Darren Naish, in his great post on the origins of the domestic dog, writes:

As a rough rule of thumb, the domesticated forms of wild mammal species (1) revert back to wild-type after being feral for a few generations, and (2) readily interbreed with their wild ancestors. If domestic dogs are wolves, then the many populations of feral dogs that live world-wide should theoretically have reverted back to being wolf-like in appearance and behaviour. But they haven’t. Instead, domestic dogs always end up looking like pariah dogs – the relatively small (11-16 kg), socially flexible semi-domesticated and feral dogs of the Old World tropics.

Archaeological data shows that pariah dogs have a stable history, with dog skulls from 4000 year old deposits in Thailand being essentially identical to the modern dingo-like pariah dogs of the area.

A recent post on O&P regarding Heck cattle got me thinking about this point. For those who don’t want to click through, Heck cattle are an attempt to breed back to the extinct ur-cow – the aurochs. The general consensus on Heck cattle seems to be that the attempt was a failure; “once a genetic lineage is gone, it cannot be ‘bred back'”*. My thought on all this is that it seems to show that once genetic material is lost in a population (as a result of domestication) it’s gone – all the king’s horses, etc. Perhaps, then, it’s not shocking that dogs revert to pariah dogs in some number of generations – the genes that would allow reversion to a more wolfy form are just gone from the domesticated dog’s gene pool. To extend the title of the post a bit – border collies are to pariah dogs as Holsteins are to criollos/Texas longhorns? Don’t get me wrong – there are a number of other persuasive points in Darren’s post – I’m just not sure about the ‘won’t revert to wolves’ argument at this point.

25 thoughts on “cattle:aurochs::dogs:wolves?

  1. I think there are still mysteries, many mentioned by Darren, and even Dave Mech’s correction in his comments don’t lay them all to rest for me.

    If you saw the (unusually excellent) PBS documentary on dog origins last night (or probably you know even if you didn’t) you will be familiar with Ray Coppinger’s “dogs domesticated themselves” theory, Belyaev’s fox domestication by selecting only for tameness, Saivolainen’s genetics (my dogs are in it!) etc. These rather assume but don’t demand a wolf ancestry.

    Darren: “introgressive hybridization between the two is so limited that it doesn’t pose a threat to the genetic integrity of the wolf. Wolves and domestic dogs are in fact staying distinct. This applies globally as well as locally: despite continuous, near-global sympatry between domestic dogs and wolves, hybridization has hardly occurred and only one mtDNA type is shared”. This seems really important to me. Coyotes are the outlier in a dog- wolf- coyote cladogram– reasonably enough considering their New World origin. But wolves and coyotes hybridize far more often than wolves and dogs or coyotes and dogs. Red wolves are now considered to carry genes from both, and the same for the big wild canids of eastern Canada and adjacent New England. A barrier– behavioral?– exists between dogs and other (wild) canids. And as darren says, the behavioral differences are real (and probably bigger than those between, say, the aurochs and the Spanish fighting bull or longhorn).

    If the split were really old, pre- modern human, what dooes that imply? Also, watching the show last night, Ray Coppinger explained that scavenging wolves without a flight reflex would form the gene pool for dogs. This struck me as WRONG. I have been carrying on an email discussion with the eminent biologist Valerius Geist, who has been studying what interactions lead to wolves attacking humans, and the first sign is that they lose their fear of humans. It is a bad sign!* Maybe “wolves” or whatever that show submission, but not lack of fear.

    I think BTW (not sure on this one) that the aurochs immeditaely preceding cattle, a middle eastern beast, may have been smaller than the northern forest aurochs. I will check if I can.

    Also re breeding back– did you see my comment following yours on O & P about breeding back the quagga from the (conspecific) Burchell’s zebra, which was going well last I heard? No Heck cattle they!

    * Val will be doing a lot I think to show that the lack of human attacks in North America by C. lupus is a historical accident and artifact and is likely to end bloodily. ( Bad attacks recently in Canada, one ending with someone eaten.

