Modern sled dogs share ancient Siberian roots and represent a distinct genetic lineage that likely emerged as the final glacial remnants of the last ice age subsided nearly 10,000 years ago, according to a new study.
The researchers say their findings, from a genetic study of modern and ancient Arctic dogs, reveal the antiquity of Arctic-adapted breeds such as the Greenland sled dog, Alaskan Malamute and Husky, and highlight their importance to human survival.
“Our results imply that the combination of these dogs with the innovation of sled technology facilitated human subsistence since the earliest Holocene in the Arctic,” they write in a paper in the journal Science.
The study was led by Mikkel-Holder Sinding from the University of Copenhagen and involved researchers from Denmark, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, the UK and the Netherlands.
Archaeological evidence from eastern Siberia suggests that, similar to today, ancient Arctic dogs were used to pull sleds, facilitating long-distance travel and transportation of resources across frozen landscape. However, little was known about the modern sled dog’s ancient genetic and evolutionary past.
Sinding and colleagues sequenced the genomes of 10 modern Greenland sled dogs, an ancient 9500-year-old Siberian sled dog and a roughly 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf and compared them to a host of other modern dog genomes to assess the genetic origin of the Arctic sled dog.
This revealed the ancient Siberian dog as a common ancestor to modern sled dog breeds – particularly Greenland sled dogs, which, due to their isolated populations, can trace more direct genomic ancestry to ancient sled dogs.
While the results indicate gene flow from Siberian Pleistocene wolves, unlike many other dog breeds, the authors found no significant admixture between any sled dog – modern or ancient – and American-Arctic wolves, suggesting a roughly 9500-year genetic continuity in Arctic dog breeds.
The researchers also found several convergent adaptations in Arctic dogs, including one that allowed sled dogs to eat the fat-rich and starch poor diets of their human counterparts.
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