ScienceShot: Wolf's Sharp Eye May Have Aided Dog Domestication

Peter Kaut

ScienceShot: Wolf's Sharp Eye May Have Aided Dog Domestication

Humans may have domesticated dogs from a possibly extinct population of gray wolves in Europe some 18,000 years ago. But how did they do it? A new study in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that part of the answer lies in wolves’ innate social skills. To find out if wolves, like dogs, can learn by watching humans, the scientists tested 11 hand-raised North American gray wolf pups and 14 mixed breed dog puppies between the ages of 5 and 7 months old. All the animals were born in captivity and hand-raised in packs at the Wolf Science Center in Game Park Ernstbrunn, Austria. Like the dog pups, the young wolves were most likely to find a hidden treat in a meadow if they first watched a human or specially trained dog hide it. Indeed, they were paying such close attention that they rarely bothered to search for the food if the person only pretended to hide it. Intriguingly, the wolves were less likely to search for food left by the dog demonstrators—but not because they weren’t watching. More likely, the scientists say, the wolves were such keen observers that they also noticed that the dogs did not enjoy holding the food, a dead chick, in their mouths, and sometimes spit it out. So the wolves may have decided the treat was unappetizing and resolved against searching for it. The tests show that Fido’s skill at learning from humans and other species didn’t emerge through domestication, the scientists say, but rather built on what was already present in the ancestral wolf: the eye of an observer and a willingness to learn from others.

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