Aarhus University Seal

Sled dogs with almost 10,000-year-old genes

Muscle, kidney and liver samples have been taken for analysis from Greenlandic sled dogs. Researchers have compared the DNA from the dogs with DNA from the 9,500-year-old Siberian Zhokhov dog, and a 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf. The analysis shows that humans were able to use the tough sled dog to conquer the brutal Arctic almost 10,000 years ago.

A new study shows that the sled dog is much older than the 2-3,000 years previously believed. The study also shows that sled dogs are not related to the modern wolf, but rather, that Greenlandic sled dogs get most of their genome from the prehistoric Zhokhov dog.

The study will be the front-page story in the next issue of SCIENCE.

Professors Christian Sonne and Rune Dietz from the Arctic Research Centre at Aarhus University provided the samples from sled dogs that had recently been put down.

“We’ve been working closely with hunters across Greenland for almost 40 years. Sometimes hunters are forced to put problem dogs to sleep and sometimes dogs die during a sled journey. We’ve been able to collect valuable samples from these dogs. Especially samples from Muscle, kidney and liver samples in particular contain a lot of DNA," says Christian Sonne.

The samples have shown researchers that sled dogs can burn large amounts of fat, have a good physique and they are very fit. Sled dogs share this development with polar bears and the Inuit people.

"Sled dogs, polar bears and the Inuit use healthy fats in a way that means they don’t develop lifestyle diseases such as blood clots and diabetes. The content of fatty acids, minerals and vitamins also helps them counter the negative effects of environmental toxins – such as PCBS and mercury – which they are exposed to by being the last link in the food chain," explains Christian Sonne. 

Close common ancestor

In addition to sled dogs, the research group behind the study also extracted DNA from a 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf and the 9,500-year-old Zhokhov dog. The researchers then compared gene sequences from these prehistoric animals with the genomes of modern dogs and wolves from across the world.

The researchers concluded that more than half of the genome of modern sled dogs such as the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute and the Greenlandic sled dog stems from a close common ancestor: the Zhokhov dog.

"We’ve also found traces of the 33,000-year-old Siberian wolf in the modern sled dog. However, we identified no traces of modern wolves," says Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding a postdoc at the University of Copenhagen and the QIMMEQ project, who headed the study.

"We were surprised that the sled dog was so old, and a lot of evidence suggests that Inuit have used the dogs in their daily lives for much longer than previously believed," says Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding.  

Further information


Professor Christian Sonne
Arctic Research Centre
Aarhus University    
Mail: cs@bios.au.dk
Mobile: +45 3078 3172

Postdoc Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding
Trinity College Dublin and the QIMMEQ project.
Mail: mikkel.sinding@sund.ku.dk
Mobile: +45 2966 8355


About the QIMMEQ project: https://qimmeq.ku.dk/om-qimmeq/

You can find the press release from University of Copenhagen here.