Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Are We Still Domesticating the Wolf?

Credit: karlumbriaco/Adobe

Credit: karlumbriaco/Adobe

By Thomas Newsome

Modern wolves are being drawn to human sources of food, with serious implications for their evolution and conservation, as well as for ecosystems and humans communities in general.

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The grey wolf was the first animal domesticated by humans. The descendants of these wolves walk on leads, herd our sheep and sit on our sofas – they are the dogs we keep as pets today.

The timing of wolf domestication is hotly debated. Some scientists place dog origins around 40–50,000 years ago; others place it around 12–16,000 years ago.

As for where it all began? That’s up for debate too. Proposed locations include the Middle East and other areas in Europe and Asia.

The where and when are yet to be agreed upon, and the “how” is also unclear. One theory is that founder groups of wolves became attracted to food waste on the edge of human settlements. Gradually, these less fearful wolves became separated from the wild populations, and distinct population clusters formed. Once people had direct contact with these wolves, they were kept as pets and/or used as guardian dogs and hunting tools. As time went on, humans began selectively breeding these wolves for desirable traits such as decreased flight behaviour and increased sociality, which are trademarks of tameness today.

Eventually, people established complete control over the mating process and, in effect, the wolf became the dog. There are now one billion domestic dogs on Earth, with a near-global distribution.

But what does historic wolf domestication have to do with wolves that...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.