  2. Thanks – lots to think about. I’d spaced out on the Nature series, but I can (and will) catch both episodes as they get re-run over the next week.
    Where and how dogs threw in their lot with us has always been a major topic of interest for me. I’m a curious dog-guy, so it’s a natural question – but more importantly, it’s a major bit of co-evolution that’s right there in our houses with us. Domestication as an evolutionary strategy (Pollan’s Botany of Desire) – evolution as adaptation to a dynamic environment that features other creatures trying to maximize success as well (the pollinator/pollinated dynamic that’s been on our minds recently) – what a great planet to be alive on!

    Later – forgot to say – yes, I did catch the Quagga pointer – very interesting project!

  3. The Heck cattle project was not a total failure, the problem was that the Heck brothers did not have the Aurochs’ physical characteristics accurately worked out before they started their project. There has been a lot of discussion on this and a clearer picture of their appearance and behaviour can be agreed upon, see Cis Van Vuure’s Retracing the Aurochs. I believe that the European Aurochs’ appearance could be recreated using appropriate primative breeds in large enough numbers so that the original characteristics can be produced and fine tuned over a short space of time.

  4. Regarding pariah dogs not reverting to wolf type: they don’t need to, regardless of whether those genes are ‘still there’ or not. Pariah dogs make a nice living as scavengers and hunting small game, they do not need to revert to the wolf’s size and build. Perhaps if you isolated a population on an island with very little small game and lots of large game you might see more wolf-like pariah dogs. Or they might simply adapt to a different style of hunting, or both.
    I don’t buy Coppinger’s theory, either. A wolf that has lost it’s fear of humans is a wolf that hunts humans. Happens in India all the time.

  5. I don’t buy Coppinger’s “theory” at all–it disregards so many known facts as to be ludricous. If Balyev’s foxes are being used to support this theory, then why haven’t foxes “domesticated themselves?” Foxes have been scavenging from people as long as wolves(as have hyenas, jackals, bears, raccoons, etc.) No, these foxes needed intense HUMAN intervention to be “domesticated”. If Coppinger had done even basic research in Anthropology, he would have discovered numerous incidents of “primitive” peoples in South America, Africa, or Australia, where baby animals of all kinds are adopted and nursed by women in the tribe. Coppinger seems to think wolves are impossible to tame–is the fellow totally oblivious? People have been keeping and taming wolves throughout history! Their expectations are not necessarily anything like we expect out of our domestic dogs! Wolves are certainly easier to tame than say, a wild horse, or bovine, or camel, or elephant!! Coppinger stated that stone-age people had none of the things we use to control our dogs in modern times–like chain-link fencing, leashes, etc. Why in the world would stone-age people need things like that?! Common sense should also be used to imagine just how much food would be available to scavenging animals, from a stone-age camp or village. Occaisional surplus, sure. But those people didn’t waste much, or have much to waste, certainly not enough to create an entire, stable niche that would cause a species to change so radically! If so, why don’t we see more instances of it–should be a continueing process. Dogs can scavenge quite well from a modern landfill from a huge metropolis, but a stone-age dump? Lean pickings there….

  6. Another thought on the reversion to a Dingo/Pariah type when dogs are left to breed without human intervention–has anyone considered the reason they don’t revert to a more “wolfy” genotype is because a Dingo/Pariah-like canine may also be the ancestors of wolves? The fossil record for wolves is not that ancient; they are pretty specialized canines. Makes sense they evolved from a smaller, less specialized ancestor. Some of the subspecies of wolves from India and Arabia are very Dingo-like in appearance too….

  7. Lane – interesting points – thanks. Coppinger has his work cut out for him. Something that occurred to me after reading Steve’s comment and then yours: the biggest ‘trashing the place’ wildlife problem we have in the northeast is the trash-habituated black bear. They are not taming themselves, BUT they are very different from dogs/wolves, so I don’t know how much you can take away from it. I’ll be very interested in following Geist’s wolf work. I think the reversion to pariah is exactly the point that some of the doubters are trying to make – maybe the ancestor of the dog was a very dog-like canid rather than the wolf that everyone pictures…

  8. I think Lane may be mistaken about how easy wolves are to tame– but his idea that a pariah type may be close to ancestral to both is fascinating– must think on it more. If “dog” is very old that could work. (He is right that some subspecies appear far more dingo- like than the big northern Alpha predators– and consider the Ethiopian wolf, which looks almost like a prick- eared saluki!)

