The Fan Hitch PostScript
Number 7, posted
Sept. 2020
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From the Editor: The Art of Storytelling

Driving Dogs During the Golden Era of Antarctic Exploration

A Bridge of Ice

Book Review: Burnt Snow

“Arctic-adapted dogs emerged at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition”

QIMMEQ research paper podcast

New payment option: Ken MacRury’s master’s thesis

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Greenland Dogs in 1882             Image capture from Eivind Astrup - An Arctic pioneer

"Arctic-adapted dogs emerged at the Pleistocene–Holocene transition"
AAAS’s Sarah Crespi interviews lead author Dr. Mikkel Sinding
on Science Podcast,  June 25, 2020, 2:00 PM

Editor's Note: The transcript below is reprinted here by written permission of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). It is from the June 25, 2020 2:00 PM AAAS Podcast  “Stopping the spread of COVID-19, and Arctic adaptations in sled dogs”.

Please respect the following as part of The Fan Hitch’s compliance with the AAAS’s Terms and Conditions (which are not unlike our own website): “Readers may view, browse, and/or download material for temporary copying purposes  only, provided these uses are for noncommercial personal purposes. Except as provided by law, this material may not be further reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, adapted, performed, displayed, published, or sold in whole or in part, without prior written permission from the publisher." 

As it is not the only subject covered in this podcast, the time:second marks the beginning of each paragraph in this audio transcript. You may listen to the entire interview here.

12:38 SC: Next, we have an interview with Mikkel Sinding. He and his colleagues wrote this week about many specialized genes that they found in an ancient Siberian dog thought to have been used to pull sleds 10,000 years ago. His group compared the genomes of modern domesticated dogs, modern Greenland sled dogs, and an ancient Siberian wolf to find special adaptations that may have helped ancient dogs survive in the Arctic and pull sleds.
13:12 SC: My attention was captured by this paper because it was about dogs, it's about the history of dogs, the genetics of dogs, some little bits about dog domestication. Then I was reading about where the different genomes came from, and this was really awesome, I thought. So there's this island in what, Siberia, in the Arctic Circle where this jaw bone was found. Do you know how it was collected?

13:36 Mikkel Sinding: God knows how on earth they ever found this site. It's a very small island in the East Siberian Sea, which is basically the end of the world, right?

13:44 SC: Mm-hmm.

13:46 MS: Somebody at some point found archeological remains and they've been excavating there for a decade, I think, the Russian Academy of Science. And it's an amazing site because it's the first site in the world where you see people have what looks like actual dog breeding. Dogs are older than this for sure, but this is the first time you see a lot of them.

14:04 SC: The remains have been dated to what, 9500 years ago?

14:09 MS: So it's nine and a half thousand directly dated, and that is the oldest full nuclear genome of a dog to date. Initially, we had something like 10 dogs from the site. It's all about preservation and this dog was the best preserved one, and it also happened to be the oldest.
14:23 SC: There's also evidence from the site that these may have been sled dogs. What kind of evidence did they find for that?
14:31 MS: For a lot of time, people have speculated that this is probably where people were doing the first real dog sledding. They have stone tools. They come from cliffs that are more than 1000 kilometers away and they transport polar bears and reindeer and things like that, probably from very far distances to this site, and you need something to do that. People can't carry a polar bear for 1000 kilometers or whatever. This is the first site also where you have... You can tell that this was a sledge. It's relatively big sledges. This is probably pulled by something.
15:02 SC: Going back to this jaw bone, this well-preserved jaw bone from a dog from this Siberian island, what were you expecting to find when you sequenced DNA from it?

15:13 MS: We didn't know anything about what to expect genotype-wise. So, of course, we wanted to first of all find out, "What kind of dog is this?" And we honestly speculated that it would be the grand ancestor of all modern dogs because we are moving into that time frame where we're gonna have to start looking for a common ancestor of all modern dogs.

15:33 SC: Why did you include so many modern Greenland dogs in your comparison? What made you hone in on this particular breed?

