Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Ancient Breed of Dog?

Genetic research has given legs to something most canine historians knew was true: most breeds are not very old, never mind what Kennel Club breed enthusiast may claim. The supposedly "ancient" Ibizan hound and Pharaoh hound, for example, turn out to have been made up within the last 100 years or so -- no doubt bred to look like the drawings and sculptures of sleek, slender-necked canines with pointy ears and long snouts that were seen on the Pharonic tombs whose disovery were all the rage at the time of Carter. As for the Norwegian elkhound, which supposedly dated back to Viking dogs, it turns out to have originated no farther back than the past few hundred years.

Using 96 distinct patterns in the genes called "microsatellites," genetic researchers compared dogs within breeds, and breeds with one another. In the May 21, 2004 issue of the journal Science, the team concluded that almost every breed was surprisingly distinct genetically. A few suprising gleanings:

  • Ancient dogs included a very motley assortment of dogs found all over the world: the Alaskan malamute, the Siberian husky, the Samoyed, basenji, Saluki, Afghan, Lhasa apso, Pekingese, Shar-Pei, Shih Tzu and Akita.

  • German shepherds, which might have been expected to be in the either the ancient group (due to their resemblance to wolves) or the herding group were found to actually be more closely related to to mastiff-type dogs, such as the bull mastiff, the bulldog and the Rottweiler.

  • Herding dogs, included such obvious members as the collie and the sheepdog, but also the greyhound.

  • Terriers and scent-tracking hounds, such as spaniels and setters and were deemed to be of relatively recent European origin. This should hardly surprise anyone -- almost all of the terrier "breeds" were created after 1800 and most after 1860 and the beginnings of the Kennel Club and livestock shows. For a detailed pictorial history of terriers, see A Pictorial History of Terriers.

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