Where are the Wolves of Yesteryear ?

An article on dogs decent from wolves in Discovery magazine (Dec, 2016) describes archological finds in various sites showing canine skeletons that were clearly no longer wolf, ie showing domestication changes, thus now more dog than wolf in anatomy. At least two widely separated sites with such skeleton are over 30,000 years old, thus showing dogs to have been already domesticated long before the start of agriculture and village life.(Note : by "agriculture" I mean fields that are more or lesss continuously cultivated, as distinguisheed frrom "slash and burn" or "shifting" cultivation, where a plot is cultivated for only a year or two then abandoned for many years to regenerate.)
The article also comments that the wolves of long ago , ancestral to dogs, were likely different from the wolves of today. I have long thought this to be likely, that today's wolves are very shy (avoidant) of humans but the common ancestor might have been much less so. The wolves of yesteryear might have differed behaviorally from the wolves of today in some or many ways. Since behavior doesn't fossilize, we will never really know.
This adds one more dimension to the question of how relevant studies of wolf behavior are to understanding dog behvior.

Where are the Wolves of Yesteryear ?

"the wolves we see today are not what gave rise to dogs"

by Pam Green, © 2017

The article in the December 2016 issue of Discovery magazine concerning the decent of dogs from wolves commented that "the wolves we see today are not what gave rise to dogs"

How does the behavior of wolves today relate to that of the common ancestor of wolves and dogs ?

Yes, indeed, the wolves of today probably are much changed from the common ancestral gene pool. The wolves of today are descended from survivors of at least several centuries of extensive efforts at species extermination by humans. This would have had two effects. One is the harsh population bottleneck and division of large gene pools into genetic islands. These bottleneck and island effects would create fairly high effective inbreeding, thus increased homozygosity, loss of some gene varients, fixation of other gene varients. The second effect of human attempts at extermination is strong genetic selection for avoidance of human contact, for longer flight distances, resulting in increased wildness. Thus the opposite of Beleyev's now famous experiment of genetic selection of foxes for decreased fear, shorter flight distances, resulting in tameness.

It's possible that some populations of wolves closer to the common ancestral type might have survived in very isolated areas where humans are very scarce. Today there are not many such areas left.

I've long thought that the self-selecting for lower fear could have begun during the hunter-gather period. We really cannot know what portions of a killed large prey human hunters ate and what parts could have become left-overs to be scavenged by those less fearful wolves. Possibly a fair portion of a big kill would have gone "off" enough to be considered inedible by humans but still be edible by wolves. We do know that sometimes hunters killed large numbers of prey at once (eg by driving a herd over a cliff), more than they could eat before the left-overs spoiled.

Also a hunter would be more apt to recognize some usefulness of wolves sneaking along on hunting expeditions than a farmer would be A smart hunter might notice that wolves have more ability than humans at detecting potential prey, at trailing injured prey, at holding injured prey "at bay" until the hunter caught up. A smart wolf might notice that humans had the ability to kill or injure at a distance by thrown weapons, thus sparing the wolf the danger of a close encounter with the prey. As humans became aware of the usefulness of wolves, they might have begun deliberately sharing food, probably the less humanly desired portions and excess portions and spoiled portions. We humans, like our cousins chimp and bonobo, are a species that shares food fairly readily. Wolves too eat in each other's company, at least in the phase of tearing up a large prey carcass.

For a farmer, the wolf would offer no benefits, and once the farmer gained other livestock, the wolf becomes a threat to livestock.

So indeed, there's more reason for hunter-gatherers to start the domestication process than for agriculturists to do so. Thus the wolves of yesteryear were likely to have begun the self-taming process long before the start of agriculture.

And now the archeological evidence plus the DNA evidence confirms that dog dometication goes back far longer than the history of agriculture..

Is the study ofwolf behavior relevant to dog behavior ?

This more ancient domestication and the longer lines of descent of dogs and contemporary wolves from their common ancestral "wolves of yesteryear" may mean that the behavior of dogs may be more related to that of the wolves of yesteryear than that of the wolves of today. Yet obervations show that some behaviors are shared by dog and wolf, some of them shared with other canid species, while some are different. Dogs and contemporary wolves share almost all (97% ?) their genome, so it's hardly surprising that they'd share some behaviors.

( That's similar to the situation when one compares human species behavior to the species behaviors of chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) and bonobo (Pan paniscus). These 3 species share 98% of their genomes, humans are similar to chimps in some behaviors, similar to bonobo in some behaviors , but different from both in many other behaviors, while chimps and bonobo are similar in some behaviors but different in others. )

Years ago there was a fair amount of ethological study of wolves, though it was hard to get a lot of close observation of natural free-living packs before wolves re-populated Yellowstone. Some argue that studies of captive packs of unrelated wolves forced to live together doesn't show the true natural behavior of the species, and that's probably correct; but on the other paw, dogs usually do live in a captive pack of unrelated dogs forced to live together and to live with an unrelated species (humans).

At that years ago time , there was little scientific ethological study of dog behavior. Today dogs have become a legitimized area of ethology and cognition studies. Many studies confirm what observant owners already believed.

While there's no question that "the best model of a dog is a dog", that the study of dog behavior is the most relevant to understanding of dog bhavior, it still seems to me that the study of wolf behavior is still of some relevance to understanding dogs and also highly interesting for its on sake. (Likewise for the study of chimps and bonobo as having relevance to understanding humans as well as being utterly fascinating for its own sake.).


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site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 11/15/2016 revised 7/10/2017
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