Dogs: Fact or fiction?

Steve Harris investigates the fascinating myths and folklore that surround the true story of the rise and rise of the canid family.

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The myths and folklore that surround the true story of the rise and rise of the dog family are fascinating. Here's how to tell fact from fiction.

In the beginning
The first canids appeared about 40 million years ago in what’s now the USA; they soon radiated to produce a number of species adapted to the fast pursuit of prey. Their descendants spread into Eurasia some 8 million years ago over the (since vanished) land bridge across what’s now the Bering Sea.
Cry wolf
Between 1.5 and 2 million years ago, several species of wolf stalked Europe and North America. The largest was the dire wolf, which evolved about 1.8 million years ago, colonising substantial parts of North and South America.
For around 100,000 years it co-existed with the grey wolf Canis lupus, the animal we recognise today, but it was bigger – growing to 1.5m long and 110kg – and hunted very large prey. It disappeared 10,000 years ago, possibly because it was unable to hunt the smaller, faster prey remaining when the prehistoric megafauna died out.
Variety packs
Canids have adapted to diverse habitats around the world. For example, the long legs and pacing gait of the maned wolf – South America’s largest canid – are ideal for moving through tall grass, while its large ears enable it to pinpoint small prey.
However, the bush dog, mostly found near rivers in Latin America, has partially webbed feet, a compact body and short legs – possibly an adaptation for pursuing prey through dense cover.
And Darwin’s fox is a small, dark species, suited to the dense forests of Chiloé Island, Chile.
From wild to mild
Domestication of canids – originally, wolves – may have been quicker than previously believed. A recent study using captive silver foxes showed that selectively breeding from the tamest cubs in each litter rapidly produced very docile animals.
After 40 generations many no longer even looked like foxes: they had short or curly tails, floppy ears, shorter faces and jaws, and unusually coloured fur, often white – all features that distinguish pet dogs from wolves. They also lost their foxy smell.
Foxy folklore
Stories about were-foxes and other canids assuming human form are common in European, Japanese and North American folklore; many myths involve men having affairs with vixens.
Several tribes in Siberia and North America tell the story of a vixen entering a hunter’s house and removing her skin to become a beautiful woman and thereby marry the man. Sadly, nuptial bliss was short-lived. The hunter complained about his wife’s unpleasant smell; her feelings hurt, she changed back into vulpine form and ran away.
The real Jungle Book
Stories of children reared by wolves are widespread, the most famous being that of Romulus and Remus – legendary founders of Rome – and The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. Far-fetched?
Well, in 1920 an Indian missionary named JAL Singh documented the case of two girls apparently reared by wolves; Amala and Kamala were estimated to be 18 months and 8 years old when reclaimed. Amala died soon after being found, while Kamala was incapable of speech; instead she howled. She also walked on all fours, lapped water like a dog and carried things in her mouth.
Coyote the creator
In America, the coyote replaced the red fox in the mythology of the plains and south-western tribes, though with the same complex character. In various tribal stories, coyote was the creator of people, the bringer of fire and daylight, and the progenitor of human art. In others he was a messenger, lover, magician and – of course – a trickster, often noble but definitely wily.
Dog Latin
The phrase ‘dog days of summer’ comes from an ancient Roman belief that the dog star Sirius, being close to the sun, caused sultry summer days. The origin of the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’ is less clear: it may have been because in medieval times heavy rain flushed dead dogs and cats out of gutters to be carried away by flood waters.
  • Arctic foxes are so well adapted to the cold that they are thermally neutral at temperatures down to -40°C, and can survive temperatures as low as -80°C.
  • Some 13–16 million dogs are eaten each year in Asia, notably in China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Korea, though the sale of dog meat has been illegal in South Korea since 1984.
To view our pet dog photo contest, click here.
To see our African wild dog photo gallery, click here
To read our feature on black-backed jackals, click here.
To read more about the grey wolf, click here


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