15:41 MS: A lot of our funding is obtained for a project called the Qimmiq project, and Qimmiq means "dog" in Inuit. And throughout thousands of years, people in the Arctic, they have been using dogs as tools and for transportation. We know that for sure at least for 2000, 3000 years in Siberia and North America and in Greenland. We were also interested in investigating these sledge dogs that are in the world today. We really quickly found out that the genome regenerated was closest related to the modern sledge dogs. And then we went back, we went to Greenland, which is the place in the world today where you have the most still alive sledge dog culture, and we got samples from 10 dogs from across the country and included them to have some robust data of actual modern Arctic sledge dogs.
16:29 SC: When you compared these genomes, you found these relationships between the Greenland sled dogs, the Siberian dog, but you also found specific genes that were of interest that kind of suggested some Arctic adaptations. What did you see?

16:45 MS: Once we sort of figured out the bigger patterns of ancestry, and actually the sledge dogs were super unique through all dogs and wolves in the world. They had a good proportion of genes that was quite unique to them, and some of them were shared with this 10,000-year-old dog and some of them were not. But the most interesting one... So one of them, or two of them, involved in temperature sensation, so the ability to sense when temperature changed. This is actually the same group of genes that's described to be under selection in the wooly mammoth, which is an Ice Age icon that everybody knows.
17:20 SC: Why would sensing temperature or being very sensitive to temperature change be important?

17:24 MS: I guess you don't wanna freeze to death and you don't wanna overheat. Given that we have these two groups now, very different animals having the same adaptations, this must be advantageous in the Arctic. It goes a little bit further with the temperature because one of the genes is also involved in oxygen uptake, really. And we don't know for sure if that is what the sledge dogs are doing with it, so we haven't had the ability to test for sure exactly how it works in the dogs. But we know from all the literature that these genes have other roles, so it might also be involved in their ability to take in oxygen. Which would make sense, because sledge dogs are pulling a sled so they're running with heavy load.

18:05 SC: In addition to this group of genes that you just talked about that relate to temperature sensitivity and maybe oxygen use, you found another oxygen-related gene that's under selection pressure in sled dogs that's also been found under selection pressure in certain people?

18:21 MS: So there's another gene that you actually see in a group of humans, which we also think could be related to oxygen. And that's seen in the Bajau sea nomads in Indonesia. These people, they dive and are the best divers in the whole world, and they have evolved to be able to hold their breath. And one of the genes that's been under selection in these people to do that, is also under selection in the sledge dogs. So it rhymes with oxygen again. We don't know for sure if that is what the sledge dogs use it for, but given that we see it in these people, it's likely. And then, of course, it's a very cool observation, that it's something completely different as people diving in Asia, having the same adaptation. We used to joke in the beginning about maybe the dogs were diving. That group of genes is already selected for in that nine-and-a-half-thousand-year-old dog, so it's something that the common ancestor that had, so it goes a long way back in the Arctic. And that's very interesting, and it's also what makes us speculate that the culture of sledding and the tradition of the dog use we see in the modern Arctic dogs were already going on at this point in time.

19:30 SC: Another unusual finding in the genes of these sled dogs relates to what they eat. What do we know about genes and diet in dogs?

19:38 MS: We know that modern domestic dogs have followed humans all around the world, and they sort of do what we do and eat what we do. It's well described that dogs became adapted to eating starch when humans did. Dogs in Asia and in Europe, where we eat a lot of starch products, they have many copies of this gene, and it's probably to digest more starch. It's a specific gene called MLA 2B. That doesn't occur in the same proportions in the Arctic dogs. And that was seen before, but given that we generated a bunch of new Arctic dog, and had right now the oldest Arctic dog ever, it sort of became more significant. There's another gene as well that is related to starch and sugar metabolism. On this gene as well, the sledge dog's looks completely like the wolves. So while the rest of the dogs in the world have changed and shifted to eating what humans did thousands of years ago, in the Arctic, they're very much the wild type. So on those particular genes, they're wolf-like, but not because they got it from wolves, just because they never changed from the original state.

