Did Carolina Dogs Arrive With Ancient Americans?
By Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2003
Humans and dogs enjoy a prehistoric relationship, a longstanding bond with its origins in a time when dogs as we know them evolved from wild animals into our domesticated companions.
Now, a canine living in a manner similar to that of dogs from those ancient days may have been discovered in isolated stretches of longleaf pines and cypress swamps in the American Southeast.
The Carolina Dog, a familiar-looking animal long known in the rural South as the "yaller dog," may be more than the common mutt that immediately meets the eye. I. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., Senior Ecologist at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Lab, believes that these animals may be America's most primitive dogs.
Brisbin's research is featured in a new television documentary Search for the First Dog, premiering in the United States tonight on the National Geographic Channel.
It was Brisbin's knowledge of Australia's dingo that first led him to look at a familiar local canine in an entirely new way.
Brisbin was studying the origins of the world's remaining wild, ancient dogs, including the dingo, which may have reached Australia walking alongside that continent's original human inhabitants thousands of years ago. Such primitive dogs are uncommon because the canine passion for choosing diverse mates often complicates breeding patterns.
Brisbin was struck by the physical appearance of an American wild dog that ended up in a pound near his South Carolina home. "You look like a dingo," he thought in a moment of revelation, "I wonder how many of you other guys are out there that look like dingos?"
The answer: possibly quite a few, but only in selected places. Although their wild numbers seem to be rapidly decreasing, Brisbin located a number of these animals in secluded areas far from the presence of humans or domestic dogs. Their appearance first led him to propose his theory of their ancient origins—they could have arrived in America along with the earliest migrating humans across the Bering Strait land bridge. If so, Carolina Dogs could be among the earliest dogs to enter North America many thousands of years ago.
Behavior, DNA Suggest Uncommon Background
The exciting idea remains a hypothesis, one that's under examination by an analysis of fossils, cave paintings, and other pieces of the North American historical record. Early paintings of Native Americans, for example, show accompanying dogs whose appearance looks strikingly like today's Carolina Dogs.
Another suggestive piece of evidence is comparison with dogs that remain on the other side of the long vanished Asia-North America land connection.
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"It's a hypothesis," Brisbin stressed, "but we might infer that if dogs look similar on both sides of the Baring Strait land bridge, maybe our first American dogs came over from that area." On Chindo Island, Korea, local free-ranging dogs exist that have apparently been free from hybridization by other breeds. "That native Korean breed, the chindo-kae, is indistinguishable from Carolina Dogs, Brisbin noted. "If they were mixed in a group, I couldn't tell who was who."
The distinctive appearance of Carolina Dogs is not their only link to the world's surviving primitive breeds. Brisbin's studies have also revealed behaviors not observed in domestic dogs.
Other unusual behaviors include the digging of small pits. While many dogs dig, Carolina Dogs do so with a pattern that so far remains a mystery. "What's unique about them is that they dig lots of these little pits, but only in specific areas and only in the fall," Brisbin explained. "Also, the vast majority of the dogs who dig pits are females. When you see that kind of structure, you think that there is a reason for it, some kind of selection at work. But so far, we don't know why they do this."Carolina Dogs' breeding cycles, for example, may reflect the challenges of wilderness survival. Breeding begins young and can occur often—three times in a year. "It's astounding," Brisbin said, "other dogs don't do that. Why?" He theorizes that it may be a population-level adaptation, ensuring that the next generation is born before the old is afflicted with diseases like heartworm. The cycles also follow seasonal patterns, apparently timed to coincide with the times of birth of easy and abundant prey—young rodents and other small mammals.
Another interesting observation is an entire range of hunting and prey-catching techniques not commonly seen in domestic dogs. These include hunting snakes in an effective pack formation and dispatching by cracking them, whip-like, into the air.
Within the realm of laboratory science, very preliminary DNA studies on the Carolina Dogs have provided some tantalizing results. "It's intriguing," Brisbin said, "we grabbed them out of the woods based on what they look like, and if they were just dogs their DNA patterns should be well distributed throughout the canine family tree. But they aren't. They're all at the base of the tree, where you would find very primitive dogs." Such results are not conclusive, as other dog breeds sometimes show similar patterns, but they do beg the need for more extensive DNA testing that could more accurately fix the dogs' place in the genetic universe. "We need more research funding, more testing, and more Carolina Dog DNA," Brisbin noted.
Wild Populations Under Pressure
Any future DNA will have to be provided by the surviving wild population of these animals, a group that faces the pressure of increasing development throughout their previously isolated home range. It's likely the unique characteristics of their remote Southeast habitat that have allowed the dogs to live there as they do nowhere else in North America.
Isolated tracts of land exist in the region that are relatively free of other domestic dogs that could potentially hybridize Carolina Dogs—and until recently the area was also free from coyotes. The latter aggressive animals likely have a three-fold effect on this primitive dog species in North America. "I think that coyotes sometimes eat these types of dogs," Brisbin said, "successfully compete with them for food resources, and also hybridize them."
Because of encroaching humans, dogs, and now coyotes, the future is not bright for the survival of the pure strains of free-ranging, wild Carolina Dogs.
Don Anderson is a longtime local resident, who with a cousin owns several thousand acres of prime Carolina Dog-habitat. He does his part to ensure the survival of the wild dogs in his area. "I sort of protect these dogs," he said, "we have about three packs operating in this wide area."
"One the biggest things I do to promote those in the wild is to be sure that hunters are advised of their existence." Anderson added. "Most people have no idea what a Carolina Dog is, even the neighbors. They're the people who need to be apprised of the situation. I just try to use what little bit of influence I have to make sure people don't bother them."
Carolina Dogs' future as a registered domestic breed, however, is perhaps more assured. The animals are now a registered breed recognized with the American Rare Breed Association and the United Kennel Club. "The breed is an artificial construct," Brisbin said, "made by man for his own whims.
"The dogs in the wild are not a breed, just as gorillas in the wild are not a breed."
Vicki Rand is an editor with the United Kennel Club, which worked with Brisbin to register the breed. She explained that Carolina Dogs are classified in a group known as pariah dogs. They are the group's only North American member. "They're essentially wild dogs, that live on the outskirts of human settlements occasionally interacting with humans," she said of the group. "Most of these that still exist are in developing nations, in the Far East and Africa."
Their wild nature doesn't stop some people from breeding Carolina Dogs and using them as domestic companions. Rand notes that such a proposition is a bit different from raising the average dog. "They're often not as easy to train as the domesticated dogs we're used to, they are more wild and their affiliation with people is traditionally more of a symbiotic relationship."
Don Anderson raises a litter or so of Carolina Dogs each year, a process that began when a Carolina Dog puppy fell into a spring on his property and became a pet. The animals have long been known in the South as superior tracking and watchdogs, but while Anderson enjoys breeding them he ultimately does so for a higher purpose. "My main drive is that with such a small gene pool, I feel like eventually the dogs could become too inbred—like the New Guinea singing dogs. I'm trying to prevent them from becoming inbred, especially if they become as popular as I believe they will."
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