“Dogs:Their Fossil Relatives & Evolutionary History”

Text by Xiaoming Wang and Richard H. Tedford, illustrations by Mauricio Anton. Columbia University Press. $22.95.

This incredible team tracks and showcases the paths of the predecessors of our domestic dog through 40 million years, carefully analyzing earlier studies while detailing the gritty effects of worldwide climate and terrain on the species.

Wang has spent the past two decades examining the evolutionary history of the family Canidae, while Tedford has focused on the modern framework for the evolutionary relationship of canids. Anton’s vivid reconstructive illustrations complement the authors’ works beautifully in the valuable scientific presentation. 

Combining fossil finds, known behavioral tendencies, climate and topography, the authors craft an ever-changing portrait of the incredible evolutionary history of that dog sitting alongside you.

But nothing is totally cast in stone, the pair concedes, since new discoveries of domestic dogs in Israel and Germany 14,000 years ago alter the fossil record and serve up “tantalizing evidence of initial interactions between early humans and their first domestic animal.”

 However, molecular studies point to China, not Europe or the Middle East, as possibly the area of the first domestication.

Be prepared, this is a challenging read. The scholarly work requires the total focus of the reader through an outpouring of historical data and a shifting view of the origin of canids and other doglike carnivorous mammals. To put that in perspective, there have been 214 species of canids through the family’s 40-million-year history; 37 of those are still with us today, with the others reconstructed through fossil records.

It is well established that the family originated in North America and spent the majority of its history on that continent. Best fossilized deposits have been found in the Great Plains, extending east from the Rocky Mountains across Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota.

Eventually, two key geological events – the roughly 1,000-miles-long Beringian land bridge (now the Bering Sea) uniting present-day Alaska and Eastern Siberia during the Pleistocene Ice Age and the uplift of middle America that formed the Isthmus of Panama 3 million years later, linking the Americas – enabled canids to scatter to new continents with new environments and new challenges.

Eventually, the authors ask: Is the domestic dog a distinct species? Then note, “By and large, domestic dogs have been treated either as species of their own (Canis familiaris) or a subspecies of the gray wolf (C. lupus familiaris).” In 1758, a Swedish scientist, Carol Linnaeus, founding father of modern biological classification, made that distinction and it has remained. But does that imply he did not see any connection between the two except for their morphological similarities?

Wang and Tedford argue that with a few exceptions the modern dog is generally smaller than the wolf, but in archaeological sites distinguishing factors break down, making the distinction between the two highly challenging. 

Behavioral scientists Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger contend that ecological separation among wolves, coyotes, jackals and dogs is the key determinant. Dogs, they emphasize, have an “obligatory symbiotic relationship” with man that the others don’t. 

This ambitious overview of dogs’ sprawling timeline unleashes a wealth of new insight delivered with a piercing realism and plain-spoken naturalism that will leave you looking at Fido with a new-found amazement.