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Adaptation to Starchy Diet Was Key to Dog Domestication

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The invention of agriculture catalyzed dog domestication, genome study suggests. Image: John Fehrenbach, via Flickr.

They work with us, play with us and comfort us when we’re down. Archaeological evidence indicates that dogs have had a close bond with humans for millennia. But exactly why and how they evolved from their wolf ancestors into our loyal companions has been something of a mystery. Now a new genetic analysis indicates that dietary adaptation played a critical role in dog domestication.

Scientists have two theories for how dog domestication began. One holds that humans captured wolf pups and tamed them for their hunting and guarding abilities. The other, more popular explanation proposes that the advent of agriculture and the attendant development of human settlements created new scavenging opportunities for animals bold enough to exploit them, and that wolves themselves thus initiated domestication. The new findings support this latter view, and offer insights into how dog ancestors were able to take advantage of this new resource.

Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues analyzed DNA from 12 wolves and 60 dogs representing 14 diverse breeds, looking for regions of the dog genome that evolved under selection pressure during domestication. Their search identified a number of probable targets of selection, including some genes related to central nervous system development. This is not unexpected. Modern dogs are well known to differ from wolves in having reduced aggression and social-cognitive skills that allow them to communicate with humans in special ways. Mutations in some of the nervous system genes highlighted by this study may have produced some of those behavioral changes that made Fido our BFF.

Intriguingly, genes involved in the metabolism of starch showed up among the targets, too. In fact, the study revealed that during the domestication of dogs, selection acted on genes involved in all three of the stages of starch digestion, promoting mutations that facilitated adaptation from a meat-centric diet to one heavy on starch. “Our results show that adaptations that allowed the early ancestors of modern dogs to thrive on a diet rich in starch, relative to the carnivorous diet of wolves, constituted a crucial step in early dog domestication,” the authors write in a paper published in the January 24 Nature. “This may suggest that a change of ecological niche could have been the driving force behind the domestication process, and that scavenging in waste dumps near the increasingly common human settlements during the dawn of the agricultural revolution may have constituted this new niche.” (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

Given previous studies indicating that dog domestication began some 10,000 years ago in the Middle East, Axelsson and his collaborators conclude that their findings may suggest that the development of agriculture—which seems to have started at around that same time and in that same area—“catalyzed the domestication of dogs.”

Cats, too, are thought to have domesticated themselves by exploiting the same new niche that attracted wolves. No doubt they were drawn in part by the mice that set up shop in early agricultural settlements. But the intrepid felines seem to have dined on human leftovers as well. Although housecats have only a limited ability to metabolize carbohydrates, including starch, they possess a longer intestine than their wild counterparts do–presumably to help digest the lower-quality sustenance they get from table scraps and trash heaps compared to the all-meat diet they would be living on in the wild, according to geneticist Carlos Driscoll of the National Institutes of Health, an expert on cat domestication.

“Why would the cat (or wolf for that matter) stick around eating crap like bread crusts?” Driscoll muses. “Because it’s easier, and safer, than heading out into the wild and hunting.” In the wild “there is competition with other cats and also exposure to predators” such as leopards and hyenas, which humans would have kept away from their settlements,” he notes. And “the human environment is stable and year round, whereas wild populations of mice and rabbits and such prey are cyclical.” (Driscoll says that he and others are currently looking for signs of selection on carbohydrate metabolism in the cat genome.)

Still, the suggestion that the agricultural revolution kicked off dog domestication seems likely to generate controversy, not least because some evidence hints that domestication began well before farming did—including 33,000-year-old remains from the Altai Mountains in Siberia that are said to represent an early dog.


About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gmperkins 3:06 pm 01/24/2013

    Interesting, though I still think we domesticated them first and that the ones that did well with a more starchy diet were the ones to survive and be breed (along with other traits like being more compatible with humans). Selected breeding speeds up evolution by quite a bit.

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  2. 2. Bill_Crofut 5:20 pm 01/24/2013

    Re: “Erik Axelsson of Uppsala University in Sweden and his colleagues analyzed DNA from 12 wolves and 60 dogs representing 14 diverse breeds, looking for regions of the dog genome that evolved under selection pressure during domestication. Their search identified a number of probable targets of selection, including some genes related to central nervous system development.”

    That would seem to indicate the assumption of evolution was already in place before the research program was initiated. Still, identification is only probable.

    The probability of selection brings to mind another interesting observation:

    “…[N]atural selection…is the only theory we have; but when judged as a working hypothesis it is disappointing to find so little advance in a hundred years….No amount of argument, or clever epigram, can disguise the inherent improbability of orthodox theory; but most biologists feel it is better to think in terms of improbable events than not to think at all.”

    [Prof. Sir James Gray. 1954. The Case for Natural Selection. NATURE, 6 February, p. 227]

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  3. 3. karenalcott 12:11 am 01/25/2013

    My own experience suggests that “pariah” dogs, the self selecting little yellow critters that occur all over the world where dogs live in association with man, but not with us; will eat almost anything as opposed to hunting dogs who are not fond of starches or vegetables. I have a Carolina Dog and a Blue tick Hound mix. I’ve lived with hunting dogs all my life and my little Carolina rescue is a garbage gut by comparison.

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  4. 4. dcummins 3:04 pm 02/1/2013

    Karenalcott: In other words, these two breeds of dogs have adapted well to the environmental niche created by humans. Hunting dogs have digestive systems more attuned to fresh meat brought down by human hunters through canine assistance. Other breeds that are typically not involved in hunting have digestive systems that are better suited to the grains and vegetable starches that are typically on farms where dogs assist by keeping away predators and guarding flocks.

    I have also always wondered whether omega wolves played a singular role in domestication. Their temperament and low position in wolf pack hierarchies would make them ideal candidates for domestication by humans. Alphas and betas occupy favored positions and hence have little to benefit from cooperation with humans. Omegas, on the other hand, have much to gain from such cooperation.

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