If you’ve ever wondered how your beloved pet pooch came to look so different from its wild relatives, biologists now have another piece of the puzzle. 

A new study, led by Dr Laura Wilson from The Australian National University (ANU) looked closely at six pairs of domestic and wild animals. The findings challenge a popular theory for why domesticated animals look the way they do. 

“This has been a topic of interest since Charles Darwin’s time,” Dr Wilson said.  

“He first noticed different domestic animals shared similar characteristics – things like smaller brain size, curly tails, and white patches on their fur – despite not being closely related.  

“We wanted to investigate whether these similarities could all be traced back to neural crest cells. These cells appear very early in the embryo and are really important, they help form bone and cartilage, but they’re also responsible for the glands that produce the fight or flight response, which is reduced in domestic animals.” 

Geneticists had previously suggested the similar traits shared by domestic animals were caused by a disruption to the development of these cells. But Dr Wilson’s study found otherwise. 

“We devised a framework to look at the morphology of these animals,” she said. 

“The neural crest cells are involved in the development of the facial skeleton, in particular the front region of the face. We were keen to see if those bones were behaving differently in domestic animals but didn’t find strong evidence.”  

The study looked at dogs, pigs, goats, llama, alpaca, horses and their wild counterparts — for example, wolves and boars. 

“I’m especially interested in the initial phase of domestication, so when these animals first engage with humans, and their flexibility to change,” Dr Wilson said. 

“We’ve shown the underlying developmental framework is maintained when an animal is domesticated, but it’s maintained in a way that allows for a little bit of flexibility.  

“That’s how we end up with breeds like Poodles or Great Danes with very specific traits.” 

The research has been published in Evolution Letters.

Top image: chris23/Unsplash

Contact the media team

You may also like

Article Card Image

Fighting fires from space: how satellites and other tech could prevent catastrophic bushfires 

ANU researchers are using algorithms, drones and satellites to detect bushfires before they become natural disasters.

Article Card Image

Climate change is leaving African elephants desperate for water

If the situation doesn’t change, Africa – indeed, the world – may lose one of its most iconic animal species.

Article Card Image

We’ve detected a potent opioid in Canberra. Here’s what we know about it

The detection of a dangerous opioid in the nitazene drug family sparked CanTEST's first 'red alert'. This is why we should be worried.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter

Anu Logo

+61 2 6125 5111

The Australian National University, Canberra

CRICOS Provider: 00120C

ABN: 52 234 063 906

EDX Logo
Group of eight Australia Logo