Tag: Current Biology journal

The origins of the dog

Dogs and humans go back even further than previously thought.

Humans and dogs were constant companions well before our ancestors settled in villages and started growing crops 10,000 years ago

I have no doubt that thousands of dog owners all around the world must be enthralled by the way that dogs relate to us and, in turn, how we humans relate to dogs. More than once a day, one of our dogs will do something that has me and Jean marvelling at their way of living so close to us.

Then when one starts to reflect on how long dogs and humans have been together, perhaps it could be seen as the direct result of that length of relationship.

Now there’s nothing new in me writing this, after all the home page of Learning from Dogs states:

Yet they have been part of man’s world for an unimaginable time, at least 30,000 years. That makes the domesticated dog the longest animal companion to man, by far!

Back in May the website Livescience published an article that revealed more about the length of our relationship with dogs. This is how it opened:

Ancient Wolf DNA Could Solve Dog Origin Mystery

by Becky Oskin, Senior Writer

Humans and dogs were constant companions well before our ancestors settled in villages and started growing crops 10,000 years ago, a new study suggests.

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. Previously, scientists had pegged the wolf-dog split at no earlier than 16,000 years ago.

The Livescience article referred to results that were published in the journal Current Biology on May 21st this year. One needs a subscription to read the full report but here is their summary:

The origin of domestic dogs is poorly understood [ 1–15 ], with suggested evidence of dog-like features in fossils that predate the Last Glacial Maximum [ 6, 9, 10, 14, 16 ] conflicting with genetic estimates of a more recent divergence between dogs and worldwide wolf populations [ 13, 15, 17–19 ]. Here, we present a draft genome sequence from a 35,000-year-old wolf from the Taimyr Peninsula in northern Siberia. We find that this individual belonged to a population that diverged from the common ancestor of present-day wolves and dogs very close in time to the appearance of the domestic dog lineage. We use the directly dated ancient wolf genome to recalibrate the molecular timescale of wolves and dogs and find that the mutation rate is substantially slower than assumed by most previous studies, suggesting that the ancestors of dogs were separated from present-day wolves before the Last Glacial Maximum. We also find evidence of introgression from the archaic Taimyr wolf lineage into present-day dog breeds from northeast Siberia and Greenland, contributing between 1.4% and 27.3% of their ancestry. This demonstrates that the ancestry of present-day dogs is derived from multiple regional wolf populations.

That summary page also includes the following Graphical Abstract:

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I don’t have permission to republish the Livescience article in full but would like to offer the closing paragraphs of this fascinating report.

“It is a very well-done paper,” Perry [George Perry, an expert in ancient DNA at Pennsylvania State University] told Live Science. “This topic is a critical one for our understanding of human evolution and human-environment interactions in the Paleolithic. Partnership with early dogs may have facilitated more efficient hunting strategies.”

If dogs first befriended hunter-gatherers, rather than farmers, then perhaps the animals helped with hunting or keeping other carnivores away. For instance, an author of a new book claims humans and dogs teamed up to drive Neanderthals to extinction. Skoglund also suggested the Siberian husky followed nomads across the Bering Land Bridge, picking up wolf DNA along the way.

“It might have been beneficial for them to absorb genes that were adapted to this high Arctic environment,” Skoglund said.

This is the first wolf genome from the Pleistocene, and more ancient DNA from prehistoric fossils could provide further insights into the relationship between wolves, dogs and humans, the researchers said.

Yes, our dogs have been part of man’s world for an unimaginable time – and Jean and I, as with tens of thousands of others, can’t imagine a world without dogs.

Nowhere to hide now!

Have a dog or two in the house? Hide your feelings then!

I have previously remarked on how quickly our dogs pick up on key words and phrases spoken by either Jean or me.  In my case, long before I met Jean when I was living in Devon with Pharaoh, I quickly learnt that voicing the word ‘walk’ caused an eruption of interest from his nibs. Then I foiled his intelligence by spelling the word out: w-a-l-k.  That lasted all of a fortnight (or two weeks in American speak) before Pharaoh knitted the letters into that walk word.

Here in Oregon our living-room/bedroom group of dogs (Pharaoh, Hazel, Cleo, Sweeney and Oliver) pick up on so many human comments, sayings, and behaviours that at times it feels as though Jean and I need to go somewhere private in order to discuss anything that affects our lovely dogs.

All of which is a preamble to a fascinating article recently seen on the Smithsonian Magazine website.

