DNA linking dogs to extinct wolves suggests man’s best friend may have origins in East Asia, not Europe

japanese wolves research

Scientists may have just discovered that the Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax), which went extinct over a century ago, might be the closest relative of modern dogs after studying the genomes of nine Japanese wolves.

The discovery: Joined by his colleagues, evolutionary biologist Yohey Terai from the Graduate University for Advanced Studies in Japan discovered this connection by comparing the genome sequence of the extinct wolves with 11 Japanese dogs, including shiba inus, in their study published on Oct. 11, according to Science.

  • They also compared their results with the genome sequences of other canids such as foxes, coyotes, dingoes, modern wolves and modern dogs from other countries.
  • The team extracted DNA found in the bones of the extinct animal and later ran a genome sequence. They found that the Japanese wolf is “distinct from any wolf or dog,” Terai said.
  • However, when they created evolutionary trees for the Japanese wolf, Terai and his team discovered that “the branch containing the Japanese wolf lineage lay closer to that of dogs than to any other animal,” which the scientist described as a “sister relationship.”
  • Laurent Frantz, an evolutionary geneticist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, said the discovery is “very important” if proven true. “It’s the first time we’ve seen a wolf population that’s close to dogs,” Frantz added.
  • Although the Japanese wolf is the closest relative to modern dogs, Terai’s study pointed out that not all of them have the same genetic overlap with the extinct canid. He said that the dingo, the New Guinea singing dog and modern Japanese breeds share 5% of DNA with the Japanese wolf, while German shepherds and Labrador retrievers share less.
  • The study’s findings suggest that dog domestication may have occurred in East Asia as opposed to Europe or the Middle East, as has been proposed by earlier theories.

The same ancestor: The study also suggested that modern dogs and Japanese wolves might share a common ancestor. The evolutionary split, which gave birth to the extinct canid around 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, may have happened somewhere in East Asia, New Scientist reported.

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  • To prove this hypothesis, Terai aims to study the remains of the ancient wolves found in the region and extract their DNA.
  • However, the results would not prove that the domestication of dogs happened in East Asia. According to Terai,  this would require archaeological evidence.

Featured Image via Carl Hubert de Villeneuve (left), Marliese Streefland (right)

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