Centuries of Climate Change Helped Turn Your Dog Into a Pet

Goldendoodle

A goldendoodle dog plays in the snow in New York, on Jan. 27. Photographer: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

  • Canines evolved to be social pack animals as habitat changed
  • Fast-moving climate developments now threaten extinction

The next time you pat your dog on the head, take a minute to appreciate that the shape of your furry friend, and maybe even her relationship to you, came about because of the effects of a changing climate on her ancestors millions of years ago.

Ancient canines shifted from ambushing their prey to running for it because the climate turned their woodland habitats into wide open spaces, said Christine Janis, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who co-wrote a paper on the development released last month. When canines became adept at running down their four-legged food, they also became pack animals that learned to cooperate and follow their leaders.

“It does emphasize the importance of climate and how sensitive aspects of mammal evolution are to climate change,” Janis said.

Borja Figueirido, a professor at Universidad de Malaga in Spain, was the lead author of the paper Janis worked on, published in Nature Communications.

The researchers studied how the fossilized elbow joints of dogs changed over time. The animals’ legs evolved from a structure that allowed for grabbing their prey the way a cat does to one more adept at running, said Janis, now on a fellowship at the University of Bristol in the U.K.

Janis said the changes in dogs came about due to the change in their environment and not as a result of their prey evolving. This can be seen because the bodies of hunter and prey changed at different times.

“In a funny sort of way,” then, climate made canines social, and those skills made it easier for them to see a human as leader of the pack, Janis said. The fact that your family dog happily wanders your kitchen and will sort of obey you when you tell it to get out of the trash is an offshoot of this evolutionary change.

Most of the animals humans domesticated were also pack animals that followed the herd -- horse and reindeer for instance, Janis said.

The one glaring exception, of course, is cats.

“Cats are not social, but the question is, who is domesticated? Us, or the cat?” Janis said.

So as the climate changes in our lifetimes, does this mean that we will see our family pets evolve before our very eyes?

No, Janis said. The changes scientists say are happening now are coming too fast. The results are simple -- extinction.

“The climate is changing way too rapidly for us to adapt,” Janis said. “It is not particularly good story, is it?”

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