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How did ancestors of our dogs hunt for food?

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Posted January 14, 2019

Dogs were the first species that humans domesticated. We needed dogs for hunting and protecting our families and homes. However, ancestors of our domestic dogs were hunting wild for millions of years and scientists are still trying to uncover their secrets. Now researchers from the Universities of Edinburgh and Vienna found that the first species of dog pounced on its prey in the same way that many species do today.

Hesperocyon gregarius fossils – these were the first species of dog. Image credit: Daderot via Wikimedia

Scientists analysed scans of fossils and modern animals, such as lions, wolves and hyenas and compared them to known hunting methods. They found that the first species of dog, called Hesperocyon gregarious, exhibited similar hunting behaviour to today’s foxes and coyotes. Furthermore, the largest dogs to ever live, Epicyon haydeni, hunted in a similar way. Of course, the difference was the constitution of these animals – they could grow to the size of a grizzly bear. These animals hunted on Earth 16-17 million years ago.

Interestingly, scientists paid a lot of attention to little details of the computerized models of the skulls included in this study. In particular, they were interested in creating digital models of the inner ears of 36 types of carnivoran, including six extinct species. Researchers discovered that the size of three bony canals in the inner ear changed over millions of years as animals adopted different hunting styles and it is not a coincidence. Inner ear is responsible for balance and well as hearing – two crucial factors for successful hunting. Faster animals developed large inner ear canals to keep their heads stable during high-speed chasing in order to maintain a visual of the prey. Of course, it means that these animals simply chased down their prey instead of relying on ambush or other techniques.

Scientists say that inner ear canals of cat-like animals and dogs are different. Dog-like animals have a much bigger angle between two parts of the inner ear. Julia Schwab, one of the authors of the study, said: “For me, the inner ear is the most interesting organ in the body, as it offers amazing insights into ancient animals and how they lived. The first dog and the largest-ever dog are such fascinating specimens to study, as nothing like them exists in the world today”.

Large prehistoric dogs would be terrifying today, but it is cool to know that modern descendants hunt in a largely the same way. Of course, domestication and selection completely changed domestic dogs and they largely lost their ability to hunt. Direct ancestor of the dog is extinct, but that is why scientists are so curious to find more about it.

Source: University of  Edinburgh

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