After studying it, they aren’t sure whether the ‘amazingly well-preserved’ creature (with a full set of teeth) is a dog or wolf – possibly because it comes from the point where dogs were domesticated.
Love Dalén, 44, and his colleague Dave Stanton, 34, believe it could be the earliest confirmed dog. If true, it could be invaluable in teaching us about when wolves were domesticated.
Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics, said:
It was amazingly well preserved even before they cleaned it up. [When we found it] we didn’t know how old it was. They said they found it in the permafrost but it happens that things get frozen in there that are only a few hundred years old or even a few decades.
We were excited about it but we had a healthy dose of scepticism until we radiocarbon dated it. Obviously when we got the results that it was 18,000 years old, that changes everything. When we got that result it was amazing. 18,000 years ago is an interesting time period where we think a lot of stuff is happening with both wolves and dogs genetically.
We cannot separate it from a modern wolf, Pleistocene [Ice Age] wolf or dog. One reason why it might be difficult to say is because this one is right there at the divergence time. So it could be a very early modern wolf or very early dog or a late Pleistocene wolf.
The specimen was found in a remote part of north-east Siberia a couple of hours from the nearest town Belaya Gora and remains in Russia while Dalén and Stanton study its rib bone back in Sweden.
According to Stanton, the dog was so well preserved because it was uncovered in a tunnel dug into the permafrost. For the researchers, it’s exciting they ‘might be able to contribute to something that’s been quite a big debate in the field for a long time’.
I feel fairly nervous about messing something up in the lab. You don’t want to screw it up. It seems that dogs were domesticated from a lineage of wolves that went extinct. So that’s why it’s such a difficult problem to work on to understand where and when dogs were domesticated.
If you want to find the answer to that you need to look at ancient samples because the population they were domesticated from doesn’t appear to be around anymore. It’s specimens like this that could help clear that up but we don’t have the results yet to speculate on that.
While its spine and ribs being exposed wasn’t ideal, he said it’s still ‘amazing… to see, touch and feel the history of Earth’.
Just imagine, this puppy has been lying underground in the same pose and condition for 18,000 years without being disturbed at all. I really carefully removed the dirt and other debris stuck to its body step by step, revealing a wonderful condition fur which is extremely rare for animals of that time period.