This Explains Nell: Dogs Evolved Much Sooner Than Once Thought

Jim Watkins walked into the studio to find that Nell flat out stole his chair! (WTNH / Jim Watkins)

(WTNH) — If you watch our Good Morning Connecticut newscast on News 8 — and you really should, it’s quite good — you know that my co-anchor Ali Reed’s dog has become something of a star.

Nell joins us a few days each week, and is one cool television customer; she kicked it up a notch today when I got up from my anchor seat for a moment, and found her comfortably perched upon it by the time I got back.  Clearly she thought that my earlier mistaken on-air reference to this weekend as the “Labor Day” holiday left me vulnerable.

Or maybe she heard the latest news about the evolution of her species; namely, that it began thousands of years sooner than previously thought.  Up until now, it was estimated domesticated dogs split from their prehistoric wolf ancestors about 16-thousand years ago (ALL dogs evolved from wolves…ponder that next time your spot a chihuahua).  But a new study indicates canines kicked off their role as caveman’s best friend as far back as 40-thousand years.

The report published in Current Biology is based on researchers’ findings in a remote part of Russia.  Melting permafrost exposed 35-thousand-year-old remains of a wolf, from which they were able to extract DNA.  The comparison of that genome with those of current wolves and dogs turned the clock way back on when ancient wolves began the evolutionary split that led to dogs.  Even though domestication came some time after that, it’s likely it began long before humans started farming, roughly 10-thousand years ago — long before pigs, cattle and chicken were domesticated.

That’s noteworthy, because dogs don’t have the same utilitarian purposes as those animals.  In other words, the expression “man’s best friend” may be scientifically more accurate than we’d ever thought; that dogs and different dog breeds evolved out of a human need for companionship with them.  As one University of California evolutionary geneticist said in response to the new research, “There’s something there we don’t quite understand yet.  Dogs were fundamentally important to humans in a way that other animals weren’t.”

And judging by Anchor Dog Nell — or by how much love you have for your family’s dog — they still are.


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