Mystery mutts of Madagascar

2015-06-04 16:10
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Johannesburg - New research has found that the heritage of dogs in Madagascar is much more mysterious than initially thought, with no link to the Indonesians who settled on the island nearly 2000 years ago.

An international team, which includes Stellenbosch University geneticist Dr Barbara van Asch, were taken by surprise during their research into the genetic history of the dogs on the fourth largest island in the world, since all Madagascan dogs appeared to have their heritage from Africa.

The team sampled DNA of 145 dogs from Madagascar and 184 from the African mainland for their study, which was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Van Asch told News24 she was fascinated by the history of dogs, as the first domesticated animals, and how their relationship with humans shed light on how people migrated.

"This is what is interesting: what we know from the Madagascan human population is that as a whole it is composed equally of Indonesian and African contributions.

"When the Austronesian people from Indonesia settled in places they brought dogs with them. They settled in Madagascar around 1500 to 2000 years ago. We have found that the dogs presently in Madagascar have an African origin and have no generic link to Indonesia."

The research project into Madagascar’s dogs was led by Professor Peter Savolainen of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. The study also included other academics from KTH, as well as Université d’Antananarivo in Madagascar and the National Institute of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Iran.

Van Asch said it was possible that the Indonesian dogs did not survive the trip to the island. 

This was echoed by the Savolainen. 

"It's a mystery... We were surprised when we saw the results. We expected 100% or 50% ancestry from Indonesia—but it was zero percent," he said in a statement. 

"Dogs, together with pigs and chicken, were important domestic animals in the Austronesian culture. So it would be expected that dogs were brought in the colonisation of major new areas, and a seemingly total absence in Madagascar of dogs with Austronesian heritage is surprising.

“It is possible that if the dogs were brought along on these long journeys, they died from the hardship, or were used as a food source."

'Breed' concept a new idea

When asked what breeds of dog Madagascar has, Van Asch said the concept of "breeds" for dogs was a recent idea, only established 300 years ago."

She said an interesting hypothesis was that domesticated dogs came from a breed of wolf. 

"It explains why we have a deep relationship and are very attached to dogs, and they to us."

She said these wolves may have been more inclined to "tag along" with humans during expeditions thousands of years ago, and often helped humans with hunting or protection. 

"A reciprocal relationship was developed. It could be that there was willingness on both sides. It is quite probable that they were not domesticated against their will."

Van Asch is currently finalising the results of the research team’s study on the origins of African dogs. 

That research seems to indicate that very exclusive and ancient dog lineages are found in Africa and nowhere else. 

“The presence of dogs in Africa might be older than previously thought,” she said.

Read more on:    madagascar  |  animals  |  southern africa

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