After the canine genome was fully mapped in 2005, it became possible to study the similarities and differences of canids in greater detail than ever before. Subsequent investigations have called into question the widely-held belief that all dogs, regardless of size and appearance, are directly descended from the gray wolf. The entire subject of the relationship between dogs and wolves might have to be reconsidered in the future, but research now suggests that huskies really are genetically closer to their wolf-like roots than any other breed of dog studied.
The breed that would come to be known as the husky was developed by the Chukchi people of Siberia as a sled dog, capable of pulling loads over long distances in bitter cold without succumbing to exhaustion. In 1909, Siberian huskies made their North American debut in the All Alaska Sweepstakes Race and, over the next decade, teams of these densely-furred long-distance runners won most Alaskan race titles. According to the American Kennel Club, which recognized the breed in 1930, the Chukchi had done such a remarkable job of maintaining the purity of their sled dogs that all dogs were considered to be "the sole and direct ancestors" of the Siberian husky.
All domestic dogs share 99 percent of their genes, but it's the 1 percent that don't that accounts for the enormous differences among the 400 or so known breeds. In a paper published in the journal "Science" in May 2004, researchers compared the genes of various purebreds to those of wolves. They found that few breeds, including the Siberian husky, Chinese shar-pei and African basenji, began evolving from their wild ancestor earlier than other breeds. Owing to their relative geographical isolation, the genetic structure of these breeds changed less than that of their canine cousins. Later, other dog varieties emerged, evolved in different directions and over time, were grouped into herders, hunters and guard dogs, depending on needs of the humans they lived among.
The husky played an intriguing role in a more recent study, published in "PLoS Genetics" in January 2014. Regardless of where in the world they live, all wolves are genetically closer to other wolves than dogs, and all dogs are closer to other dogs than wolves, University of Chicago researchers found. The most likely explanation for this is not that dogs evolved from wolves, but that they both evolved from a now-extinct common ancestor. A key piece of evidence centers around one particular gene needed to digest starch, thereby enabling a carnivore like the wolf to become an omnivore like the dog. Most domestic dog breeds have multiple copies of this starch gene. For example, the saluki, bred in the region of the Middle East where human agriculture began, has 29. But like the wolf, dingos and huskies, never associated with agrarian societies, have only two to four copies.
In January 1925, in the dead of winter, a diphtheria epidemic broke out in remote Nome, Alaska. At that time of year, this outpost 650 miles from Fairbanks, where 300,000 units of anti-diphtheria medicine were stored, could only be reached by dog sled. Usually, the one-way trip took a month, but the 1,400 people of Nome couldn't wait that long. Relays of dog teams were organized to race along the Iditarod trail around the clock. In a round trip that took less than five and a half days, a husky named Balto became the first to lead his team, with the serum, into Nome, allowing the epidemic to be quickly brought under control. The role that he and "the hero dogs of Alaska" played in saving lives has never been forgotten. Next time you're in Central Park, New York, pay a visit to the statue of Balto erected in his honor.
Experts can crunch the genetic numbers any way they like but as anyone who has ever known huskies can attest, they aren't wolves thinly disguised as companion animals but dogs who serve their human masters as faithfully as other breeds. According to the Siberian Husky Club of America (SHCA), the breed is gentle, affectionate without being fawning, playful, eager to please and great with kids. Huskies aren't aggressive towards other dogs but will defend themselves when the occasion demands. Luckily, the very presence of a husky in a home is a deterrent to would-be burglars because otherwise, the dog is apt to give intruders a warm welcome. However, one wolf-like quality, a strong predatory instinct, endures, so the SHCA strongly recommends homes free of birds, cats and other furry animals.
- Science Daily: Genomes of Modern Dogs and Wolves Provide New Insights on Domestication
- PLoS Genetics: Genome Sequencing Highlights the Dynamic Early History of Dogs
- American Kennel Club: Siberian Husky: History
- Science: Abstract: Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog
- USA Today: Genes Say Some Dogs Have a Lot in Common with Wolves
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Dog
- Siberian Husky Club of America: The Siberian Husky
- Visit Nome, Alaska: A Race for Life: Balto and the Hero Dogs of Alaska
- Central Park.com: Balto
- Science Daily: Researchers Publish Dog Genome Sequence; Analysis Sheds Light On Human Disease; Differences Among Canine Breeds
- Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images