DNA technology reveals that Patagonian Sheepdogs are the closest living relatives to now-extinct varieties of herding dogs from Victorian-era Britain.
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Similar in appearance to a sheep, the floofy Patagonian Sheepdog is rare (only several hundred are alive today), and represents the last remnant of a now-lost population of working dogs that originated in Victorian-era Britain. . Maintained as an isolated population for more than 130 years, this special breed offers a unique opportunity to understand the genetic relationship between modern herding breeds, to identify key genomic structures (functional genes as well as other genetic elements such as microsatellites and transposons) of its founders, and investigate how dog genomic data reveals and reflects human migration patterns.
Dog breeds are mostly a European invention
Most of the modern dog breeds were developed in Western Europe during the Victorian era. They were typically developed using a two-step process, beginning with intensive selection for functional traits that made them best suited to specific tasks, such as herding sheep, followed later by an in-depth focus on their physical and aesthetic attributes (ref ) . Of all the varieties of dogs, working dogs are of particular interest to geneticists because they were required to serve multiple functions, including protection, guarding, and herding livestock.
The Patagonian Sheepdog has been kept in the Patagonian region of Chile and Argentina, where it is known by a variety of local names, such as the “Barbucho” or the “Ovejero Magallánico” (ref). Interestingly, this dog is not formally recognized by any breed registry; this is typical of traditional breeds of domestic animals that are specially adapted to their local environment due to isolation from other populations. As a result, this dog is little known.
According to historical documents, sheepdogs originally arrived in southern Chile in 1877 along with their human companions, Scottish settlers who were determined to develop sheep farming in the area, before moving north to the Aysén region of Argentina ( Figure 1A). At the time, individual collie-type breeds were not yet officially defined in Britain, so dogs that were involved in sheep herding were known simply as “working collies” or “sheepdogs” that were adapted to the terrain. and local climate, especially in Scotland. and Wales (Figure 1B). These ancestral working dogs were the foundation of the modern Patagonian Sheepdog.
We know that the Patagonian Sheepdog is the result of 130 years of strong behavioral selection to meet the specific needs of particular human endeavors, combined with restricted geography and little or no infusion of fresh blood, so they are uniquely adapted to the harsh environment in which they live. the bottom of the world (Figure 1C and 1D).
We do not know the genetics of how the Patagonian Sheepdog developed or how it is related to other working dog breeds. To answer these questions, veterinary researcher Natasha Barrios, from the Universidad Austral de Chile, and an international group of geneticists and veterinarians came together to take a look. They genotyped 159 Patagonian herding dogs from Chile and the Chubut province of Argentina and compared those data with published genetic data for 175 formally recognized dog breeds and two wild dog species. Dr. Barrios and her collaborators used these data to construct a phylogenetic tree, or family genetic tree.
Dr. Barrios and her collaborators found that Patagonian Sheepdogs are most closely related to border collies and Australian Kelpies, but were surprised to discover that the Patagonian Sheepdog is not one breed, but two (Figure 2A).
It turns out that the two races are geographically isolated by the Patagonian Ice Fields (Figure 1A). Sheepdog populations north of the Ice Fields are most closely related to border collies (purple area; Figure 2B), while those south of this divide are most closely related to Australian kelpies. (green area; Figure 2B). Paradoxically, the visible and genetic traits make it clear that these dogs share enough similarities (medium build, shaggy coat, and a specific range of colors) to classify them together.
“Using a variety of genomic approaches, we determined the relationship between this population of dogs and modern herding breeds,” Dr. Barrios said in a statement.
Dr. Barrios and her collaborators discovered that Patagonian sheepdogs share a common ancestor with all modern herding breeds in Britain as recently as 150-200 years ago (Figure 6).
“We propose that the Patagonian Sheepdog is the closest living relative of the common ancestor of modern UK herding breeds,” said Dr Barrios.
Also, because the Patagonian Sheepdog has received little selective breeding, not only is it likely to be the closest living breed to Britain’s “foundational sheepdog” from which all modern herding breeds descend.
Natasha Barrios, César González-Lagos, Dayna L. Dreger, Heidi G. Parker, Guillermo Nourdin-Galindo, Andrew N. Hogan, Marcelo A. Gómez, and Elaine A. Ostrander (2022). Patagonian Sheepdog: Genomic analyzes trace footprints of extinct UK herding dogs to South America, PLOS Genetics 18(4):e1010160 | doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1010160
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