Meet Dogor, an 18,000-year-old pup unearthed in Siberian permafrost whose name means “friend” in the Yakut language. The remains of the prehistoric pup are puzzling researchers because genetic testing shows it’s not a wolf or a dog, meaning it could be an elusive ancestor of both.
Locals found the remains in the summer of 2018 in a frozen lump of ground near the Indigirka River, according to the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk. Parts of the animal are incredibly well-preserved, including its head, nose, whiskers, eyelashes and mouth, revealing that it still had its milk teeth when it died. Researchers suggest the animal was just two months old when it passed, though they do not know the cause of death.
The pup is so well-preserved that researchers at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Sweden were able to sequence the animal’s DNA using a piece of rib bone. The results found that Dogor was male, but even after two rounds of analysis the team could not determine whether he was a dog or a wolf.
“It’s normally relatively easy to tell the difference between the two,” David Stanton, a Centre for Palaeogenetics research fellow, tells Amy Woodyatt at CNN. “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 might suggest that it’s from a population that was ancestral to both—to dogs and wolves.”
The find is exciting, regardless of whether Dogor turns out to be a common canine ancestor, an early dog, or an early wolf. Hannah Knowles at The Washington Post reports that Dogor comes from an interesting time in canine evolution, when wolf species were dying out and early dogs were beginning to emerge.
“As you go back in time, as you get closer to the point that dogs and wolves converge, [it becomes] harder to tell between the two,” Stanton tells Knowles.
The history of just how and when dogs split from wolves is unresolved. There’s a general agreement among scientists that modern gray wolves and dogs split from a common ancestor 15,000 to 40,000 years ago, explains Brian Handwerk previously for Smithsonian.com. How dogs became dogs, however, is contested. Some research suggests that dogs were domesticated by humans once, while other studies have found dogs were domesticated multiple times. Exactly where in the world wild canines became man’s best friend is also disputed. The origin of the human-animal bond has been traced to Mongolia, China and Europe.
Scientists disagree about how dogs ended up paired with people, too. Some suspect humans captured wolf pups and actively domesticated them. Others suggest that a strain of “friendly,” less aggressive wolves more or less domesticated themselves by hanging out near humans, gaining access to their leftover food.
Dorgor’s DNA could help unravel these mysteries. The team plans to do a third round of DNA testing that may help definitively place Dogor in the canine family tree, report Daria Litvinova and Roman Kutuko at the Associated Press.
It’s also possible that researchers may soon have more samples to work with. Sergei Fyodorov, a researcher at North-Eastern Federal University, tells the AP that climate change is affecting the Siberian permafrost, meaning people are finding more and more ancient creatures unthawing. Demand for mammoth tusks in China, where it is used in place of elephant ivory, has also led to more rare finds in Siberia. In 2016, a 12,400-year-old puppy that still had its brain, heart, lungs and stomach intact was found near the same region as Dogor in the village of Tumat.
If Dogor is indeed a dog, that would make him the oldest ever found, reports George Dvorsky at Gizmodo. Currently, the oldest known dog is the Bonn-Oberkassel puppy, whose 14,200-year-old remains were found in a quarry in Germany in 1910 next to what researchers suspect were its human companions.