    Coppinger has had some good ideas but has begun to believe in his own theories too much.

    Nightmare: re Indian wolves– exactly. Val has given me permission to post his stuff– just must find time…

  9. No, wolves aren’t easy to tame by modern standards, but I should think they would be much easier than most wild animals, and they would fit in with the hunter/gatherer lifestyle like a glove. Women of a tribe nursing pups is not far-fetched–there are modern Anthropology cases that have documented that. The expectations of stone-age hunters would not be what we demand of our domestic dogs now. There is no question that wolves will bond closely with humans that raise them, and without the artificial restrictions imposed on wolves in captivity nowadays, the difficulties people now have trying to keep wolves as pets would not have existed. Didn’t have to worry about your wolf getting hit by a car, killing your neighbors livestock, or offending animal rights organizations! If a wolf or two hung around a couple of years or so, gave warning of dangerous predators lurking, helped out on an occaisional hunt(which they most certainly would EAGERLY do!), that would have been plenty of incentive to continue to kidnap and raise pups. Yes, aren’t Ethiopian Wolves fascinating? They are amazingly similar to our own “Red Wolves”, and it has been suggested that these two species may be the ancestors of the larger, more specialized Gray Wolves. Some DNA tests have suggested that the Red Wolves are the ANCESTORS of both coyotes and Gray Wolves, rather than a hybrid between the two, as has been assumed. Coppinger’s “theorizing” irritates me because it is so poorly researched, and he is aggressively(calling other ideas “ludricous” and “myths”)shoving it down everyone’s throats when the truth is NOBODY knows anything for sure!

  10. The natural reversion, when left to breed indiscriminately, to pariah type has long bothered me. The stated hard doctrine of dogs from wolves just seems too much taken as fact without enough hard evidence. The “lost genetic material” idea is interesting. I’ve been asking the question of origin of dog all my life. Coppinger presents a theory that if treated as a theory is worth adding to the discussion. I’m afraid his book that first presented this theory had a few glaring inaccuracies in other areas that put me off. Racing sled dogs have a wonderful life and service dogs are slave labor. Sled dogs live on chains their whole life with the exception of the occasional sled run. Service dogs get to go everywhere with the human they love most in life. Pardon the rant but having worked and trained both sled dogs and service dogs this was not a small goof.

    I look forward to more ideas and info. on the origin of dog. John Q.

  11. Coppinger makes lots of glaring goofs, in his book and on the Nova and Nature specials, but his poorly researched views are being taken seriously enough to be accepted without much dissension. His comment on the Nature special about NO ONE ever really taming a wolf? From private individuals(I have known some personally) to Hollywood animal trainers, to historical accounts of Native Americans, there are NUMEROUS examples all the time of people that tame wolves! No, they are not obedience-trained Golden Retrievers, but they are handleable, friendly, affectionate, and love interaction with their people. Most modern people just do not provide them with a proper, long-term home–but that is HUMAN error, and has nothing to do with the tractability of a wolf. One of Coppinger’s angles to support his theory(as stated in his book on dog evolution) is that man did not use wolves/dogs as hunting partners, and his “evidence” of this was that he went hunting a few times with some beagles and didn’t get many rabbits! Once again, Coppinger is ignoring(or unaware–both inexcusable)of an enormous amount of information to the contrary, with native peoples and modern hunters. Coppinger either has no hunting skills, was out with some poorly trained hunting dogs, or was hunting in an area with little or no game! I have been on beagle hunts where dozens of rabbits were killed in one hunt! Enough to feed a lot of people! Most dog breeds throughout history were developed for HUNTING; this was not just a centuries old misconception that dogs are extremely useful on a hunt! Coppinger’s theory has to ignore cave paintings(in just about any dog history book you want to pick up)that blatantly depict human and dog-like figures hunting together–long, long before settled agriculture. Native Americans brought dogs with them as hunter-gatherers across the Bering land bridge when they came to North America(plenty of archaeological evidence) long, long before agricuture and the dumps that Coppinger is insisting dogs domesticated themselves existed. Yeah, Coppinger has made a lot of glaring goofs! He SHOULD be very embarrassed! Instead, he is making a lot of money(check out the prices to his lectures and workshops!) and getting a lot of attention and T.V. time! Too much, in my opinion! Which makes me wonder if all this is about delving for the truth, or creating controversy that pays dividends….

