New Genetic Research Shows Extent of Cross-Breeding between Wild Wolves and Domestic Dogs across Europe and Asia

Original article can be found online.

Mating between domesticated dogs and wild wolves over hundreds of years has left a genetic mark on the wolf gene pool, new research has shown.

The international study showed that around 60 per cent of Eurasian grey wolf genomes carried small blocks of the DNA of domestic dogs, suggesting that wolves cross-bred with dogs in past generations.

The results suggest that wolf-dog hybridisation has been geographically widespread in Europe and Asia and has been occurring for centuries. The phenomenon is seen less frequently in wild wolf populations of North America.

Researchers examined DNA data from grey wolves – the ancestors of the domestic dog – to determine how much their gene pool was diluted with the DNA of domestic canines, and how widespread the process of hybridisation is.

Despite the evidence of hybridisation among Eurasian grey wolves, the wolf populations have remained genetically distinct from dogs, suggesting that such cross-breeding does not diminish distinctiveness of the wolf gene pool if it occurs at low levels.

The results could have important conservation implications for the grey wolf, which is a keystone species – meaning it is vital to the natural balance of the habitat it occupies. The legal status of hybrids is still uncertain and unregulated.

The study was led by researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research and the University of California, Los Angeles.

Dr Malgorzata Pilot, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “The fact that wild wolves can cross-breed with dogs is well-documented, but little was previously known about how widespread this phenomenon has been and how it has affected the genetic composition of wild wolf populations.

“We found that while hybridisation has not compromised the genetic distinctiveness of wolf populations, a large number of wild wolves in Eurasia carry a small proportion of gene variants derived from dogs, leading to the ambiguity of how we define genetically ‘pure wolves’.

“Our research highlighted that some individual wolves which had been identified as ‘pure wolves’ according to their physical characteristics were actually shown to be of mixed ancestry. On the other hand, two Italian wolves with an unusual, black coat colour did not show any genetic signatures of hybridisation, except for carrying a dog-derived variant of a gene linked to dark colouration. This suggests that the definition of genetically ‘pure’ wolves can be ambiguous and identifying admixed individuals can be difficult, implying that management strategies based on removal of suspected hybrids from wolf populations may be inefficient.

“Instead, our study has highlighted a need to reduce the factors which can cause hybridisation, such as abundance of free-ranging dogs, small wolf population sizes, and unregulated hunting.”

Studying a specific type of genetic variation in the DNA sequences of wolves and domestic dogs – called Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) – the scientists identified the transfer of dog gene variants into wolf genomes.

A single DNA sequence is formed from a chain of four nucleotide bases and if some individuals in a population do not carry the same nucleotide at a specific position in the sequence, the variation is classified as an SNP.

This study was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship, the University of Lincoln, the Polish Committee for Scientific Research, the Italian Ministry of Environment, the US National Science Foundation, the Intramural Program of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research.

In the US, research collaborators were from Princeton University, the National Human Genome Research Institute based at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland, and UCLA.

The international team also included researchers from the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, Aalborg University in Denmark, the Mammal Research Institute, and the Institute of Nature Conservation, both at the Polish Academy of Sciences, as well as the Institute of Zoology at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

The findings have been published in the journal Evolutionary Applications, and the full study can be found here:

New sniffer dog research could “save lives”

A team of scientists has provided the first evidence that dogs can learn to categorise odours and apply this to scents they have never encountered before.

The research reveals how the animals process odour information and is likely to have a profound impact on how we train sniffer dogs.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, and funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global in the US, found that dogs are able to categorise odours on the basis of their common properties. This means that dogs can behave towards new smells from a category in the same way as smells that they already know.

As humans, we do not have to experience the smell of every fish to know that it smells ‘fishy’; instead we use our previous experience of fish and categorise the new smell in the correct way. The new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that dogs can do the same.

Researchers separated dogs into two groups and then trained them to respond to 40 different olfactory stimuli – or smells – half of which were accelerant-based. The dogs in the experimental group were trained (through a reward) to offer a behavioural response, for example “sit”, when they were presented with smells which fit a specific category, but to withhold that response for other non-category stimuli. The remaining dogs were trained on the same stimuli but were not rewarded for the categorical variable.

The researchers found that only the dogs in the category group were able to learn the task. Even more significantly, when presented with completely unknown smells, the dogs were able to place them in the correct category and to remember the odours six weeks later.

The researchers concluded that this means that dogs can apply information from previous experience to novel – or new – scents in order to apply an appropriate response.

Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln said: “As humans, we are very good at assigning different things to different categories; for example, we know something is a chair because there are identifiable aspects such as a flat space to sit on, or four legs. Categorising odours works the same way, and we were keen to discover whether dogs would be able to learn those skills.

“This was an extremely hard task for the dogs as the odour stimuli varied in strength, so animals were never trained on exactly the same stimulus. As such, it is even more impressive that the experimental group dogs learned and retained the information.

“These findings add substantially to our understanding of how animals process olfactory information and suggest that use of this method may improve performance of working animals.”

The findings have implications in the field of working dog training as it implies that it may be possible to improve the way we train detection dogs.

Ayodeji Coker, the ONR Global Science Director sponsoring the research, said: “The threats being faced by today’s warfighter are constantly evolving, especially as it pertains to explosives. Developing new capabilities to better train dogs to categorize explosives odours will help save lives.”



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The School of Life Sciences ranks highly in NSS 2017 Results

Students have rated the University of Lincoln in the top 20 in the UK for academic support, learning resources and learning community and was also ranked in the top third of institutions in the UK for overall satisfaction in the National Student Survey 2017.

