Domestic Animals and Their Wild Ancestors

Encyclopædia Britannica, first edition, art: wolf [credit: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.]

Encyclopædia Britannica, first edition, art: wolfcredit: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

The domestication of wild animals, beginning with the dog, heavily influenced human evolution. These creatures, and the protection, sustenance, clothing, and labor they supplied, were key factors that allowed our nomadic ancestors to form permanent settlements. Though to many urbanites livestock are as distant a part of reality as country music, without them, humans would never have been able to form cities at all. Take a look at the organisms that gave rise to some of our present animal companions.

Gray wolf

gray wolfcredit: © Jeff Lepore/Photo Researchers

The gray wolf (Canis lupus) is thought by most scientists to have given rise to the domestic dog, a key event in the evolution of our species that may have occurred as early as 32,000 years ago and certainly by 14,000 years ago. Some scientists, however, have posited, due to a number of morphological differences between dogs and wolves, that dogs may actually be descended from an extinct wild ancestor that likely resembled contemporary pariah dogs and dingoes. Whatever its origins, the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by early humans.

Domestic dog

Chihuahuacredit: ©

Millenia of puppy love have generated more than 400 breeds of domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris), ranging from the wolfish, robust Siberian husky to the shrieking, guinea-pig adjacent chihuahua. Research on the origin of dogs, and on their unique, sympatric relationships with humans, is ongoing. Now if someone would only figure out why LOLCats have such an edge over similar canine memes


bezoarcredit: © iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The second species of wild animal to be selectively bred by humans was the bezoar, or wild goat (Capra aegagrus). These spry, wirey ungulates might not seem like the best candidates for domestication at first blush, but their ability to turn sparse vegetation into hides, meat, and milk likely made the effort worth the while to settlers of the Fertile Crescent, who first bred them as early as 11,000 years ago. Generations of lonely goatherds ensued.


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