Visiting village dogs

I am horribly envious. I am speaking of the Village Dog Project, some current research going on that looks very cool.

Understanding the evolution and domestication in dogs requires genetic analysis of a global and diverse panel of non-breed-affiliated village dogs. With a network of worldwide and Cornell-affiliated collaborators, we plan to gather dog samples from remote villages, establish a genetic archive containing DNA and phenotypic information from these dogs, carry out genetic analyses on these samples, and develop computational methods for analyzing this dataset. In particular, we are interested in understanding the location, timing, and demographic conditions underlying domestication; the genetic changes involved in the transition of wolf to dog; the relationship between these village dogs and the breed dogs; and the effect that historical forces have shaped village dog diversity.

That looks informative and useful, and I’ll be looking forward to the publication of the research. That’s not what’s got me envious, though: for that, you have to look at their field work. The researchers are spending the summer traveling to exotic, remote locations (admittedly, to the kinds of places rife with scavenging village dogs, but still…) to collect blood samples. They have a travel blog that will be recounting their adventures, and also explains the science a little more.

After initial domestication, dogs probably lived “breed-less” lives as human commensals (hanging around humans, not really helping or harming them but living off their trash) for many thousands of years. During this time, dog populations quickly expanded and spread across the globe. In the last few hundreds of years, several hundred dog breeds were formed from local dogs in many parts of the world; these breed dogs have entirely replaced the non-breed “indigenous” dogs in some parts of the world, notably in Western Europe and the USA. However, most dogs throughout the world still live their lives as non-breed, indigenous, commensal dogs. We refer to these dogs as “pariah” or “village” dogs. They tend to be smallish (25-40 pounds), often tan, short-haired dogs, though the type varies a bit according to the region you’re in. The important point is that these dogs have not undergone the intense genetic bottleneck associated with breed formation. Thus, while breed dogs have only a small subset of the total genetic diversity of all dogs, it is likely that village dogs have a much greater range of the total diversity. Thus, they are very useful for looking at the original domestication event. They are informative of the original genetic bottleneck that led to the formation of domestic dogs many thousands of years ago.

Hmmm. We don’t seem to have many dogs running loose around exotic, remote Morris, Minnesota, but there are a few feral cats living off the dumpsters near the grocery store.

I probably wouldn’t try to read about visiting small midwestern towns to collect cats, though.