But new research shows that when it comes to the game fetch, young wolves can be just as eager to play as are their domestic cousins. Aside from the adorable factor, the findings suggest a previously overlooked evolutionary link between wolves and dogs.
The new insights came by chance. Scientists were working on a behavioral study of 13 wolf puppies when three of the pups decided to engage is some rather unusual behavior. They started to return a ball thrown by a stranger — with a little encouragement.
Previously, scientists believed this kind of social-communicative behavior evolved in dogs after they were domesticated — but these pups’ game of fetch suggests these behaviors have an older origin.
The pups’ behavior is described in a paper published Thursday in the journal iScience.
Wolf puppies at play
That some of the pups engaged in the game spontaneously — without prior training — implies wolves can read and respond to human cues much in the same way that dogs do. It also hints that they feel motivated to engage in the behavior. Like your own pup, they may feel a sense of reward by doing so.
Animal domestication is the result of “standing” genetic variation — not just gene mutations that occur over time, the study suggests. That means that certain traits in wolves were selected for by breeders, amplifying these desirable characteristics with each new generation. Human-directed behavior, like playing fetch, may have been among the traits selected for during the process of wolves’ domestication into dogs.
During domestication, behavioral traits may have been the first to develop — even before dogs began to look different from wolves, a 2018 study suggests.
But when, how, and why humans came to domesticate their best fur friends is still a mystery.
In 2019, researchers from Sweden uncovered an 18,000-year-old puppy in the Siberian permafrost of far-east Russia.
Nicknamed Dogor, a word for friend in a local language, the surprisingly-intact pup is undergoing genetic testing to determine whether it’s a dog or a wolf. The fact that it’s not obvious from his anatomy indicates that Dogor may be from a population ancestral to both. He might even be halfway between the two — a missing link in the story of how wolves became dogs.
As science continues to teach us more about the links between wolves and dogs, the rest of us can sit back and enjoy the fact that both species have adorable puppies — and they are all Very Good Boys.
Domestication dramatically alters phenotypes across animal species. Standing variation among ancestral populations often drives phenotypic change during domestication, but some changes are caused by novel mutations. In dogs (Canis familiaris) specifically, it has been suggested that the ability to interpret social-communicative behavior expressed by humans originated post-domestication and this behavior is thus not expected to occur in wolves (Canis lupus). Here we report the observation of three 8-week-old wolf puppies spontaneously responding to social-communicative behaviors from an unfamiliar person by retrieving a ball. This behavioral expression in wolves has significant implications for our understanding and expectations of the genetic foundations of dog behavior. Importantly, our observations indicate that behavioral responses to human social-communicative cues are not unique to dogs. This suggests that, although probably rare, standing variation in the expression of human-directed behavior in ancestral populations could have been an important target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication.