Canis lupus arabs— the Arabian wolf:
And Canis lupus pallipes– the Iranian wolf:
According to recent genome-wide analysis, most domestic dogs share many more genetic markers with Middle Eastern wolves than with any other subspecies.
Arabian wolves weigh 25-55 pounds. Arabian wolves have the same “small dog” gene that causes very small size in domestic dogs. They also have the fused middle toes on the front feet, a trait they share with basenjis.
Iranian wolves go 55-70 pounds, rough the same size as a typical golden retriever.
Neither of these wolves are the big “moose-killer” wolves from the northern parts of Eurasia and North America that every knows so well, that everyone sees in zoos, and that everyone thinks are the primary ancestors of the domestic dogs. Research that in anyway compares dogs to these wolves is methodological murky, for these wolves are actually quite specialized in their behavior. These smaller Middle Eastern wolf subspecies are much more generalist in their behavior and prey choices. It might be a better study to compare “primitive” domestic dogs, like dingoes and basenjis, with these wolves.
The unfortunate problem with this suggestion is there aren’t many of these wolves in captivity in the West, and many of those in captivity in other parts of the world are crossbred with dogs and other wolf subspecies.
But it isn’t fair to compare border collies and golden retrievers, highly specialized dog breeds, to the large northern wolves, which are highly specialized wild wolves.
But even comparisons between dogs and these wolves are problematic. These are not exactly the same wolves that were domesticated over 15,000 years ago. These wolves had the misfortune of living in the part of the world where agriculture took first took hold, and they also happen to live where people first started to herd sheep and goats. Wolves are never welcome where sheep and goats are being raised.
So these were likely the first wolves to be persecuted.
And as I’ve always noted, the effects of persecution on changing wolf behavior– both in terms of learned behavior and brain chemistry– are not considered carefully enough when trying to make comparisons between wild wolves and domestic dogs. It was likely that the original wolves were much less reactive animals than they are now and were much more willing to live near people and consider them social partners. We see this same sort of tameness in all sorts of wild dogs when they are not persecuted. Arctic foxes were not widely persecuted until recently, and they were very easy to kill and even tame as adults.
It seems to me that these ancestral Middle Eastern wolves were much more like these unpersecuted arctic foxes and not like these paranoid and emotionally reactive animals they are today.
They had to have been very easy to tame, for domestic dogs, unlike other domestic species, were not domesticated by breeding tame individuals to other tame individuals. If that were the case, we would have a clear genetic bottleneck that could be compared to wild wolf DNA to determine when dogs were domesticated. We have not found this genetic bottleneck. Instead, we have found that, as a population, domestic dogs retain much of the wolf’s genetic diversity.
That means that dogs evolved as a population of wolves. They were not domesticated by breeding tame to tame, as has been the case with virtually every other domestic species. And those domestic animals have far lower genetic diversity than their wild ancestors do.
Dogs lost genetic diversity only when they were made into breeds.
And just because domestic dogs likely derive from these two subspecies, we cannot assume that they actually became dogs, as we know them as distinct from wolves, in the Middle East.
But we just don’t know where these wolves evolved into dogs. We have some guesses.
But it is possible that wolves of this type would have followed people throughout Eurasia, and they could have started to turn into dog-like phenotypes anywhere in Eurasia– even Africa cannot be ruled out entirely.
So we know which subspecies are most closely related to dogs and could be called their most likely primary ancestors.
But everything else is still a bit of a guess.