Our furry friends might be able to infer our mood based on our facial expressions - just like human buddies do. (Photo: JLPH/cultura/Corbis

Our furry friends might be able to infer our mood based on our facial expressions – just like human buddies do. (Photo: JLPH/cultura/Corbis)

Dogs Can Tell Whether You’re Making a Happy or Mad Face

For the first time, science shows that a non-human animal can recognize the emotional state of another species

By Rachel Nuwer
smithsonian.com
February 12, 2015

Facial expressions are a key asset in our arsenal of communication methods. Without saying a word, we can alert those around us to our emotional state—ranging from elation to sorrow—simply by flexing a few muscles. Such expressions have evolved to help us connect with one another, avoid danger and work together.

Fellow humans, however, are not the only ones potentially tuning in to the information our expressions convey. According to the results of a study published today in Current Biology, dogs have hacked this silent method of communication, at least enough to distinguish between angry and happy facial expressions.

Dogs and humans share a tight evolutionary bond, which is why veterinarian researchers from the University of Vienna decided to focus on these two species for their study. Dogs are already known to be whizzes at reading us. For instance, they can discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar faces even if just part of the face is shown in a photograph. Whether they actually recognize emotions, however, had not been conclusively investigated before.

It would be wrong to republish the full article without permission but I do want to share another photograph from the article and the closing paragraphs.

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A canine research subject differentiates between angry and happy eyes. Photo: Anjuli Barber, Messerli Research Institute

Before the authors delve into the greater animal kingdom, though, they plan to further explore their canine findings. Experiments with puppies could lend insight into whether facial expression recognition is something dogs learn over their lives or if it’s something more innate. And trials with wolves could indicate whether human breeders bestowed emotion recognition in their canine companions via artificial selection, or whether that trait was something dogs’ ancient relatives developed on their own simply by living in the vicinity of humans.

While the initial controlled laboratory findings don’t prove that your dog is watching your every facial move for clues about how you are feeling, they do open up the possibility that dogs are even more empathetic best friends than we thought.

Many of you who have dogs in your lives will intuitively know this to be true. But having the scientific underpinning is wonderful confirmation of that truth.

I’m sure I am not alone in having a dog come up to me and lick the tears off my face.

What incredible loving and trusting relationships we have with our dogs.

To underline my last sentence, on a whim I just took the following photograph of Hazel who very rarely isn’t by my side.

Picture taken at 10:35 yesterday morning in my 'home office' when I had finished writing today's post.
Picture taken at 10:35 yesterday morning in my ‘home office’ when I had just finished writing today’s post.

The tail of the dog!

Or should that be the tell of a dog!

In the funny way that items flow around the internet, I recently read an item that appeared on the daily email summary from EarthSky. It was entitled: Read the message your dog sends with his tail. That, in turn, had been prompted by an article published on the website ScienceDirect. It was a study announced in Current Biology and published on the 18 November 2013, (Pages 2279–2282). Here’s how that article opens (and go here to read the numbered references):

Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs
Marcello Siniscalchi, Rita Lusito, Giorgio Vallortigara, Angelo Quaranta

Summary

Left-right asymmetries in behavior associated with asymmetries in the brain are widespread in the animal kingdom [1], and the hypothesis has been put forward that they may be linked to animals’ social behavior [2 and 3]. Dogs show asymmetric tail-wagging responses to different emotive stimuli —the outcome of different activation of left and right brain structures controlling tail movements to the right and left side of the body. A crucial question, however, is whether or not dogs detect this asymmetry. Here we report that dogs looking at moving video images of conspecifics exhibiting prevalent left- or right-asymmetric tail wagging showed higher cardiac activity and higher scores of anxious behavior when observing left- rather than right-biased tail wagging. The finding that dogs are sensitive to the asymmetric tail expressions of other dogs supports the hypothesis of a link between brain asymmetry and social behavior and may prove useful to canine animal welfare theory and practice.

Graphical Abstract

Wagging tails

In terms of understanding for the non-scientific minded, then the EarthSky article is an easier read.

Read the message your dog sends with his tail

Tail-wagging is a reflection of what’s happening in your dog’s brain. Learn to read your dog’s tail signals, and you’ll know if he’s happy … or stressed.

Tail-wagging in dogs is the classic signal for happiness. But researchers have found that tail-wagging can mean that your dog is either happy or stressed.

Activation of the left-brain causes a dog’s tail to wag to the right. Activation of the right-brain causes a wag to the left. That’s not new knowledge. Scientists detected that difference seven years ago.