  12. Sorry about the Coppinger theory ranting, but I think it does pertain to this subject of domestication principles since it is the hot new item, and was featured on the Nature special on PBS mentioned. The thinking that humans were mentally or technologically incapable of domesticating wolves as hunter/gatherers strikes me as assuming “primitive” also means”stupid”, which is very, very wrong. Do I sound too much like the Geico cavemen here? My take on the whole reversion to pariah types is that the dogs in question are not being selected by natural circumstances to be more like wolves(specialized, socially coordinated big-game hunters), but, as stated by “Nightmare” in the 4th entry to this discussion, if circumstances began selecting for those qualities, you’d get wolves again in time(it might take a good while though). It will be interesting to see if Eastern coyotes, which are filling the old gray wolves’ niche in the Eastern U.S., will become more “wolflike” in size and social structure. “Wolf Purists” do not like the idea that gray wolves are not the proginators of dogs, coyotes, and Red Wolves, and that gray wolves are just another variation-on-a-theme, all with a common, less specialized ancestor, but I think that’s probably closer to the truth.

  13. “Native Americans brought dogs with them as hunter-gatherers across the Bering land bridge when they came to North America(plenty of archaeological evidence) long, long before agricuture and the dumps that Coppinger is insisting dogs domesticated themselves existed.” Not sure if you also read Steve’s blog, Querencia, but in case you don’t – he’s got a piece coming up (Gray’s Sporting Journal – September, I’m told – the dog issue) on Clovis people and dogs (see

    On the reversion to type – I’ve been trying to think of a domestic animal that reverts to wild type when it goes feral – goats, maybe. Camels and cats aren’t significantly changed – not even sure I’d count cats as domesticated *grin*. Maybe it’s lack of the proper selective pressure, maybe it’s lack of genetic material, maybe (in the case of dogs) we just don’t understand the original species. I dunno – but on a closely related note, as a result of this discussion, I’m a lot less sympathetic towards the Coppinger mechanism…

  14. No, I haven’t read Steve Bodio’s article, but I look forward to it eagerly! I have read some Bodio books(mostly falconry subjects–another amazing example of taming wild creatures–I should think a bird-of-prey would be MUCH more difficult to keep than a wolf!) which I enjoyed immensely! I am very new to this whole computer communication thing, but am gradually figuring it out…..Yes, I also have considered the many other species in regards to “reversion-to-type”, and it seems like once domesticated, those characteristics are very dominant. Horses are another interesting example. Lots of feral horses breeding for generations on their own, but you don’t get any individuals that look much like Pleistocene or Przewalski’s(sp?) horses, which are supposed to be the proginators of domestic horses. One thing that undoubtedly continues to keep domestic characteristics in feral populations is the continual addition of domestic blood in abandoned or lost pets and livestock. Have you read Roger Caras’s book on the history of domestic animals(Coppinger should read this book too!) “A Perfect Harmony”? Excellent brief overview of the many domesticated species, if not real detailed. You will learn a lot of interesting facts, like ferrets were domesticated before cats; water buffalo were domesticated in Asia before cattle! When you see the hundreds of animals used by and purposefully bred by man over thousands of years, it makes Coppinger’s theory that people didn’t have a conscience effort in the development of dogs seem ludricous! I majored in Anthropology during my infamous college incarceration, and the information on dog remains(distinct from wolf remains)found at numerous prehistoric sites, including hunter-gatherers in ancient America, is in every basic level textbook. There are lots of dog history books specifically delving on this subject(I’ll give you a few titles if you’d like) that HAS been carefully researched that Coppinger is either ignoring or unaware of.

