After analyzing and comparing the DNA of grey wolves with that of domesticated dogs from 14 breeds, Swedish researchers theorize that the ancestors of man's best friends were able to evolve away from wolves due to their ability to easily digest starchy foods.
The findings, which were published on Wednesday in the journal Nature
, suggested that dogs, during their evolution from pack-hunting carnivores to fireside companions thousands of years ago, were able to adapt their staple diet to consist primarily of wheat, rice, barley, corn, and potatoes.
By being able to sustain themselves on starchy foods, dogs were then able to redefine their relationship with humans, living off the refuse of our ancestors at the dawn of agriculture.
"I think it is a striking case of co-evolution," Erik Axelsson, a geneticist at Uppsala University told the Washington Post. "The fact that we shared a similar environment in the last 10,000 years caused a similar adaptation. And the big change in the environment was the development of agriculture."
Significant variations between the genes of domestic dogs and that of wolves include the dog's digestive ability to break down large carbohydrate molecules into sugar molecules before absorbing those molecules in the intestine.
"It is such a strong signal that it makes us convinced that being able to digest starch efficiently was crucial to dogs. It must have been something that determined whether you were a successful dog or not," said Axelsson.
What effect the genetic mutations, if any, had on dog's behavior toward humans was not discussed in the research project.
The Swedish report, however, does suggest that as the ancestors of domesticated dogs began to rely more and more on what early humans discarded, they eventually came to tolerate human contact and were taken in by early humans to be companions, workers, and guards.
The Swedish findings contradict other previous theories of how dogs evolved from wolves, including one which suggests that hunter-gatherers captured wolves, taming, breeding, and eventually settling down with them.
The debate surrounding when and how dogs evolved from wolves is a contentious subject.
Recent agricultural digs have found that dog and human remains shared the same graves at the dawn of agriculture, some 11,000 years ago.
"Pretty much everyone without an agenda agrees that we don’t really have a good handle about why wolves domesticated into dogs when they did. But it does seem reasonable, and in agreement with the fossil and genetic record, that it could have predated agriculture somewhat," said Adam Boyko, a geneticist at Cornell University who studies dog evolution.
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