and dogs fascinate me for their mysterious pasts and what history they might be hiding inside under millennia of human companionship. You hit that nail right on the head.

    • Thanks, Jason! I often imagine, too, what a different world it must be to be a dog or cat. How differently they perceive things, and what instinctual draws they experience and can’t resist.

  2. Wonderful, wonderful write up.

    I don’t have a snow shot, but if you’d like a grassy volepher hole pounce shot of Canis latrans, I have one you are more than welcome to use:

    pounce! got her in mid air

    I’ve always thought we scientists are a little too aggressive in our quest to bucketize how dogs and humans became friends. Knowing humans, I always lean towards “all of the above,” because we’re good at that. I.e., I bet some got habituated to living around man’s towns, others got raised from wild pups, and others got fed and befriended by crazy wildmen who lived in the deep woods wishing that reality TV was around to make them famous for it. Ooh – and then there’s the Inuit and their use of them as sled dogs.

    Fascinating stuff!

    -Ken

    • Fabulous coyote shots, Ken! And what a great encounter it must have been for you. I’ll definitely add your linked one in to the end of this post.

      It does seem to be the human way of thinking; we have a strong desire to categorize and label things, to make it all tidy and simple, when in reality life is anything but tidy and simple. You’re probably right in that the truth is more likely a hodgepodge of many different stories.

  3. Look at her pounce! Now that’s what it means to be a canine!

    (Does she ever actually catch anything?)

    • Not that I’ve seen, Ellen! I don’t know that there’s actually even anything down there for her to catch, I rather suspect she smells the rodents’ scent left behind on the walls of their tunnels. I’m not even sure she’d know what to do with one if she did find one.

  4. Seabrooke- I loved this post and found your research regarding dogs and their natural instincts to be very interesting, which in turn led me to wonder about the natural instincts of humans. If dogs have held onto their instincts from long ago, I was curious as to if humans today still hold some of the same instincts as early man.

    Luckily, I found a study that had been performed just a few years ago by the Center of Evolutionary Psychology at University of California at Santa Barbara and the Department of Psychology at Yale University which tested if humans today had more visual attention toward humans and animals over inanimate objects such as cars. The idea was that early man would have needed to be extremely aware of the animals and humans in their world because these things would have been more important for survival or reproduction than inanimate objects.

    After testing, it was found that today’s human is more aware of changes in their environment related to animals or humans (an instinct learned from early man) but are less aware of those changes made by inanimate objects. This may explain why we don’t notice other cars on the road as readily as we should given the many exposures we experience each day.

    This may also further explain why we are drawn to our dogs to the degree at which we are. They may possibly have provided something to early man (like helping to drag in the kill as you suggested) but also we may have formed an instinctual bond with our dogs due to early man’s visual attention to and awareness of animals. While we may not be able to put our finger on exactly what this instinctual bond was, it obviously continues to this day as we are somehow now linked inextricably to them.

    If you would like to check out the study I am refering to, go to the following link at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America:

    http://www.pnas.org/content/104/42/16598.full.pdf+html?sid=956e8942-1ca1-447f-92f3-052429851c6f

    Reading posts like yours and learning about new things is what I enjoy most about blogging. Thanks!

    • What a neat study, Darcy, thanks for sharing this. In re-reading my post I seem to have been distracted and cut off mid-thought when I mentioned the buried instincts of humans. I wonder what other things we also instinctually do? I suspect such behaviour would most likely be observed in infants, who don’t have much of an experience base to draw from and would have to rely on instinct while they learned about the world. Still, I suppose there’re some things, such as that gut-wrenching tension as you’re poised at the edge of a precipice and your whole body is screaming at you to step back, that we don’t really think about but could also be considered instinct.

      • I think there have been a wealth of studies done on our behaviour in relationships, e.g. what we find attractive, fidelity, jealousy, etc. and how that relates to our early instincts. But even some of the most basic human behaviours can probably be chalked up to instinct: lying down to sleep? Blinking? Parental instinct?

        Here’s an interesting one: instinctive sympathy.
        http://www.impactlab.com/2009/12/09/survival-of-the-kindest-sympathy-is-strongest-human-instinct/

        • Thanks, Fiddlegirl, for pointing that stuff out! It’s funny that didn’t cross my mind, but of course that all makes perfect sense, too, and I knew that if I’d just given it some deeper thought. Monogamy and male/female sex drives are ones I like to quote as being inherited from pre-civilization days.

  5. Wonderful photos. Living with a Rat Terrier, I see a canine who is a bit closer to her ancestors than the Labs I’ve had in the past. It’s amazing and fascinating what an amazing hunter she is.

    I love the discussion of the history of dogs. I love shows that discuss the relationship between wolves and dogs. Always fascinates.

    Great post!

    • Thanks, Liza Lee. Nat Geo ran a series recently – called Dogs 101, maybe? – that examined the evolution of the dog and its subsequent diversification into many breeds. I found it pretty fascinating, too.

  6. Super post, Seabrooke!

    For some reason, I had gotten the impression that coyotes were part feral dog; will have to correct that impression.

    Fergus turned up a vole under a pine tree behind a farmhouse this summer; I’m not certain which of those two animals was more surprised! Luckily the vole got back into its hole while the Cardi hesitated.

    Am catching up on your posts here at work; my co-worker was quite interested to learn about humankind’s genetic similarity to bananas!

    • Well, our northern coyotes are, most of them, part wolf, so that may be where your confusion comes from, Lavenderbay. Southern coyotes remain pure coyote. I mentioned it a bit in this post.

      That must really have caught Fergus by surprise! It’s funny how so many domestic dogs, while they retain the instinct to chase or ferret out small mammals, really have no clue what to do with them once they get one.

  7. Seabrooke

    I have spent a lot of time observing and photographing wolves in Yellowstone, Jasper and Alaska and I find that I have already seen most of their behavior from observing and owning dogs when I was young.
    I have just started a blog on my photo travels and observations: http://www.thewildphotographer.com

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