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New Dog Tree of Life Reveals the Secret History of Your Pup

Apr 26, 2017 01:10 PM EDT
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Today, the world is blessed with around 350 different breeds of dogs -- and counting. This doesn't even include increasingly popular cross-breeds such as labradoodles. To help make sense of it their origins and how they're all related to each other, a new study published in Cell Reports unveiled the largest map of dog breeds yet.

According to a report from Science Magazine, geneticists Elaine Ostrander and Heidi Parker have created an evolutionary tree of dogs by tracking gene sequences from 161 modern breeds.

The pair found that nearly all of the breeds fall into 23 larger groupings called clades, which are genetically defined but also often brought together canines that share specific traits such as strength, herders and hunters. This tendency suggested that in the past, dogs evolved or were bred for specific roles much like modern breeders often breed their canines to look a certain way.

"First, there was selection for a type, like herders or pointers, and then there was admixture to get certain physical traits," Parker of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told EurekAlert. "I think that understanding that types go back a lot longer than breeds or just physical appearances do is something to really think about."

For example, "gun dogs" such as Golden Retrievers and Irish Setters are traced back to Victorian England when hunting expeditions were in vogue. Meanwhile, breeds from Middle East and Asia diverged before the "Victorian Explosion" in Europe and North America. Hunting breeds, on the other hand, are very diverse with different groups coming from all across Europe. Parker explained that this shows that using dogs to help with herding has been done for thousands of years.

Many of the popular breeds in the United States came from European descent. On the other hand, evidence emerged that a few dogs from Central and South America like the Peruvian Hairless Dog and the Xoloitzcuintle are most likely descendants of what's known as the "New World Dog". This is an ancient canine sub-species that travelled with Native American ancestor through the Bering Strait.

The knowledge of a dog's genetic origins goes beyond just show purposes. Knowledge of the clades can help veterinarians spot and predict potential genetic problems. It can even help out in human health since dogs often acquire many of the same diseases that people do, and can be easier to compartmentalize and study than human populations.

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