  15. Fire away w/ the dog history titles – especially any that get into the details. Thanks!

  16. Here are a few titles to get you started–don’t want to overwhelm you too much, and I’m also not sure how available any of these are….These are also all older books. I don’t doubt there is material concerning new findings that keep pushing the domestication of dogs back further and further, both archaeological evidence, and the really new DNA information. If you see any titles on that, let ME know! First is “Dogs: A Historical Journey” by Lloyd M. Wendt. This is a good overview of dog history, and has most of the cave paintings featuring dogs illustrated. “The Lost History Of The Canine Race” by Mary Elizabeth Thurston is also very good–she questions a lot of established ideas, but does it sensibly. One intriguing point she makes is that WOMEN may have had a lot to do with early first dometications. “Dogs Through History” by dog world patriarch Maxwell Riddle is also a good overview, although this dog expert’s knowledge on wolves is poor. He was a Malamute fancier, and has the Malamute Breeders’ hang-ups about wolves and dogs breeding together, which modern day wolf-hybrid issues have created(which I think are irrelevant to stone-age or more primitive lifestyles). A really fascinating book about little known aspects of dog types is “Dogs Of The American Indians” by William Pferd the 3rd. I had no idea about the great variety of dogs, including very small terrier-sized breeds or types in existence long before the European invasion, before I read this book. Some of these remains date back 10,000 years or more, which means the Native Americans most assuredley had dogs when they came across the land bridge from Asia in the Pleistocene–way before agriculture! All the other books mention the earliest fossils dated at 13-14,000 yrs. ago–that may have been pushed back further with more recent findings. A fun book that gives a new radical idea on how wolves might have initiated and inspired stone-age humans to begin the domestication process is “Reindeer Moon” by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. It is a novel about Pleistocene people–perhaps not as popular as The Clan Of The Cave Bear series, but way more realistic. Thomas lived with Eskimos, Bushmen, and other “primitive” peoples, so she has an excellent take on how they think. I enjoyed the Clan of the Cave Bear series too, but my impression of those books overall is that the author was giving ancient people the same thoughts and motivations as modern people, which is probably considerably off. I describe that series as “Barbie and Ken take a trip through the Pleistocene!” All these books have bibliographies with more sources–ALL KINDS OF INFO OUT THERE that Coppinger is ignoring or ignorant of–NO EXCUSE for someone being labeled a “dog expert”!

  17. I was just exploring your home-page(sorry, I’m very new and slow to figure out all this computer contraption stuff!) and saw your comment on “Reindeer Moon”! So hopefully my repeating it above will be forgiven(I was raised by wolves, after all…) But glad to see you read it!(and the sequel, “The Animal Wife”). I will also supply you with a list of tamed wolf books and stories if you like…..Remember Coppinger’s comment on the Nature special,”No wolf has EVER really been tamed!”

  18. Re: Reindeer Moon – not to worry, it’s something we’ve all done! Bring on the wolf books – can’t promise I’ll read all of them, but I can try. I’m going to see if I can get “Dogs of the American Indians” via interlibrary loan in anticipation of Steve’s piece.

    @ John Q. – if you haven’t already, check out Operation Desert Dove (in the blogroll) – good and interesting thoughts on training (dogs, falcons, parrots, people).

    @ David Kenney (hopefully you’re still checking back) – tried to get my hands on the Van Vuure book – no luck. I’ll keep trying – thanks for the info.

  19. I am going to be away from work–my only source for computer access–for FIVE(count’em!) days, but I will get some wolf titles while I’m off and post them when I return(IF I have not totally reverted to a feral state).Anyone who is going to study and propose theories on dog domestication REALLY NEEDS to know three subjects very well; dogs, of course, early human history and prehistory(which should logically include studies done on primitive lifestyles in more recent times), and wolves–both captive and wild. It is amazing how wolf ignorant most dog people are, and vice-versa. And how animal ignorant a lot of Anthropologists are. But you really need all three to sensibly delve into the origins of dogs.

  20. Lane – the reply-to address on the email you sent me isn’t working – when you get a chance, pls. email me your real address so I can reply – thanks.

