Canine evolution is a highly debated topic. It’s impossible to explain the entirety of canine evolution, but we have put together a basic guide for you. If you are interested in learning about where dogs might have come from then read on to find out more.
We can now trace back through the history of canine evolution through DNA. Dogs come from the Canidae family and this includes other animals such as wolves, coyotes, jackals and hunting dogs. All these members look very similar and have large carnivorous teeth. What is really interesting about early dog species is that you can find them in lots of different environments around the world from the desert to the Arctic. Dogs are highly adaptable creatures.
The Grey Wolf
One theory of canine evolution is that the domestic dog split from its wolf ancestor. The species divide according to where they end up in the world. There are lots of different theories but this one, in particular, suggests that modern dogs evolved from a few grey wolves in Asia around 15,000 years ago. This is really not that long ago in evolutionary terms.
How dog breeds vary
Dogs are one of the only species that produce such different individuals but are still genetically close enough to interbreed. Dogs have only dramatically changed in the last 500 years by artificial selection, where man chooses the desired characteristics. Foxes, for example, do not vary physically from species to species as much as dogs do. You simply have to select two very different dog breeds such as the Chihuahua and the Siberian Husky to understand how far apart dogs can be in physical appearance.
Canines have evolved to become one of history’s most effective killing specialists. Wolves are among the most feared predators around the world. Their physical characteristics and perfected hunting skills have earned them mythical status and coverage in many mainstream films and television programmes.
In the Origin of the Species Darwin tried to guess where the dog might have evolved from. He thought that dogs came from several wild species of canines. However, recent evidence has pushed this theory aside, showing that dogs evolved from the grey wolf around 100,000 years ago.
The evolutionary timeline of the dog
The evolutionary timeline of the dog dates back 60 million years. The Miacis existed in the Palaeocene epoch era. It was an animal that lived in North America. It looked like a weasel and had much shorter legs and a smaller brain than modern day dogs. It also had the typical distinctive carnivore teeth but walked on the soles of its feet.
The next stage of canine evolution was understood to have taken place 35 million years ago. The Leptocyon was around during the Oligocene epoch era and was more fox-like and walked on its toes, which allowed it to sprint more easily.
Then came the Mesocyon around 20 million years ago, and towards the end of this period came the Miocene. This animal looked like a very basic dog and had a bigger brain, making it more intelligent. It also had a better memory making it more likely to remember family members and therefore it developed a pack mentality.
This was then followed by the wolves around 5-7 million years ago. They developed the advantage of walking on four hind toes allowing them to chase prey more effectively.
Finally came wolves and jackals, who were alive around 1million years ago. This animal was the beginnings of the early wolf and could be found in Eurasia.
Controversy over wolf evolution
It is important to note that there are lots of different theories on canine evolution and although DNA can prove a lot, it is still a challenge to map out the exact bloodline of the dog. ‘The origin of the dog is a subject of much controversy, jackals, wolves, and dogs all have similar characteristics and chromosome count.’ (Lloyd, Wend, ‘Dogs A Historical Journey’, Howell Book House, 1996) All we can say is that today’s dogs, which come in many different shapes and sizes due to artificial selection, are all likely to have evolved from a small group of grey wolves.
The domestication of wolves
So how did wolves turn into man’s best friend? There are many theories about the domestication of wolves. One is that they gradually got closer to human settlements once they recognize a food source and became more acclimatized to being around people. As the generations went on they got braver and were more comfortable around humans. As humans got to know wolves they realised how useful they could be. Wolves were perhaps used to sound the alarm and alert people of danger and eventually trained to bring down large prey. Domesticated wolves may have also been used for warmth. People then realised the strengths of wolves and eventually started breeding them for specific traits.
A lot of dog training is based on how wolves behave but it’s important to remember that dogs have domesticated a long time ago. They are likely to have developed behaviours that are far from what wolves living in the wild would do. However, we can distinguish some similarities and use science to help explain the evolution of the wolf. Dogs are amazing creatures who have lived in harmony with humans for a very long time. Some dog breeds today are so different from wild wolves in appearance. It makes you wonder how a breed such as a pug or a Chihuahua could be linked to the mighty wolf.