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Remaking the Dire Wolf

28 Aug

Humans have been breeding dogs for at least 7,000 years, possibly as much as 30,000. During that time we’ve accomplished the most dramatic artificial selection known to history. From the utilitarian body plan of gray wolves we’ve expanded the species to include sleek whippets, pixie papillons, and stodgy bulldogs. We’ve even super-sized the creatures. The mastiff can weigh in more than a full-grown man.

The American Alsatian is another of these super-sized dogs. It’s not quite as big as a mastiff – the largest weigh only about 120 pounds – but its an intimidating animal. The dogs are have an intense profile, a massive stocky body, and a certain wolf-like stare to them.

Fetch?

And that’s exactly how they’re supposed to be, because the American Alsatian is more than a breed. It’s an experiment to see if artificial selection can go beyond domestication. If the breeders are successful, their dogs will be the closest living thing to a real live dire wolf.

The group is known as Dire Wolf Project, an offshoot of the National American Alsatian Breeder’s Club. Dire wolves (Canis dirus), a larger, stockier cousin to the extent gray wolf, once ranged throughout North and South America. They were the heaviest canids to ever exist, but went extinct along the other great megafauna roughly 10,000 years ago. The project was started in 1987 by a dog breeder named Lois Denny. She started the line with an Alaskan Malamute and a German Shephard, eventually working in other breeds such as English Mastiffs and Great Pyrenees. Their stated goal is to recreate the body plan and skeletal features of the extinct animal.

It’s worth noting that, since modern dogs are not actually related or descended from dire wolves, the American Alsatian is not recreating the animal. That would need some form of direct ancestry. All breeding has taken place through domesticated dogs. Furthermore, the breeders have placed a high priority on an easily trained, calm animal, not a wild one. Animals were selected not only for their look, but also calm temperaments.

On the one hand, this is an intelligent practicality, no one would want to own a large, unreliable animal. On the other, it is also somewhat admitting our own lack of knowledge. The social structure of dire wolves is mostly unknown. Most scientists assume they hunted in packs, but this isn’t known for sure. And without a living true specimen, we can never know for certain.

Nevertheless, it is hoped that the convergent body plans may help illuminate how real dire wolves would have grown, run, or hunted.

Sources: The Dire Wolf Project

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2 Comments

Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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2 responses to “Remaking the Dire Wolf

  1. Kati

    September 4, 2012 at 10:19 am

    This is a fascinating project, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the possibility that they may be impeding their own progress in creating the wild physical features by also selecting for the domesticated behavioral features. The long-term project on domesticating silver foxes (here’s a review: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19260016; although I seem to remember you covered this once?) suggests that there may be some interaction between temperament and physical characteristics, the idea being that some levels of hormones that are linked with a mellow temperament will also affect the body shape. It would be very interesting to see if this can be uncoupled in the Dire Wolf Project.

     
  2. Lois

    October 1, 2012 at 7:14 am

    you are so correct Kati, and it will be interesting to see what happens

     

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