CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock

How Did Wolves Evolve into Man's Best Friend?

Original image
ThinkStock

By Chris Gayomali

Implausible as it may seem, your harmless little maltipoo puppy descended from a fearsome line of bloodthirsty wolves. And thanks to a new discovery, scientists now have a better idea of how exactly that happened.

Comparing dog and wolf DNA, new research published inNature suggests that dogs possess an evolved set of genes that help them more effectively break down carbs and starches than their ferocious, wild ancestors. It's why our cuddly pals are more likely to go for a dog biscuit than, well, our throats. 

Combing through the genomes of 60 domestic breeds — including golden retrievers and cocker spaniels — Swedish researchers discovered that dogs have a much easier time converting starches into glucose than modern wolves. This means that at some point in dogs' evolutionary history, packs of wild canids struck up a mutually beneficial relationship with early humans, and learned to subsist on people food — stuff like wheat, barley, corn, rice, and potatoes. In exchange, man earned himself a loyal friend and fierce protector.  

"I think it is a striking case of co-evolution," Erik Axelsson, a geneticist at Uppsala University, tells the Washington Post. "The fact that we shared a similar environment in the last 10,000 years caused a similar adaptation. And the big change in the environment was the development of agriculture."

But why did dogs and humans start hanging out in the first place? That's still a matter of contention. Some researchers think that early humans domesticated wolves they found skulking through the trash in village outskirts. Others think humans captured and raised wolf puppies early in their lives and that over time they and their offspring became tame. 

Mark Derr, author of How the Dog Became the Dog, thinks wolves started following man around when our ancestors were still nomadic. The theory goes that wolves realized that these weapon-toting, bipedal hunters were very effective killing machines, and began following them, taking whatever scraps were left over from a big kill. (Scavenging consumes less energy than hunting, the thinking goes.) Eventually, a relationship was established, and these furry creatures began to travel with us, evolving smaller skeletal frames and shorter jaws over the centuries. 

"You had populations of dog-wolves that became isolated, and in doing so, they began to inbreed," Derr tells NPR. "And when you inbreed, you get genetic peculiarities that arise, and then those peculiarities become part of the population. If they work or become popular or have some function of beauty or utility, then they were kept by the humans — and that population then spreads those through other populations through breeding."

Original image
Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
arrow
Animals
Scientists Discover 'Octlantis,' a Bustling Octopus City
Original image
Sylke Rohrlach, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Octopuses are insanely talented: They’ve been observed building forts, playing games, and even walking on dry land. But one area where the cephalopods come up short is in the social department. At least that’s what marine biologists used to believe. Now a newly discovered underwater community, dubbed Octlantis, is prompting scientists to call their characterization of octopuses as loners into question.

As Quartz reports, the so-called octopus city is located in Jervis Bay off Australia’s east coast. The patch of seafloor is populated by as many as 15 gloomy octopuses, a.k.a. common Sydney octopuses (octopus tetricus). Previous observations of the creatures led scientists to think they were strictly solitary, not counting their yearly mating rituals. But in Octlantis, octopuses communicate by changing colors, evict each other from dens, and live side by side. In addition to interacting with their neighbors, the gloomy octopuses have helped build the infrastructure of the city itself. On top of the rock formation they call home, they’ve stored mounds of clam and scallop shells and shaped them into shelters.

There is one other known gloomy octopus community similar to this one, and it may help scientists understand how and why they form. The original site, called Octopolis, was discovered in the same bay in 2009. Unlike Octlantis, Octopolis was centered around a manmade object that had sunk to the seabed and provided dens for up to 16 octopuses at a time. The researchers studying it had assumed it was a freak occurrence. But this new city, built around a natural habitat, shows that gloomy octopuses in the area may be evolving to be more social.

If that's the case, it's unclear why such octo-cities are so uncommon. "Relative to the more typical solitary life, the costs and benefits of living in aggregations and investing in interactions remain to be documented," the researchers who discovered the group wrote in a paper published in Marine and Freshwater Behavior and Physiology [PDF].

It’s also possible that for the first time in history humans have the resources to see octopus villages that perhaps have always been bustling beneath the sea surface.

[h/t Quartz]

Original image
iStock
arrow
This Just In
Criminal Gangs Are Smuggling Illegal Rhino Horns as Jewelry
Original image
iStock

Valuable jewelry isn't always made from precious metals or gems. Wildlife smugglers in Africa are increasingly evading the law by disguising illegally harvested rhinoceros horns as wearable baubles and trinkets, according to a new study conducted by wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC.

As BBC News reports, TRAFFIC analyzed 456 wildlife seizure records—recorded between 2010 and June 2017—to trace illegal rhino horn trade routes and identify smuggling methods. In a report, the organization noted that criminals have disguised rhino horns in the past using all kinds of creative methods, including covering the parts with aluminum foil, coating them in wax, or smearing them with toothpaste or shampoo to mask the scent of decay. But as recent seizures in South Africa suggest, Chinese trafficking networks within the nation are now concealing the coveted product by shaping horns into beads, disks, bangles, necklaces, and other objects, like bowls and cups. The protrusions are also ground into powder and stored in bags along with horn bits and shavings.

"It's very worrying," Julian Rademeyer, a project leader with TRAFFIC, told BBC News. "Because if someone's walking through the airport wearing a necklace made of rhino horn, who is going to stop them? Police are looking for a piece of horn and whole horns."

Rhino horn is a hot commodity in Asia. The keratin parts have traditionally been ground up and used to make medicines for illnesses like rheumatism or cancer, although there's no scientific evidence that these treatments work. And in recent years, horn objects have become status symbols among wealthy men in countries like Vietnam.

"A large number of people prefer the powder, but there are those who use it for lucky charms,” Melville Saayman, a professor at South Africa's North-West University who studies the rhino horn trade, told ABC News. “So they would like a piece of the horn."

According to TRAFFIC, at least 1249 rhino horns—together weighing more than five tons—were seized globally between 2010 and June 2017. The majority of these rhino horn shipments originated in southern Africa, with the greatest demand coming from Vietnam and China. The product is mostly smuggled by air, but routes change and shift depending on border controls and law enforcement resources.

Conservationists warn that this booming illegal trade has led to a precipitous decline in Africa's rhinoceros population: At least 7100 of the nation's rhinos have been killed over the past decade, according to one estimate, and only around 25,000 remain today. Meanwhile, Save the Rhino International, a UK-based conservation charity, told BBC News that if current poaching trends continue, rhinos could go extinct in the wild within the next 10 years.

[h/t BBC News]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios