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Carolina Dog Raises Evolution Questions

In the lowlands of South Carolina there is a breed of small dog, found in the wild and domesticated, that may open a window into how dogs co-evolved with humans, and the routes they took together as they spread around the globe, the New York Times says.

The Carolina dog is a pointy-eared, smallish, pack-hunting animal with a distinctive mask and a wolf-like snout, giving them a roughly similar appearance to the Dingo of Australia.

The breed got its name from I. Lehr Brisbin, a biologist who 'discovered' these dogs inhabiting the swampy regions near the Savannah River nuclear power plant, where he was surveying the wildlife. Brisbin began taking in some of these wild dogs, and he has since managed to get the breed recognized by the United Kennel Club.

While some Carolina dogs live with people in the region, some still are found in the wild, the Times says, and local lore has it that these dogs were here before Europeans arrived, making them the a "native dog," according to Michael Ruano, an enthusiast of the breed.

There is some evidence to support the theory that the Carolina dogs are pre-Columbian American natives.

The 16th Century explorer Hernand de Soto had possible references to these dogs in his journals from visiting America, and late in the 18th Century the early American natural historial William Bartram notes encountering a similar dog controlling a troop of horses kept by a Seminole Indian. Meriweather Lewis writes in 1806 about an "Indian dog" that was used to hunt elk and which that fits the Carolina dog's profile, the Times reports.

According to the UKC, skeletal and mummified remains of this breed have been found in ceremonial burials of Southwest Indian groups in the US, which seem to indicate that they were companion animals. The UKC says they later moved on to the Southeastern US.

Proof that the Carolina dog is a native breed might factor into current theories of the evolution of domesticated dogs, which currently hold that they are likely descended from wolves that attached to humans between 12,000 and 33,000 years ago. But did that happen in China, the Middle East, or elsewhere?

A group of investigators at Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology say they have shown that the Carolina dog is one of three breeds, including the Chihuahua and the Peruvian hairless, which lack some genetic markers that would indicate that they are of European origin, the Times reports. That would suggest that these dogs migrated from Asia at some earlier time -- a theory that the UKC takes as a given.