It’s a bird, it’s a plane … or is it a puppy or a wolf? That is the question scientists are asking after finding an 18,000-year-old frozen puppy. The fossil was found near Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia, in the permafrost. Permafrost is a thick sub-surface layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year.
Dogor’s remains were remarkably intact, with his fur and teeth clearly visible. Russian scientists discovered the pup and identified it as male by using genomic analysis – the measurement or comparison of features such as DNA sequence, gene expression, and other identifying genetic characteristics. The frozen enigma has been named “Dogor,” which is a Yakutian world for “friend.”
What is so baffling about this discovery is the fact that the puppy is from “a very interesting time in terms of wolf and dog evolution.” David Stanton, a researcher at the Centre for Palaeogenetics, said, “We don’t know exactly when dogs were domesticated, but it may have been from about that time. We are interested in whether it is in fact a dog or a wolf, or perhaps it’s something halfway between the two.”
Dogor is a mystery to scientists because he isn’t from a time period when we expect our ancestors to have played “fetch the stick” with a pet dog. In fact, it is still uncertain how dogs became what they are today. Modern dogs are thought to have been domesticated from wolves, but when this event actually happened is still unknown. In 2017, a study published in the journal Nature Communications claimed that today’s pooches were domesticated from a single population of wolves as far back as 20,000 to 40,000 years ago. However, a 2016 University of Oxford study suggested instead that dogs were independently domesticated twice, from gray wolves; once during the Paleolithic era – which was the earliest known time of human development – in Asia, and then again in Europe.
According to Stanton, it is usually relatively easy to tell the difference between dogs and wolves. “We have a lot of data from it already, and with that amount of data, you’d expect to tell if it was one or the other. The fact that we can’t [in the case of Dogor] might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both – to dogs and wolves,” he said.
Dogor the wolf-dog raises more questions than answers regarding the time of our ancestors. Did ancient humans have a dog or a wolf as man’s best friend, and exactly what role did the canines play in society at that time? It is hard to imagine humanoids playing catch when every instant was about survival, but then, perhaps that is how today’s dog actually earned the nickname of man’s best friend. Was Dogor a mix-breed of wolf and dog, able to protect and play, offering ancient man protection and a distraction from the dangers of daily life? Perhaps we will find out as scientists unravel the mystery.