At the time, though, DNA analysis was needed to make certain that the fossil came from an ancestor of man’s best friend. A paper published today in the journal PLOS ONE confirms that fact, indicating that the creature was more closely related to modern dogs than wolves, and forcing scientists to reconsider the dog’s evolutionary family tree.
To come to the finding, a team led by Anna Druzhkova of the Russian Academy of Sciences sequenced mitochondrial DNA taken from one of the skull’s teeth. This type of genetic material comes from an organelle inside each cell called the mitochondria, which has a distinct type of DNA that’s separate from the cell’s normal chromosomes. For each individual, mitochondrial DNA is inherited directly from one’s mother without any modifications and thus remains relatively constant over generations, except for the gradual effect of mutations. Similarities found in such DNA collected from various animals helps scientists understand the evolutionary relationships between species.
The research team compared their sample of mitochondrial DNA from the ancient skull with samples from 70 different modern breeds of dog, along with 30 different wolf and 4 different coyote DNA samples. Their analysis found that the fossil’s DNA didn’t match any of the other samples perfectly, but most closely resembled the modern dog breeds, sharing the most similarities with Tibetian Mastiffs, Newfoundlands and Siberian Huskies in particular.