  21. !@#$%^&*&^%$#@! Computers!! Sorry about that; I’ll try again. Meanwhile, since I have returned to civilization(if you can call a zoo civilized), here are some wolf titles concerning captive, or tame wolves–LOTS of wolf books out there, these are just some in my library. “Secret Go The Wolves” by R.D. Lawrence is about the author raising and releasing a pair of wolves back to the wild. Another book by Lawrence on this topic is “In Praise Of Wolves”, where he studies a well-known captive pack, and then aquires and keeps a couple more wolves himself. Lawrence has written A LOT of stuff, and is controversial because of his lack of “credentials”, but I like the guy’s books. An old classic is “Artic Wild” by Lois Chrysler, and the sad sequel “Captive Wild”. Good information-horrible writing! Chrysler’s writing style drives me bonkers! “The Soul Of The Wolf” is good, by famous author and activist Michael Fox–he is VEHEMENTLY against keeping wolves as pets, but of course HE did it himself! “Wild Voice Of The North” by Sally Carrigher is good–mostly about sled dogs, but with a blatant reference to Eskimos breeding their dogs to wolves WITH PHOTOGRAPHS to back it up(malamute breeders may cringe now). A good book on Hollywood animals used in films, including wolves, is Pat Derby’s “The Lady And Her Tiger”–lots of books of this genera–amazing the bonds and trainability of a lot of “wild” animals–and sadly, a lot of abuse, too. For fun I recommend a story out of the James Willard Schultz book of Blackfoot Indian stories “Why Gone Those Times” with “Laugher, The Story Of A Tame Wolf”–an excellent account of a wolf raised in a Plains Indian camp(presented as true–and it rings true). Reading Barry Lopez’s book “Of Wolves And Men” gives a very in depth view of the difference in attitude between Europeans and Native Americans on wolves. You can bet stone age hunter/gatherers had views like historical Native Americans. And guess what, Lopez also kept some Red Wolf/Coyote hybrids as pets, too. With the PLETHORA of liturature about tame wolves out there, there is no excuse for Coppinger’s statement about it being virtually impossible to tame a wolf! Even worse, the very institution involving captive wolves that he associates with–Wolf Park in Indiana, has captive wolves that they can go in with, leash up and walk them to a Bison enclosure where the wolves are allowed to “test” the bison for public displays, as well as being so handalable that vets can give them their shots, etc. without knocking them out. I would consider THAT purty darn tame! I have also had experiences with captive tame wolves that were very friendly and handalable–even for complete strangers! Wolves in captivity usually only trust the people they are raised with, unless they are constantly exposed to a lot of people growing up.

  22. An interesting idea I heard was that the dog came from a small wolf breed, now gone, and that the Japanese Shiba Inu dog is the closest to that breed. If you have the privilege of observing one of these dogs, you will find it very close to a wild animal in its actions. Also, the size of a Shiba Inu is very close to the optimal dog size (that is, the size that lives longest and is most ‘average’ for feral bred dogs the world over.) The pattern on the dogs is also similar to a wolf or dingo pattern.
    I personally think it is not valid to compare pigs (who do backbreed) with other animals that do not, like dogs; I also suspect hybridization is at work in dogs, cats and probably in our own origins. Fornication is after all something we do a great deal more than other creatures anyhow.)

  23. Recent DNA testing of dog breeds is changing thoughts on the oldest breeds closest to wolves. The information I read listed Siberian Huskies(no suprise there), Basenjis(basically small tropical dingoes, very similar to your Shibas), and bizarrely(to me) Shar Peis! What exactly do you mean by “pigs backbreeding and dogs do not”????

  24. Could the really strange Norwegian Lundehund have evolved from wolves?
    The Lundehund has a great range of motion in its joints, allowing it to fit into narrow passages. The head can be bent backwards along the dog’s own spine, and the forelegs can turn to the side at a 90-degree angle to its body, much like human arms. Its pricked, upright ears can be sealed nearly shut by folding them forward or backward.The Norwegian Lundehund is polydactyl: instead of the normal four toes a foot, the Lundehund has six toes, all fully formed, jointed and muscled. The outercoat is dense and rough with a soft undercoat. The Lundehund is adapted to climb narrow cliff paths in Rost where it natively would have hunted puffins.

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