How American dogs disappeared and left a contagious cancer behind

A 10,000-year-old dog burial at the Koster site in western Illinois.    
        
        Del Baston courtesy Center for American Archeology

The history of domesticated dogs in Canada is not as fluffy and cuddly as you might expect, according to a study published today in Science that explores the origins of our favourite furry friends.

"By looking at genomic data along with mitochondrial data, we were able to confirm that dogs came to the Americas with humans, and that almost all of that diversity was lost - most likely as a result of European colonization", Kelsey Witt, who led the mitochondrial DNA genome research as a graduate student at the University of IL, said in a news release. "But modern dogs don't have that ancient American dog DNA left in them". This defies the popular notion that American dogs had evolved from North American wolves.

The first humans to populate the Americas arrived from Siberia via the Bering land bridge around 16,000 years ago. Maya would be able to explain what this disease is and what it means for dogs today.

"It is known how indigenous peoples of the Americas suffered from the genocidal practices of European colonists after contact", Malhi said.

The team found that it's likely that ancient dogs migrated from Siberia alongside humans. This breed, referred to in the study as the pre-contact dogs, would have been entirely wiped out if not for a gene that survived not as a dog but a canine tumor that has now spread worldwide. These already domesticated dogs likely followed their human counterparts to this new land and all across the region. But it's probably a combination of things, she added. Europeans might have simply preferred to only breed and sustain the dogs they brought over from their homelands.

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Impressively, the cancer still has the primogenitor's genes, which researchers discovered likely originated from Asia and then got to America through the first dogs that migrated a couple of millennia ago. Colonists may have killed the native dogs because they viewed them as pests or to prevent them from sullying the bloodlines of their own dogs, which were used for herding, hunting and protection. Just five of the modern samples contained even a hint of ancient dog - at most 4 percent. He noted that we had only sequenced the nuclear DNA of three other ancient dogs until now.

The indigenous dogs did appear to leave a genetic legacy: a rare dog cancer known as canine transmissible venereal tumor, or CTVT, that affected a single dog several thousand years ago.

Elaine Ostrander, chief of the cancer genetics and comparative genomics branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute, tells Wei-Haas, "It's the world's oldest continuously propagated cell line, which is really, really remarkable".

Savolainen, who is unaffiliated with the current study, notes that his and others' research has shown that certain breeds, such as the Carolina dogs, do seem to lack numerous genetic markers found in European-descended dogs. The site contains the earliest dog remains found in the Americas.

"It is fascinating that a population of dogs that inhabited many parts of the Americas for thousands of years, and that was an integral part of so many Native American cultures, could have disappeared so rapidly", Laurent Frantz, study co-author and evolutionary geneticist at Queen Mary University of London, said in a statement. This dog wasn't a giant, wolf-like creature as most would expect all ancient dogs to be, Perrisaid.

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