Wolves: Part Two; Myths about origin and nature

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For years people thought dogs were just tamed wolves. Some still refer to them as “domestic wolves.” Many still believe that today’s poodle used to be a wolf. New science has determined that though they shared a common ancestor, the Taimyr wolf, dogs were not wolves. Dogs are social, but are not pack animals, and they do not live in a pack society. They can be domesticated and can make great pets. Wolves, on the other hand, live in packs, or, clans, led by Mom and Dad, a matriarch and a patriarch. They can be friendly, but will never be domesticated!Wolves are not Dogs!

When it comes to dogs, the jury is still out on whether we domesticated dogs or they domesticated us. The dog’s ancestor eventually became a dog because he left the ecological niche his ancestor may have shared with the wolf’s ancestors more than 50,000 years ago. The domestic dog evolved in a totally different environment than the wolf. Their genetic similarity means about as much (or as little) as our similarity to various apes means. Remember that dogs are not tame or domesticated wolves The domestic dog evolved in a totally different environment than the wolf.

Canine bones were discovered in Taimyr Peninsula, Siberia. Whole genome sequencing indicates that the dog, the gray wolf and the extinct Taymyr wolf diverged at around the same time, 27,000–50,000 years ago and Proto-dog did not become wolves. The emergence of man’s best friend is pretty straightforward. The first dogs descended from wolves in Europe (the extinct Taymyr wolf) and it was revealed that the Taimyr wolf’s genome was equally related to both dogs and wolves. Humans domesticated those proto-dogs, or they domesticated humans, until the eventual animal known as a “dog” had many of the traits we associated with the animal today.

The beautiful thing about science is that it is self correcting and marches forward and today’s science seems to support the theory that dogs approached humans first, creating a symbiotic relationship with us that contributed to the survival of both species.

When it comes to wolves, this may surprise you. Even if we could apply what we know about wolves to dogs, or dogs to wolves, the fact is that we don’t know very much about wolves. Indeed, much has been published about wolves – books, articles, documentaries on television – and most of it in such an authoritative tone. Surely we must know all about them? The trouble is that most of what people pretend to know about wolves is based either on fantasy and speculation, or on insufficient data and poorly designed research.

Most of the published research on wolves has been done on captive wolves.
Scientists gather together whatever wolves are available, and they housed the wolves in an enclosure. The enclosure may be a couple of square miles; the wolves are then fed daily. Since the wolves can’t escape, the scientists can sit back and observe. There is nothing natural about imprisoned wolves watched by their jailer! They are under stress and we have no idea what they’d do if humans were not around. They don’t hunt, so they just hang out with nothing to do. The scientist has in fact taken a bunch of arbitrarily selected total strangers and shut them up in an unnaturally small amount of space, and is forcing them to live with each other in this small space for the duration of their lives whether they like it (and each other) or not.

You won’t learn much about the natural behavior of wolves by jailing a group of strangers on a tiny surface area and watching them be bored there, except maybe that they are so tolerant and social that they still don’t kill each other. Dr. L. David Mech, just about the greatest living authority on wolves, put it in a nutshell with these words: ‘Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps.’

Fossils of dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium
Fossils of dogs and wolves from Palaeolithic sites in Belgium

There are a few things we do know for sure about wolves from the few glimpses people have gotten of them living free in the forests. In the wild, a group of wolves travels a territory far too large for any human to enclose. Traveling is the main thing they do, filling their days with finding food. A natural pack is not a collection of strangers. A natural pack is a family, whose members have known each other from birth. These family members stay together voluntarily, and each and every one of them can leave at will if he does not like it anymore. They can also leave to seek out a mate and form their own family. They do not have to stay together, any more than you have to live with your own parents forever.

Even where we can get a glimpse of wolf life in the wild, we are now watching a species whose habitat has been mostly destroyed. Food is now much more scarce for them than it was a hundred years ago. So is living space. So even then, we are watching wolves whose behavior has been influenced by our presence, which has caused them a lot of problems.

Fact: The dog is not a wolf. If you want to know about dogs, you have to study dogs. You cannot use what we know about wolves to study dogs because we don’t have much knowledge about wolves in the first place. The stories that are told about them are hunters’ stories and jailers’ stories – basically all nonsense, based on myths, fantasy, imagination, speculation, projection, lies and/or poorly designed research. Sadly, it is no longer possible to study how wolves behave without some kind of human influence interfering in the picture.

From the book: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova — All Rights Reserved
Belyaev, DK, Trut, LN, Some genetic and endocrine effects of selections for domestication in silver foxes, in The Wild Canids, Fox, MW, ed., Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1975.
Belyaev, DK, Plyusnina, IZ, and Trut, LN, Domestication in the silver fox (Vulpes fulvus desm): changes in physiological boundaries of the sensitive period of primary socialization, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 13:359–70, 1984/85.
Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L, Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behaviour, and evolution, Scribner, New York, 2001.
Koler-Matznick, J, The origin of the dog revisited, Anthrozoos 15(20): 98–118, 2002.
Sibly, RM, Smith, RH, Behavioural Ecology: Ecological Consequences of Adaptive Behaviour, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford, 1985.

Read more:

Mech, LD, The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1970 (8th ed 1995).
Mech, LD, Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology
77:1196-1203. Jamestown, ND: Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Home Page.
http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/mammals/alstat/intro.htm (Version 16MAY2000).
Mowat, F. Never Cry Wolf; The Amazing True Story of Life Among Arctic Wolves, McClelland and
Stewart, Toronto, 1963.