While there are those who feel that the study of genetics takes all the fun out of life’s mysteries, others disagree and point out that the “fun” is just beginning with each surprising revelation.
One such discovery caught researchers off guard when they learned that completely unexpected breeds were among the most ancient descendents of dogs’ wolf-like ancestors. Admittedly, finding that the Basenji, Saluki, Afghan Hound, Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky and Samoyed were in this group wasn’t the “wow” moment, but realizing that the Lhasa Apso, Pekingese, Shar-Pei, and Shih Tzu also showed the closest genetic relationship to the wolf ancestors of dogs, was.
Research was lead by the highly respected Elaine A. Ostrander, and with the help of the AKC and dog breeders from across the country, cheek-swabs were acquired from purebred dogs at dog shows and directly from owners.
“While we only analyzed eighty-five breeds of the hundreds of recognized breeds, those eighty-five included the great majority of popular breeds,” said Ostrander. “Just the top 20 breeds, which include the Labrador Retriever, the German Shepherd and the Dachshund, account for about seventy percent of all AKC registrations.”
To compare the breeds, the researchers analyzed the DNA samples from the cheek-swabs for subtle differences in genetic signposts, called microsatellite loci, among the dogs. The analysis covered 414 dogs from the 85 breeds studied. The first significant finding was that the different breeds were quite genetically distinct. Dogs of a particular breed were much more similar to each other than they were to dogs of different breeds. The differences were so distinct that scientists could just feed a dog’s genetic pattern into the database, and the computer could match it to a breed.
In the case of the Pekingese, the breed doesn’t resemble a wolf phenotypically, but generations of breeders holding to a set look make the Peke among the least changed breeds of dogs at the level of their DNA. Ironically, it wasn’t a wolf, but the lion that early breeders wanted to mimic. The lion is an important animal in Buddhism, but by the Han Dynasty, actual Asiatic lions were extinct, and the Chinese had only highly stylized carvings to guide them in picturing what a lion looked like. Ultimately, the Chinese concept of a lion resembled a dog more than anything, and thus, many breeds, including the Tibetan mastiff, the Lhasa Apso and the Pekingese, were all bred to resemble this re-imagined animal rather than an actual big cat. As personalities go, however, the Pekingese kept its wolf-like attitude, and imperial breeders made no effort to breed the trait out.