The evolution of dogs

PZ Myers had an interesting post on a topic that I have long been intrigued by and that is how when breeders selectively bred silver foxes purely on the basis of a trait by which they are more tolerant towards humans, the animals change physically too, such as their ears becoming more floppy and their snouts shorter, similar to the way that we believe that wolves in the wild evolved to become the dogs we now have.

PZ says that a similar thing happens across a wide variety of animals.

We have a very good idea of the proximate cause of tameness: the animals have reduced adrenal glands, which means their stress response is reduced, they’re generally less fearful, and they are more open, in early life at least, to socialization. But why can’t genetic mutations that reduce the size of the adrenal gland occur without also changing the floppiness of the ears? There isn’t an obvious physiological link between the two, or other traits in that list.

One idea is that there is a Genetic Regulatory Network (GRN). A GRN is a set of genes that mutually regulate each other’s expression, and may be controlled by the same set of signals. Imagine a lazily wired house in which the lights in the kitchen and the living room are on the same circuit, so you use one switch to turn them both on and off. Or perhaps you’ve cleverly wired in a simple motion sensor, so that when you trip the living room light, the changing shadows coincidentally trigger the kitchen light too. Everything is tangled together in interacting patterns of connectivity, so you often get unexpected results from single inputs. The mammalian GRN works, though, so it’s been easier to keep it for a few tens of millions of years, rather than rewiring everything and risking breaking something.

He goes on to look at a paper that postulates an explanation as to what may link all these traits together so that they change concurrently.

Wilkins and his colleagues have suggested an obvious starting point: it’s all neural crest. Neural crest cells (NCCs) are an early population of migrating cells that infiltrate many tissues in the embryo — they form pigment cells, contribute to craniofacial cartilages, supporting cells for the nervous system, and just generally are found in precisely the places where we see the effects of domestication. So one reasonable hypothesis is that when you’re selecting for domestication, you’re actually selecting for reduced adrenal glands, which is most easily achieved by selecting for retarded or reduced or misdirected NCC migration or increased NCC apoptosis (multiple possible causes!), which has multiple effects.

I don’t understand it all but it is interesting.


  1. Katydid says

    I heard a bit of this on NPR and found it fascinating. One commenter pointed out that adrenaline stokes the flight-or-fight instinct, and by selectively breeding animals with a less-reactive flight-or-fight instinct, humans unwittingly bred in all the other traits.

  2. Ed says

    This trend has plenty of exceptions, though. I dog sit a lot and one of my favorites is a mixture of a few kinds of small breeds. She has a very “wild animal” look with a long snout, pointy ears, frighteningly large teeth and moves much faster than the others and can jump as skillfully as a cat.

    I joke that she’s not really a dog, but a dangerous predator from the African grasslands which is harmless alone, but that packs of her kind regularly bring down grazing animals and strip them to the bone within minutes.

    But very affectionate and socialized despite looking more at home in a zoo than a pet store.

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