Canid phylogeny -- a silly enquiry

Timothy S. Ross rosst at CGS.EDU
Tue Jan 2 23:02:57 CST 1996

I'm out of my subject area again, so I'll try to tread very lightly to
avoid eating a heckuva lotta crow later on...

        When I was growing up (a task I still haven't completed), I always
had a lot of dogs and cats and other stray or wild animals that I was
claiming and keeping as pets.  My dogs were largely mixed breed (I think
that's the politically correct way to state it) and very much "dog-like
dogs".  A little over a year ago my wife and I obtained a Saluki, in part
because I was able to convince my wife that they are a very "cat-like dog"
(a fact that she now readily acknowledges since we got a mixed breed
"dog-like dog" a few months later).
        In the intervening year my wife and I have become very intrigued
with Sighthounds in general due to their different demeanor and temperament
(these include Salukis, Sloughis, Afghan Hounds, Greyhounds, Whippets,
Scottish Deerhounds, Ibizan Hounds, Cirnecos Dell'Etna, Podengos
Portugueses, Borzois, etc.).  Because of my interest in taxonomy and
phylogeny (or at least putative phylogenetic approximations) I've been
spending a lot of time pondering the origins of sighthounds.  These breeds
supposedly can be traced back to Egyptian and Arabian Hounds of 2000-4000
years ago (the Saluki generally being regarded as the oldest recognizable
breed).  Phoenician transport of these hounds throughout the Mediterranean
region resulted in interbreeding with local dogs and, ultimately,
stabilized hybrid derivatives in such places as the Balearic Islands and
        Current propounded theory has it that all domestic dogs are
descended from wolves and wolves alone, although it is known that domestic
dogs can interbreed with several other canid species.  In Southern
California, for example, domestic dogs in heat -- especially in more rural
areas -- are sometimes raped by coyotes (Canis latrans), resulting in
morphologically intermediate pups that often have a demeanor that is more
coyote-like than dog-like.  My pet theory (if you'll pardon the pun) is
that sighthounds may have originated from wolf-dog stock with more than
just a little introgression from jackals -- most likely the black-backed
jackal or the golden jackal -- which would have been sympatric with
domesticated or semi-domesticated dogs in this Aegypto-Arabian region.  The
ancient Egyptians also seemed to have some kind of fascination with
jackals.  I think that such an origin would fairly well explain some of the
differences between sighthounds (at least the "purer" lines) and "generic
        I saw an interesting article on dog phylogeny in a scientific
magazine last year (I photocopied it, but the photocopy is lost in my
office at home).  The phylogeny seemed to be based on current assumptions
(at least as unproven as my jackal theory), and I could find no evidence in
the article that would suggest the phylogenetic tree was based on recent
        What I want to know is:  Are there any zoologists out there who are
aware of any molecular studies being done in the Canidae?  What I would
envision as a reasonable molecular study would include samples from all the
extant canid species (there is too much disagreement on generic boundaries
to tolerate only one sample from each genus), as well as samples from the
various subspecies of wolves, and samples from some of the "purer" more
isolated breeds of dogs (i.e., Salukis, Sloughis, Basenjis, Asian Pariah
Dogs, Telomians, New Guinea Singing Dogs, Dingos, Mexican Hairless Dogs,
and so forth).  My major concern with a molecular study, though, is that a
technique might be used that only traces genes in the maternal line.  In
the coyote example that I mentioned above -- if you start with wolf-dog
stock (a Samoyed, let's say), and it's raped by a coyote, and when its
daughter reaches maturity it too is raped by a coyote, and so on for ten
generations, if the molecular technique being used only perceives the
maternal lineage then you still have evidence of a wolf-dog, but all the
evidence of coyote introgression has been shrouded...
        As I mentioned at the outset, I'm WAY out of my subject area (I
guess I like to live on the edge of debilitating embarassment).  However,
I'm hoping that one of the silent readers on Taxacom can offer some
published references on phylogenetic studies in the Canidae, or can correct
one or more of my faulty assumptions, or can definitively dash my silly
jackal theory with incontrovertible hard-core evidence.

                  With apologies for my typically shameless verbosity,


Sr. Curatorial Asst.
RSA-POM Herbarium
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
1500 North College Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711, U.S.A.
(909) 625-8767 ext. 233
FAX (909) 626-7670
rosst at

"At the end of a fortnight, I fired myself for willful incompetence."
              -- Donald Culross Peattie (The Road of a Naturalist, 1941)

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