If you’ve ever wondered how your beloved pet pooch came to look so differentfrom 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 findingschallenge 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. Wilsonsaid.

“He first noticed different domestic animals shared similarcharacteristics—things like smaller brain size, curly tails, and white patcheson their fur—despite not being closely related.

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

Geneticists had previously suggested the similar traits shared by domesticanimals 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 facialskeleton, in particular the front region of the face. We were keen to see ifthose bones were behaving differently in domestic animals but didn’t findstrong evidence.”

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

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

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

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

The research has been published in Evolution Letters.

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