Extinct Japanese Wolves May Be Closest Ancestor To Domestic Dogs

It has always been assumed that wolves are the ancestors of domestic dogs. But now it seems that extinct Japanese wolves might have been the closest of all the 23 or so subspecies of Canis lupus to our house pets. There is disagreement about the exact number of wolf subspecies.

As we have noted with cats, recent science is clarifying relations among members of different subspecies of various animals. Dogs/wolves are no exception.

white and black wolf
Domestic dogs descend from wolves, Apparently the extinct Japanese wolf is the closest ancestor to Canis familiaris. Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

According to phys.org new research by scientists in Japan is upending the idea that dogs were domesticated from wolves in the Middle East and West Asia. Instead, they appear to have descended from a wolf that was the ancestor of the Japanese wolf. That wolf is also extinct. Dogs appear to have originated in East Asia, if this work is correct.

Although extinct since 1905 the Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax) has much to tell. Many samples of bone, fur and other DNS bearing tissues were saved. Those can be compared and studied against other wolves. The evidence now suggests that the Japanese wolf ancestor split off from other wolves 20 to 40 thousand years ago. That ancestor was also the ancestor of modern dogs.

The exact relationship between dogs and these wolves is not yet clear.The research also noted that New Guinea singing dogs and dingoes have the most Japanese wolf DNA of any living species. We discussed other research on dingoes here. The new research appears to buttress the dingo research. It shows the wild dogs were probably descended from wild dogs (wolves) and not from feral domestic dogs. Dingoes do not do well digesting starch. Domestic dogs digest starch because of long association with people. This suggests dingoes were not fully domesticated.

That study left open the suggestion that dingoes had arrived in Australia with people. That idea is now considered less likely.

adult white toy poodle
Differences between dogs and extinct Japanese wolves have a lot to do with apearance rather than DNA. . Photo by Marcelo Miranda on Pexels.com

The paper reporting the new wolf research has not been fully reviewed . The abstract was published by BioRxIv. The site is affiliated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

According to the abstract:

“The Japanese wolf (Canis lupus hodophilax Temminck, 1839) was a subspecies of the gray wolf that inhabited the Japanese Archipelago and became extinct 100-120 years ago. In this study, we determined the whole genomes of nine Japanese wolves from the 19th– early 20th centuries and 11 Japanese dogs and analyzed them along with both modern and ancient wolves and dogs. Genomic analyses indicate that the Japanese wolf was a unique subspecies of the gray wolf that was genetically distinct from both modern and ancient gray wolves, lacking gene flow with other gray wolves.”

New Holland Dingo by Charles
The dingo (Canis familiaris dingo) is native to Australia and has more of the extinct Japanese wolf DNA than modern dogs. The scientific name may soon be revised.

” A Phylogenetic tree that minimizes the effects of introgression shows that Japanese wolves are closest to the dog monophyletic group among the gray wolves. Moreover, Japanese wolves show significant genetic affinities with East Eurasian dogs. We estimated the level of introgression from the ancestor of the Japanese wolves to the ancestor of East Eurasian dogs that had occurred in the transitional period from the Pleistocene to the Holocene, at an early stage after divergence from West Eurasian dog lineages.

” Because of this introgression, Japanese wolf ancestry has been inherited by many dogs through admixture between East Eurasian dog lineages. As a result of this heredity, up to 5.5% of modern dog genomes throughout East Eurasia are derived from Japanese wolf ancestry.”

Published by ursusrising

long time writer and editor living in Los Angeles

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