Monday, March 16, 2009

Our Long History with the Wolf

It appears that many people forget that the dog has been with us for thousands of years. Humans and domesticated wolves, in Europe and apparently parts of western Asia and India, teamed up in pre-history in order to help each other survive. Each possessing traits that the other lacked. Even more-so than the horse or cat, the dog is a deep part of our history.

From the Wikipedia entry Canidae: "Canidae is the biological family of the dogs; a member of this family is called a canid. They include wolves, foxes, coyotes, and jackals. The Canidae family is divided into the "true dogs" of the tribe Canini and the "foxes" of the tribe Vulpini. The two species of the basal Caninae are more primitive and do not fit into either tribe.

"Canids and humans

"One canid, the domestic dog, long ago entered into a partnership with humans and today remains one of the most widely kept domestic animals in the world and serves humanity in a great many important ways. Most experts believe the domestic dog is descended from an Asian subspecies of the Gray Wolf.

"Among canids, only the gray wolf has been known to prey on humans. There is at least one record of a coyote killing a toddler, and two of golden jackals killing children. Some canid species have also been trapped and hunted for their fur and, especially the Gray Wolf and the Red Fox, for sport. Some canids are now endangered in the wild due to hunting, habitat loss, and the introduction of diseases from domestic dogs."

From the Wikipedia entry Gray Wolf: "The grey wolf or gray wolf (Canis lupus), also known as the timber wolf or simply wolf, is the largest wild member of the Canidae family. It is an ice age survivor originating during the Late Pleistocene around 300,000 years ago. DNA sequencing and genetic drift studies reaffirm that the gray wolf shares a common ancestry with the domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). Although certain aspects of this conclusion have been questioned, including recently, the main body of evidence confirms it. A number of other gray wolf subspecies have been identified, though the actual number of subspecies is still open to discussion. Gray wolves are typically apex predators in the ecosystems they occupy. Though not as adaptable as more generalist canid species, wolves have thrived in temperate forests, deserts, mountains, tundra, taiga, grasslands, and even urban areas.

"Though once abundant over much of Eurasia and North America, the gray wolf inhabits a very small portion of its former range because of widespread destruction of its territory, human encroachment of its habitat, and the resulting human-wolf encounters that sparked broad extirpation. Even so, the gray wolf is regarded as being of least concern for extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, when the entire gray wolf population is considered as a whole. Today, wolves are protected in some areas, hunted for sport in others, or may be subject to extermination as perceived threats to livestock and pets.

"In areas where human cultures and wolves are sympatric, wolves frequently feature in the folklore and mythology of those cultures, both positively and negatively."

From the Wikipedia entry Dog: "The dog (Canis lupus familiaris), is a domesticated subspecies of the gray wolf, a member of the Canidae family of the order Carnivora. The term is used for both feral and pet varieties. The domestic dog has been one of the most widely kept working and companion animals in human history.

"The domestication of the gray wolf took place in a handful of events roughly 15,000 years ago in central Asia. The dog quickly became ubiquitous across culture in all parts of the world, and was extremely valuable to early human settlements. For instance, it is believed that the successful emigration across the Bering Strait might not have been possible without sled dogs. As a result of the domestication process, the dog developed a sophisticated intelligence that includes unparalleled social cognition and a simple theory of mind that is important to their interaction with humans. These social skills have helped the dog to perform in myriad roles, such as hunting, herding, protection, and, more recently, assisting handicapped individuals. Currently, there are estimated to be 400 million dogs in the world.

"Interactions with humans

"Domestic dogs inherited a complex social hierarchy and behaviors from their ancestor, the wolf. Dogs are pack animals with a complex set of behaviors related to determining each dog's position in the social hierarchy, and they exhibit various postures and other means of nonverbal communication that reveal their states of mind. These sophisticated forms of social cognition and communication may account for their trainability, playfulness, and ability to fit into human households and social situations, and these attributes have earned dogs a unique relationship with humans despite being potentially dangerous apex predators.

"Although experts largely disagree over the details of dog domestication, it is agreed that human interaction played a significant role in shaping the subspecies. Shortly after domestication, dogs became ubiquitous in human populations, and spread throughout the world. Emigrants from Siberia likely crossed the Bering Strait with dogs in their company, and some experts suggest that use of sled dogs may have been critical to the success of the waves that entered North America roughly 12,000 years ago. Dogs were an important part of life for the Athabascan population in North America, and were their only domesticated animal. Dogs also carried much of the load in the migration of the Apache and Navajo tribes 1,400 years ago. Use of dogs as pack animals in these cultures often persisted after the introduction of the horse to North America.


"Dogs have lived and worked with humans in so many roles that they have earned the unique nickname, "man's best friend", a phrase which is used in other languages as well. They have been bred for herding livestock, hunting (e.g.,pointers, hounds), keeping living spaces clear of rats, guarding, helping fishermen with nets, and pulling loads, in addition to their roles as companions.

"More recently, dogs have taken on a number of roles under the general classification of service dogs, which provide assistance to individuals with physical or mental disabilities. Service dogs include guide dogs, utility dogs, assistance dogs, hearing dogs, and psychological therapy dogs. Some dogs owned by epileptics have even been shown to alert their handler when the handler shows signs of an impending seizure, sometimes well in advance of onset, allowing the owner to seek safety, medication or medical care."

For further reading: 'Evolution and Cognition', Wolfgang M. Schleidt/Michael D. Shalter, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 1, 'Co-evolution of Humans and Canids: An Alternative View of Dog Domestication: Homo Homini Lupus?'

BBC Wildlife Special: Wolves (YouTube) - Wolves today are surprisingly misunderstood. This documentary gives us a fascinating but very real insight into the tough lives that wolves must endure to survive in the wild. Narrated by David Attenborough.

Part 1 of 5
Part 2 of 5
Part 3 of 5
Part 4 of 5
Part 5 of 5

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