"It's all part of the package. Morphology
and behavior go hand in hand," Brisbin says, gesturing to the lean shape
of a nearby dog snuffling through the underbrush. That sinuous, blue-heron
neck doesn't seem relevant without the pointed muzzle for stabbing at prey,
and the upright ears for sharp hearing, and the long tail with its pale
underside for signaling to the rest of the pack. Whether the Carolina dog
is an ancient holdover or a modern throwback, its shape and behavior make
a lot of evolutionary sense.
Genetics may tease out the origins of the
Carolina dog, but
so far the results are mixed. Recently, Brisbin and his colleague Travis
Glenn, a molecular geneticist at SREL, have been looking at the mitochondrial
DNA (mtDNA) of Carolina dog--the genetic material passed down through the
matemal line, and a potent gauge of relationships among animals.
When the mtDNA from Carolina dogs, dingoes,
singing dogs and a variety of domestic breeds are compared, a phylogenetic
tree-a sort of family tree showing their relationships-can be made. In
this tree, the Carolina dogs tended to clump together near the base, an
intriguing though tentative result that suggests the Carolina dogs may
possess primitive genetic traits.
"Most of the dogs coming out at the base
of the tree are Carolina dogs or dingoes," Glenn says. "If there were no
basis to the argument that Carolinas are primitive, they'd be all over
the tree, but they're grouped together." Glenn, who had initially assumed
the Carolinas were just domestic dogs, admits he was stunned when he saw
the results. "I had to go out for a beer."
Brisbin is cautious in interpreting the
results, especially since the mtDNA sequences of some domestic dogs also
grouped with the Carolinas at the base of the tree. "It's interesting that
at a preliminary stage, most all of the Carolina dogs turned out to be
primitive"-but so did boxers, German shepherds and Labrador retrievers,
among others. It will take more research to sort out
exactly what secrets are hiding in the "yafler" dog's genes.
The Carolinas are part of what Brisbin calls
"the great arc of the red
dog," the worldwide distribution of pariah canids. From
their probable point of evolution somewhere in Southwest Asia or the Middle
East, the ancestors of todays domestic dogs spread out in tandem with humans
into Africa; and southeast through Java, Australia, New
Guinea and then island-hopping through the South Pacific in rafis and canoes;
north through Korea, Japan, Siberia and then into North and South America.
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