Were Southeastern Wolves Feral Indian Dogs?

Archaeologists uncovered 10,000 year old dog (Canis familiaris) skeletons at 2 sites in Illinois.  The sites are known as Koster and Stillwell.  This is the earliest known evidence of domesticated dogs in North America, though scientists believe dogs traveled over the Bering Land Bridge with humans as long as 15,000 years ago about the same time they were first tamed.  Late Pleistocene evidence of dogs in America has either faded away or has yet to be found, but they were probably here.  The specimens from Illinois date to the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary.  The Stillwell dog was about the size of an English setter, and these early Indian dogs anatomically resemble coyote/dog hybrids (known as coydogs).  I hypothesize the wolves that lived in southeastern North America until about 1917 may have been Indian dogs that simply reverted to a wild state.

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Audubon’s painting of an Indian dog.  Indian dogs were so wolfish that European colonists often mistook them for wolves.

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Illustration of black wolf pack by Kelly Quinn.

Scientists classified the wolves that lived in southeastern North America until Europeans wiped them out as the red wolf (Canis rufus), but nobody really knows what they were.  A DNA test of a few specimens from Arkansas found they were hybrids of coyote (Canis latrans) x timber wolf (C. lupus), and wolves currently living in eastern Canada also appear to be coyote/timber wolf hybrids.  However, this still doesn’t explain what the now extinct wolves that lived in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida were.  The so-called red wolf is not well represented in the fossil record, and the few specimens identified as red wolves may actually be coyotes.  They don’t appear in the fossil record until after dire wolves became extinct, and I think dogs brought by humans went wild and occupied the vacant niche created when dire wolves became extinct.  Although southeastern wolves varied in coat color, many were melanistic.  The gene for a black coat color in wolves originated in domesticated dogs and that was passed to the wolf population in the rare instances when wolves mated with dogs.  So I believe the wolves that lived in southeastern North America were feral Indian dogs with perhaps some admixture of timber wolf and/or coyote.  They were a primitive dog that like the dingo and Carolina dog readily reverted to the wild, especially those left behind when Indian tribes moved away from an area or died out.  Audubon almost mistakenly shot some Indian dogs because he reported that they looked just like wolves.  This resemblance may have contributed to their extinction, though diseases brought by the European colonists’ dogs were probably a bigger factor.  Europeans often mistook Indian dogs for wolves and killed them or deliberately exterminated them to prevent them from breeding with their well bred dogs..  A DNA study of the Koster specimen determined modern dogs have none of the earlier Indian dog ancestry, suggesting the ancient Indian dogs are extinct.

The Carolina dog descends from a later lineage of dogs brought by Eskimos about 1000 years ago.  Strange as it may seem, these dogs quickly evolved from long-furred Eskimo dogs well adapted to cold climates to the short-haired “Old Yeller” type dogs at home in the hot humid south.  Like the earlier Indian dogs, Carolina dogs also easily revert to a wild state.

The original Indian dogs may be extinct, but they did leave a modern day legacy. The only genetic imprint they left in modern dogs is a sexually transmitted cancer.  Geneticists found this cancer originated in the ancient Indian dogs and was passed on to modern dog breeds.



2 Responses to “Were Southeastern Wolves Feral Indian Dogs?”

  1. diloraptor Says:

    You happened to mention a piece of preserved Mastodon fur earlier in another blog post you did on Mastodon. Would you have any further information on this fur or know anyone I may be able to contact to get more information? Any help would be much appreciated. Thank you in advance.

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