New Canine Family Tree Shows Where Your Mutt Came From

By Ashley Tyler

If there was an option for your dog, you'd probably be surprised at what you'd find.

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While you might not actually be able to look back at your dog's ancestors and distant relatives online, the largest analysis of dog DNA sheds some light on how different dog breeds came to be.

According to an article published in Science magazine, there are about 350 different dog breeds around today. Each breed has different valuable traits and behaviors, but until now there was hardly any information circulating regarding the actual creation of each breed. And that's where Elaine Ostrander and Heidi Parker, geneticists at the National Human Genome Research Institute in Maryland, come in.

group of dogs
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The women and their colleagues spent over 20 years traveling to all corners of the globe attending dog shows and working with breed specific dog organizations to collect DNA samples from over 1,346 dogs representing 161 breeds. While that is only about half of the breeds in existence today, it is a massive undertaking that is driving the animal research community wild. Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, called the project "impressive" and a "tour-de-force on breed evolution."

New Canine Family Tree Shows Where Your Mutt Came From
credit: Science Mag

Using their data along with previously collected samples, Parker and Ostrander built a family tree by comparing 150,000 (out of 2.5 billion) spots on each dog's genome. What they found was that almost all the breeds they looked at fell into one of 23 larger categories called clades.

These clades group the dogs by their similar traits like those bred for strength — boxers, bulldogs, and Boston terriers, and another for the hunting dogs — retrievers, spaniels, and setters, and so on. By examining and comparing the dog's DNA to others they were able to discover how different breeds were created.

For example, one of the world's earliest small pups, the pug, shares DNA with multiple clades, which means it has long since been used to shrink other breeds. Parker goes on to use this an explanation of why pug DNA is present in numerous other small dog genomes.

Square frame of different puppies,dogs
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The women's hard work will also aid veterinarians in easily identifying possible genetic problems since they can now see which breeds a dog is closely related to. There have been times where a particular disease thought to only affect a certain breed was unexplainably present in a dog of a different family. Veterinarians now know this is due to commonly shared ancestors between the different breeds.

While Ostrander and Parker's findings are doggone amazing, both women stress that the project is only at a mid-way point and that "by no means are we done."