This idea is what led animal curator Jack Throp to attempt de-extinction at the Honolulu Zoo in the 1960s. By breeding dogs with Poi-like characteristics together, then doing the same with multiple generations of their offspring. , he hoped to concentrate the genes of the type until he came out of the ether of hybridization.
“There’s a wonderful photo in the Honolulu Star where he recreated what he thinks a Poi dog should look like,” Williams says. Unfortunately, the results of the project are not well documented, and soon after, the project appears to be dead. “And again, it never really caught on as a popular breed and people wanting to preserve them,” adds Williams.
However, there could be more than one afterlife for Salish dogs, which ethnographic studies have shown have sometimes been intentionally crossed with wolves and coyotes to make them better hunters. Kasia Anza-Burgess, a former archaeologist who has studied the Salish people and their relationship with dogs, is optimistic that perhaps their lineage lives on somewhere in the wild.
“We found no genetic evidence [of hybridisation] in our sample [of Salish dog bones from archaeological sites]”, explains Anza-Burgess. But she points out that she only examined mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mothers to their offspring. This is important, because – naturally – it was the female dogs that the Salish left out to breed with wolves or coyotes, so wild gene injections would always come from males.
“But I think it would be fascinating for future research to look at whole genomes and not just the maternal line, and see what kind of backcrossing you can find there, because the evidence seems pretty strong that it should be there. – we just ‘not pick it up,’ says Anza-Burgess.
A tricky decision
Fast forward to today, and endangered dogs face a new hurdle on their way to survival: the collision of genetics with ethics.
Over the past decade, growing awareness of the low genetic diversity of many dog breeds – especially pedigree varieties – has led canine organizations to take inbreeding more seriously.
Today, some breeds have such small populations that the ethics of maintaining them becomes tricky – with such low genetic diversity, they may become more susceptible to deformities or disease. Eventually, “inbreeding depression” – where a population’s fertility is affected by the accumulation of unhealthy genetic variants – can wipe them out altogether.
One breed at risk is the Sealyham terrier, which became fashionable among celebrities in the 1930s and 1940s – Cary Grant, Princess Margaret, Marlena Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis and even Agatha Christie all had one of these. those cuddly white dogs at some point. With their curly white fur and venerable beards, the dogs look almost half lamb, half old man.
But after decades of popularity, they have fallen into decline with the emergence of designer breeds like the cockapoo – the offspring of a poodle and a cocker spaniel – which have similarly cuddly characteristics.
After hitting bottom in 2008, today their populations are steadily increasing. However, the entire breeding population is still just over 100 – often considered the lower limit of survival for endangered species.
Given the new emphasis on the genetic health of dogs, Worboys doesn’t think there’s much hope for endangered breeds like the Sealyham today. He recalls a conversation with a veterinarian at a dog club a few years ago, “and he was saying, off the record, there were about six or seven breeds that he wanted to see extinct because they were more of a problem than ‘they are not worth’.
Who knows, maybe soon such delightful dogs as the Old English Sheepdog, Sealyham Terrier and Irish Wolfhound might join the list of extinct historical sights, along with all the others.
Zaria Gorvett is a senior reporter for BBC Future and tweets @ZariaGorvett
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