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New Project Looks to Find When and How Dogs and People Became BFFs

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Despite spending a few millennia as BFFs, no one is quite sure how the relationship between dogs and humans began. A new project at the University of Oxford hopes to gather a vast database of ancient DNA samples and skeletal remains to find out when dogs exited the packs of prehistoric wolves to try their luck alongside human companions.

According to The New York Times, Dr. Greger Larson, a biologist in Oxford’s archaeology department, has solicited samples, data, and input from nearly every prominent researcher in dog genetics for the massive project, funded with $2.5 million from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the European Research Council. He hopes the endeavor begins producing research papers this year.

Larson (who’s also charted man’s storied bond with chickens) says dog genetics are a “tomato soup” of murky ingredients. It’s assumed that dogs descended from wolves about 30,000 years ago, but centuries of human meddling through results-driven breeding, and the interbreeding between wolves and dogs, have made it difficult for researchers to determine exactly why, when, and where this all happened. The hope is that DNA and skull remains might be able to reveal some “missing link” between dogs and wolves.

Archeological evidence shows that humans were burying dogs along with their own dead 14,000 years ago, implying a close relationship. There are currently two theories as to how domestication began: People captured wolf cubs and raised them as pets, or wolf packs began scavenging at human settlements and developed a parasitic relationship with people. Once select wolves realized that displaying sad eyes was an easier way to get a bit of caribou carcass than duking it out with another beast, the road to dog pants was paved.

As for why he’s tracking down the starting point of the human/dog bond, Larson says that it can tell us a lot about that stage of human development, adding, “Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment.”

[h/t: New York Times]

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Animals
Fisherman Catches Rare Blue Lobster, Donates It to Science
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Live lobsters caught off the New England coast are typically brown, olive-green, or gray—which is why one New Hampshire fisherman was stunned when he snagged a blue one in mid-July.

As The Independent reports, Greg Ward, from Rye, New Hampshire, discovered the unusual lobster while examining his catch near the New Hampshire-Maine border. Ward initially thought the pale crustacean was an albino lobster, which some experts estimate to be a one-in-100-million discovery. However, a closer inspection revealed that the lobster's hard shell was blue and cream.

"This one was not all the way white and not all the way blue," Ward told The Portsmouth Herald. "I've never seen anything like it."

While not as rare as an albino lobster, blue lobsters are still a famously elusive catch: It's said that the odds of their occurrence are an estimated one in two million, although nobody knows the exact numbers.

Instead of eating the blue lobster, Ward decided to donate it to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye. There, it will be studied and displayed in a lobster tank with other unusually colored critters, including a second blue lobster, a bright orange lobster, and a calico-spotted lobster.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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