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Trending Science: Dog or wolf? 18 000-year-old puppy has scientists baffled

Researchers are running tests to verify whether a frozen puppy found in Siberia is a dog or a wolf.

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The tiny canine, just 2 months old when it died, was found perfectly preserved by permafrost near Yakutsk, eastern Siberia, in the summer of 2018. Scientists at the Centre for Palaeogenetics (CPG), a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History, have been studying the pup ever since. CPG has the largest DNA bank of canines from around the world. Carbon dating reveals that the corpse dates back at least 18 000 years. Genome analyses show that it was male. He’s nicknamed Dogor, “friend” in the Yakut language, but also references the question “dog or wolf?”. Dogor is so well preserved that his fur, nose and teeth are all intact. Even his eyelashes and whiskers are in good condition. He’s almost completely covered in fur except for an exposed rib cage.

Missing link between dogs and wolves?

DNA sequencing has been unable to confirm whether the animal is a dog or a wolf. Scientists believe the specimen represents an evolutionary link between wolves and modern dogs. A very early modern wolf? A very late Ice Age wolf? A very early domesticated dog? The oldest dog ever found? “It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” Dr David Stanton, a researcher at the CPG, told ‘CNN’. “We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both -- to dogs and wolves.” Dr Stanton said that the period Dogor is from is “a very interesting time in terms of wolf and dog evolution.” He explained: “We don’t know exactly when dogs were domesticated, but it may have been from about that time. We are interested in whether it is in fact a dog or a wolf, or perhaps it’s something halfway between the two.”

Where does Dogor fit on the canine evolutionary scale?

Love Dalen, a professor of evolutionary genetics who also conducts research at the CPG, told the United Kingdom’s ‘Independent’: “I had assumed that what we’d find was that this was a wolf. But we recently got our first round of results on the genome and we can’t say if it’s a dog or a wolf. We should be able to – it should be easy.” Prof. Dalen added: “So this could be a very early modern wolf or very early dog, or a late Pleistocene (Ice Age) wolf. If it turns out to be a dog I would say it is the earliest confirmed dog.” Dogor remains in Russia, but the two scientists have taken a rib to Sweden for further testing. They hope results will shed light on the evolution of dogs and when they were domesticated. Modern dogs are believed to be descendants of wolves, but evidence is inconclusive as to when dogs were domesticated. A 2017 study published in ‘Nature Communications’ suggests domestication could have occurred 20 000 to 40 000 years ago.