What Dogs Reveal About Evolution

Posted on January 17, 2010  Comments (0)

cover of the Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

From, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins

All breeds of dogs are domesticated wolves: not jackals, not coyotes and not foxes.

Coppinger points out that when domestic animals break free and go feral for many generations, they usually revert to something close to their wild ancestor. We might expect feral dogs, therefore, to become rather wolf-like. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, dogs left to go feral seem to become the ubiquitous “village dogs” – “pye-dogs” – that hang around human settlements all over the Third World. This encourages Coppinger’s belief that the dogs on which human breeders finally went to work were wolves no longer. They had already changed themselves into dogs: village dogs, pye-dogs, perhaps dingos.

Real wolves are pack hunters. Village dogs are scavengers that frequent middens and rubbish dumps.

Belyaev and his colleagues (and successors, for the experimental programme continued after his death) subjected fox cubs to standardised tests in which an experimenter would offer a cub food by hand, while trying to stroke or fondle it. The cubs were classified into three classes. Class III cubs were those that fled from or bit the person. Class II cubs would allow themselves to be handled, but showed no positive responsiveness to the experimenters. Class I cubs, the tamest of all, positively approached the handlers, wagging their tails and whining. When the cubs grew up, the experimenters systematically bred only from this tamest class.

After a mere six generations of this selective breeding for tameness, the foxes had changed so much that the experimenters felt obliged to name a new category, the “domesticated elite” class, which were “eager to establish human contact, whimpering to attract attention and sniffing and licking experimenters like dogs.” At the beginning of the experiment, none of the foxes were in the elite class. After ten generations of breeding for tameness, 18 per cent were “elite”; after 20 generations, 35 per cent; and after 30 to 35 generations, “domesticated elite” individuals constituted between 70 and 80 per cent of the experimental population.

The tame foxes not only behaved like domestic dogs, they looked like them. They lost their foxy pelage and became piebald black and white, like Welsh collies. Their foxy prick ears were replaced by doggy floppy ears. Their tails turned up at the end like a dog’s, rather than down like a fox’s brush. The females came on heat every six months like a bitch, instead of every year like a vixen. According to Belyaev, they even sounded like dogs.

These dog-like features were side- effects. Belyaev and his team did not deliberately breed for them, only for tameness.

The famous domesticated silver fox experiment offers interesting insight into animal traits and evolution.

Related: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – The Evolution of House CatsDarwin’s Beetles Still Producing SurprisesBackyard Wildlife: Fox

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