Is human intrusion causing Wolves to domesticate themselves?

The Domestic dog, as we know it, varies extremely widely in shape, size, colour and temperament, resulting in breeds which don’t even closely resemble a their wild cousins, the Grey Wolf.

“Man’s best friend” has been bred to aid human’s in an incredibly diverse number of roles. Taking advantage of the natural traits and abilities of the wolves, domestic dogs are able to hunt, herd animals, protect people, defend land, provide companionship and help handicapped people.

It took thousands of years of direct human manipulation via selective breeding, to create the hundreds of breeds we have today. However, a recent study seems to imply that wolves might now be domesticating themselves, this time humans indirectly involved.

With today’s modern society increasingly encroaching on the natural world, wolves are coming into closer contact with humans, with potentially disastrous consequences for both.

A study conducted at the Deakin University in Melbourne, has been trying to discover how the Grey Wolf may be affected by eating increasing amounts of human food, instead of their natural diet. They examined studies of what happened when other large carnivores came into closer contact to people.

Studies have shown that species such as the Asiatic lion, are less aggressive when their primary food source is livestock. They are in fact so and tolerant of human’s that people can view the lion on foot, instead of inside the protection of a vehicle. But it’s not just aggressiveness which is the only trait of domestication which has been found. In Israel, studies it Red Foxes have shown that individuals which eat mostly human garbage will live longer, and have smaller home ranges. Two more traits of the domestic dog. In contrast, black bears in North America which dine on human garbage are likely to die young, because people perceive them as more of a threat and kill them.

Another study, this time into the Australian dingo, found that the wild dogs which fed upon human waste were tamer, fatter and more likely to reproduce with local domestic dogs. Perhaps most importantly, these dingoes were found to mostly breed amongst themselves, creating a genetically isolated population, distinct from the wild populations.

When considered as isolated studies these may not see particularly significant, but when viewed in association it becomes clear that all these studies have identified the favoured attributes of domestication. A tame, long lived, canid, living alongside people and breeding amongst themselves pretty much describes a domestic dog.

But is this happening to wolves? Human foods already make up 32% of gray wolf diets around the world. Wolves in Greece and Spain primarily consume domestic animals and livestock, and Iranian wolves rarely eat anything other than chickens, domestic goats, and garbage. So, based on what has happened with other carnivores, it is likely to happen with wolves too.

Ancient wolves were believed to have originally evolved into dogs in all the ways which have been described by other studies. Attracted by human waste, becoming less wary of humans, mating amongst themselves etc. It has been suggested that a “new dog” may be in the making.

In North America, the tamer individuals are known to be reproducing with the other large canid species, the Coyote. It has been that this will create a new “semi-domesticated” species, genetically distinct from the wolves who still hunt in packs, predating wild prey.

However, others have suggested that as the black bear study showed, predators which enter human areas are more likely to be killed (either deliberately or accidents, such as being hit by cars.) Added to that, wolves are very different creatures to most other species which have been well-integrated into human habitation, like the dingoes. They are a much more widely ranging animals, therefore making it much less likely to become genetically isolated from other wolf populations. That said, hybrid wolves, are becoming an increasingly popular pet, a recipe for disaster. In hybrid cat species, such as The Bengal, it has taken at least three generation of out-breeding from the wild cat to become fully domesticated. The Hybrid wolf are often first generation hybrids, making them essentially wolves. As a result, hundreds of people are attacked and severely injured, even killed, by the pet wolf they chose to view as a dog.

Whether wolves are, will or can become domesticated with no direct interference is not certain. We know it has happened at least partially before after all. However, what is certain is that wolves are best avoiding people and the areas we populate. We are dangerous to them, and they are potentially dangerous to us. A fearless pack of wolves marauding the streets is a rather chilling thought, and something we need to make efforts to avoid. The restoration of wolf habitat and increasing the availability of natural prey species is probably the best solution. Keeping wolves in areas in which humans do not live, keeping them away from any human interference, and allowing wolves to be wolves.

 

 

 

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Ben Wright

Ben Wright

I am a consultant ecologist with a special interest in protected species and birds. I have some past experience in science writing. I formally wrote a science column for a local paper, and composed a book based on the column (Science Matters) which has just been published.

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