The evolutionary lineages of modern wolves and dogs split between 27,000 and 40,000 years ago, earlier than previously thought.
Scientists reported their findings on Thursday, which are based on a bone fragment from the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. The researchers studied the bone and reconstructed its genome, writes James Gorman for The New York Times.
New species of wolves discovered
This was the first time that the genome of an ancient wolf had been constructed, and it revealed that the bone was from a new species that lived approximately 35,000 years ago. The new species has been named the Taimyr wolf.
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The genetic differences between the new species and modern wolves and dogs allowed researchers to draw a family tree, which reveals wolves and dogs split much earlier than previously thought. A 2014 study concluded that the two split between 11,000 to 16,000 years ago, but those findings have now been thrown into question.
Siberian huskies and Greenland sled dogs have in fact inherited some of their genes from the Taimyr wolf, however there are many unanswered questions due to the fact that different kinds of dogs and wolves interbred at different points in time in different locations.
New theory in contentious field of research
Study author Love Dalen, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, said that the easiest way to explain the new evidence “is that dogs were domesticated as much as 30,000 years ago.”
However he admits that this latest research does not prove that theory. Fellow author Pontus Skoglund, a research fellow at Harvard University, said, “We can’t just look at the DNA and say whether a canid was living with modern humans.”
Dr. Dalen found the bone fragment a few years ago during a trip to collect fossils of ancient mammals on the Taimyr Peninsula. Tests of the fragment revealed that it was from a wolf, and carbon dating placed it around 35,000 years old. The scientists later decided to sequence the genome, and were surprised by what they found.
However the pair are sure that their findings will be challenged. “I think it would be presumptuous to assume that it would settle anything, given how contentious the field is,” Dr. Dalen said.