What is new is that, not surprisingly, other dogs can easily read the message your dog is sending with his tail. And so can you.

Researchers at the University of Trento in Italy tested 43 dogs of various breeds for their ability to distinguish between tail wags. They showed the dogs videos of other dogs wagging their tails (much like the one above) and monitored the dogs’ heart rates and reactions. How could they be sure that the dogs weren’t watching their canine buddies’ facial or body cues? The researchers also showed the dogs only a silhouetted version of a tail-wagging dog.

As it turned out, every dog responded the same way. Dogs watching other dogs wag their tails to the left looked anxious, and their heart rates increased. In other words, they, too, became stressed. But dogs watching others swing their tails to the right stayed calm and relaxed — an indication that right wags are an expression of companionship and confidence, according to these scientists.

Why study tail wags in dogs? The team said in the summary to their study, which was published in Current Biology last year:

The finding that dogs are sensitive to the asymmetric tail expressions of other dogs supports the hypothesis of a link between brain asymmetry and social behavior and may prove useful to canine animal welfare theory and practice.

Bottom line: A dog wagging his tail to the right is happy, but a dog wagging to the left is stressed, say researchers.

Let me finish off today’s post with the following video.

So here’s to dozens of people watching their dogs’ tails!

Legitimate hope.

It’s too easy to be overwhelmed with negativity.

Many will have read yesterday’s post about the slaughter of elephants by ivory poachers and felt, as I did, a feeling of despair in the pit of one’s soul.  We seem to be living in such challenging times with so much madness about us.  It’s incredibly easy to feel as if this is some sort of ‘end of times’ period.

Today’s post tells us that there is always hope.

Let’s remind ourselves that elephants are very intelligent animals.  As I wrote last November in a post with the title of Smart Animals:

There was a fascinating article on the BBC news website a few weeks ago that went on to explain:

10 October 2013

Elephants ‘understand human gesture’

By Victoria GillScience reporter, BBC News
African elephants have demonstrated what appears to be an instinctive understanding of human gestures, according to UK scientists. In a series of tests, researcher Ann Smet, of the University of St Andrews, offered the animals a choice between two identical buckets, then pointed at the one containing a hidden treat.

From the first trial, the elephants chose the correct bucket.

The results are published in the journal Current Biology.

(The two video clips on the BBC website are really worth watching.)

A story published in the Daily Mail just a few days ago underlines the intelligence of elephants.

This adorable baby elephant had to be rescued by its mother’s huge trunk after it got stuck in the mud while taking a bath.

The youngster was enjoying a quiet dip in the water but became stranded when it struggled to pull itself out of the lake.

He had to be lifted to safety by its mother and her trusty trunk, which acted as a crane as she carried the three-month-old calf out of the water.

Stuck in the mud: The baby elephant slipped while taking a dip and was unable to haul himself out of the lake.
Stuck in the mud: The baby elephant slipped while taking a dip and was unable to haul himself out of the lake.

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A mother's touch: Fortunately the calf's mother was able to scoop him up in her trunk and haul him to safety.
A mother’s touch: Fortunately the calf’s mother was able to scoop him up in her trunk and haul him to safety.

The rest of the story may be read here.

Also what needs to be highlighted are the organisations that are actively working on behalf of the elephants.

The Independent Newspaper have their own elephant campaign.

Elephant Crisis

In 2011, more African elephants were killed than any other year in history. The figures for 2012 and 2013 are not yet known, but are likely to be even higher. At current rates, in twelve years, there will be none left.

It is a familiar cause, but it has never been more urgent. Poaching has turned industrial. Armed militia fly in helicopters over jungle clearings, machine gunning down entire herds. Their tusks are then sold to fund war and terrorism throughout the continent and the wider world. Ivory is still illegal, but as China booms, it is more popular than ever.

This campaign will raise money to support rangers on the ground to protect Kenya’s elephants from armed poachers, together with Space for Giants’ longer term work to create new wildlife sanctuaries where elephants will be safe, forever. More can be found about the charity at Space for Giants

The article above includes two videos.  A shorter one that can be viewed on the paper’s campaign website. Then there is a longer, five-minute, video also on YouTube and included below.

Offering a donation to help is only a click away.

Then there is the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust helping animals in Africa. And, finally, the campaign over at Bloody Ivory where one can sign a petition and donate towards stopping elephant poaching.

Thus, like so many aspects of life, never give up trying to help those less fortunate.

Without hope there is nothing.