20:43 SC: We talked about wooly mammoths, and the Bajau diving people. What about polar bears? There's also some genes that you were able to identify that these dogs had in common with polar bears.

20:55 MS: Traditionally, we know that dogs in the Arctic have been fed marine mammals and fish. Very, very rich in fatty acids. And we also know that Arctic people have been, for generations, eating a lot of fat acids, and that they carry some adaptations to that. And there's actually two genes that pop up which are completely related to clearing cholesterol from the blood and digest a lot of fat acids. And one of those genes is very closely related to another gene that is described to be under selection in the polar bear to do the exact same thing. It's also cool because we know that Arctic people are exceptional compared to the rest of the human population in coping with a lot of fat intake. It ties also the sledge dogs to the Arctic people, that they have co-evolved to be able to eat all this fat.

21:45 SC: We talked a little bit about this group of domestic dogs, a more general sample that you compared these different genomes with, including they had Siberian Huskies and the Malamute in there. Did those dogs have any of these specializations or are we mostly just talking about the Greenland sled dogs and the one that was found on the 10,000-year-old sample?

22:05 MS: They all have it. The Alaskan Malamute, and the Siberian Husky, and the Alaskan Husky and the Greenland sled dog, are all quite closely related to each other. But the Greenland dogs seem to be quite pure and quite original, while the rest of them had mixed with foreign dogs. And in those parts which are original, they have these same genes, so they all had them from the common ancestor.

22:30 SC: This puts the date of sledding back further because you see these adaptations for a sled dog that's 9,500 years old, or a supposed sled dog. What does this say about domestication of dogs and the spread of dogs around the planet more broadly?

22:47 MS: All dogs, as far as we can see, are related to each other. So they must have had a common ancestor not too far ago. We were a little bit, as I said in the beginning, hoping to find a common ancestor. But given that we find actually a specific group of dogs, that means that the diversification from the common ancestor of all dogs must be older than these 9,500 years. So, we don't have a good offer. There are a lot of other papers trying to estimate that, but it is quite exceptional that we, at this point in time, have a whole group of dogs that specifically diverged. It leaves a lot of room to investigate the rest of the dog diversity in the world, of course. But it is really a milestone in how far back in time do we have to go to find the common ancestor? And we can say for sure, you need to be far beyond 9,500 years.

23:37 SC: Are Greenland dogs protected? I did read something about Greenland not allowing foreign dogs into certain parts of the country?

23:45 MS: That's also an important part of this paper. So since 1906, it's been illegal to bring in foreign dogs to the parts of Greenland where the sledge dogs are. In the northern part and the eastern part, there is a lot of stories about it and mixture happened in the past. Greenland have had contact with Europe since the 1600s. It was clearly, already back then, people had the foresight to see, "We want to preserve these dogs. Please don't bring anything else in here." And from the research that we do in this study, we can tell that the Greenland dogs are all equally distantly related to, for example, European dogs. That means two things: Firstly, there's very, very little, if any, European dog in them, but also there's sort of the same amount in them and it shows this pattern. So we're quite comfortable that they are not significantly admixed with foreign diversity, and that's a big thing that we can prove that now in Greenland.

24:41 SC: So are they at risk now? Are they still a healthy population?

24:45 MS: They are somewhat at risk. So, the population in Greenland has decreased by half over a 30-year period, but something like the last four years, it's been relatively stable and there's a whole new movement in Greenland now that the project that we've been working with has also sort of promoted to use these dogs. 'Cause if you're not using them for hunting anymore, you have to find a different use. And people are starting to use them more and more for dog racing. And of course, they're super popular for tourists. So, the dog use in Greenland is sort of changing from being the hunter going out hunting, to people making money or going for dog sledding in the weekend. I wouldn't say it's a stable situation for sure, there needs to be conservation measurements doing something to try to preserve these dogs.

25:32 SC: Thank you, Mikkel. 25:33 MS: Thank you very much.

25:35 SC: Mikkel Sinding is a post-doctoral fellow at Trinity College in Dublin. You can find a link to his research at