The School of Life Sciences scored highly, with rankings listed below.

  • BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare (NSS subject area – Animal Science) – Animal Sciences at the University of Lincoln ranked number 1 in the UK for academic support, with 100% of students studying BSc (Hons) Animal Behaviour and Welfare stating they are satisfied overall according to the National Student Survey 2017.
  • BSc (Hons) Biochemistry (NSS subject area – Molecular Biology, Biophysics and Biochemistry) – Biochemistry at the University of Lincoln ranked number 1 in the UK for overall satisfaction and learning resources, second for academic support, and third for learning community according to the National Student Survey 2017.
  • BSc (Hons) Biology (NSS subject area – Biology) – Biology at the University of Lincoln ranked in the top 20% in the UK for academic support and learning opportunities, with 100% of students stating that staff are available when they are needed according to the National Student Survey 2017.
  • BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science (NSS subject area – Other subjects allied to Medicine) – 100% of students studying BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science at the University of Lincoln agreed the course was intellectually stimulating, and the subject ranked in the top 20% in the UK for academic support according to the National Student Survey 2017.
  • BSc (Hons) Biovetinary Science (NSS subject area – Animal Science) – Animal Sciences at the University of Lincoln ranked number 1 in the UK for academic support, and 100% of students studying BSc (Hons) Biovetinary Science stated they have access to course-specific resources when needed according to the National Student Survey 2017.
  • BSc (Hons) Zoology (NSS subject area – Zoology) – Zoology at the University of Lincoln ranked number 1 in the UK for assessment and feedback, learning opportunities and organisation and management, and second in the UK for academic support, learning community, learning resources and student voice according to the National Student Survey 2017.

Find out more about the School of Life Sciencesor take a look at our Undergraduate Programmes on offer.

Students visit Animal Inside Out exhibition in Newcastle

University of Lincoln Life Sciences students see the world’s most amazing creatures like they’d never seen them before.

The Animal Inside Out: A Body Worlds Production is an unforgettable exhibit featuring real-life animals from gorillas to giraffes, elephants to dogs, all preserved through plastination. This is a process used in anatomy to preserve bodies or body parts, first developed by Gunther von Hagens in 1977.

Our Bioveterinary students were given first priority to sign up for the trip due to the knowledge and information learned in the classroom being mirrored in the anatomical tour.

Over 60 students took a coach up to Newcastle as part of Activities Week, which the School of Life Sciences puts on every year, to see the real-life application of their classroom-learned skills and knowledge.

With over 100 real animal specimens, students got the opportunity to see the nervous, muscular, circulatory, respiratory, digestive and reproductive system structure within the animals, showcasing what really lies beneath nature’s skin.

The exhibit that runs till January 3rd, 2017 aims to show the complexity of animal physiology, looking at the inner workings of the animal systems that enable them to live, thrive and survive.

No animals were hurt or killed for this exhibit.

Dr Colin Butter took some amazing photos of the exhibit which he has shared below

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To find out more about the exhibit visit:

Chris Packham to be Visiting Professor at University of Lincoln

TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham has been appointed a Visiting Professor at the University of Lincoln, UK.

The award-winning conservationist, photographer and environmental campaigner will deliver lectures and workshops to students in Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, sharing his expertise and insights on wildlife conservation.

The host of BBC’s Springwatch series officially opened the new Joseph Banks Laboratories at the University after delivering his first lecture to around 300 students.

He was joined at the ceremony by Charles Darwin the tortoise, who rebuffed the traditional ribbon-cutting in favour of chewing through a chain of his favourite snack – rocket and dandelion leaves! The tortoise lives at the University where he helps researchers develop their understanding of the cognitive capabilities of reptiles.

Chris is a familiar face on UK television screens from a broadcasting career presenting popular wildlife programmes such as The Really Wild Show, Springwatch, Autumnwatch and Secrets of our Living Planet.

As a Visiting Professor, Chris will bring his passion, knowledge and enthusiasm for wildlife to the classroom, challenging students to think differently about the ethical and practical considerations of conservation.

He will work with undergraduates from a range of science subjects, including Biology, Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Zoology, Biomedical, Biochemistry and Bioveterinary Science. He will also deliver sessions for Photography and Media Production students.

Chris said: “If you really care for a subject, you should teach it and I am delighted by this opportunity to share my passion for wildlife and my experiences of some of the most urgent conservation issues we face.

“I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to pursue a career in the areas which fascinate and impassion me. The future is in the hands of this generation and I hope to contribute to preparing them for this responsibility. There is simplicity in nature’s perfection and so much to learn. I am envious of the students at Lincoln who are embarking on that journey of discovery.”

In 2010 Chris was awarded the Dilys Breese BTO Medal for ‘his outstanding work in promoting science to new audiences’ and he is an enthusiastic supporter of many wildlife, conservation or environmental charities. He ran the hugely successful production company ‘Head over Heels‘ making programmes for Animal Planet, National Geographic, ITV and the BBC.

Dr Libby John, Head of the University of Lincoln’s School of Life Sciences, said: “We are delighted to welcome Chris to the academic staff at the University. At Lincoln we provide our students with a varied and engaging programme of scientific study. Students have the opportunity to work closely with world class academics on real research projects, engage in international fieldtrips and conduct a wide variety of project work. Chris will bring a hugely valuable perspective to our conservation teaching which will further stimulate and challenge students.”

CP and ribbon cutting