Steve Connor: All bark and no bite in today's modified dog

Science notebook

Share
Related Topics

The Kennel Club has come in for a bit of a whipping this week over its inability to control the inbreeding of dogs which has resulted in some extreme examples of canine suffering, such as spaniels with skulls too small for their brains.

Dogs are of course a prime example of a genetically-modified organism. They bear little resemblance to their wild ancestor, the grey wolf, from which they were domesticated some 10,000 years ago. Generations of selective breeding has resulted in the range of breeds we see today, from the tiniest chihuahua to the mightiest great Dane.

Much selection in recent years has been for specific traits to improve a dog's looks or aptitude for a particular job. Earlier selection must have simply focused on choosing pups that were the most amenable to living alongside humans. This almost certainly led to the selection of "neotonised" traits, in other words those seen in young animals but lost in adulthood, such as playfulness, obedience and general naivety. So in many ways a modern adult dog is more of a wolf cub than a wolf.

One of the results has led to dogs having smaller brains than wolves. A wolf-sized dog has a brain about 10 per cent smaller than a wolf. This doesn't mean that dogs are not as smart as wolves, only that their intelligence is geared towards interacting with humans, rather than survival in the wild. Wolves, for instance, don't bark. Barking appears to have evolved as a way for dogs to communicate with their masters. Indeed, studies show that humans, even those who don't have dogs, can recognise the emotional "meaning" attached to a bark, whether the dog is for example playful, frightened or aggressive.

Foxy little experiment

This reminds me of a similar attempt to domesticate the fox, which started in 1959, using a breeding colony of Siberian foxes at a research station in Novosibirsk. Russian scientists simply chose to breed from those kits (fox cubs) that were the least fearful of humans. Forty-five years later they ended up with foxes that stare you in the face, wag their tails and whine with joy when anyone approaches.

Intelligence tests showed that the quasi-domesticated breed could even find hidden food if people indicated directions to them. They had also developed cute blue eyes for no apparent reason.

Plucked from space

While we're on the subject of faithful companions. Will Whitehorn, head of Virgin Galactic and close confidant of Richard Branson, has promised to come back with figures to back up Branson's claim that a ride into space uses the same fuel as a return business class trip to New York. Will, if you are out there, I'm still waiting.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The demise of a Sixties monster

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A CCTV camera is seen in front of a large poster opposite in central London  

Home Office is creating more powers to turn everyone into suspects – but leave us no safer

Shami Chakrabarti
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?