New study shows wolves may develop deeper attachments to humans than to dogs

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Decades of behavioral research into dogs (Canis familiaris) has shown that their attachment behavior towards humans evolved after they were last domesticated, nearly 15,000 years ago. This phenotype would have been enhanced during a certain evolution along with humans. However, recent studies seem to contradict this widely held theory and suggest that this behavioral phenotype was always present in its wolf (Canis lupus) ancestor. A new study published in the journal Ecology And Evolution supports this hypothesis, showing that wolves can become very attached to their guardians. This affection will be even deeper than that of dogs. This discovery has the potential to destroy our understanding of the evolution of our dogs, whose domestic transition from their ancestor will end up being largely misunderstood.

Numerous studies have shown that dogs develop and maintain deep emotional bonds with their owners, strong attachments based, in part, on affective interdependence. Most of the theories put forward tend to be based on the fact that these behaviors would have evolved with their domestication by humans and that their wolf ancestors would have remained feral. Then this species (wolf) becomes a victim of prejudice and even denigrated by many fables and myths, according to which it is not able to form any emotional connection and will be just a simple wild animal, guided only by its predatory instincts.

However, wolves are naturally sociable animals and show near-perfect social cohesion within a pack. Care and affection behavior can also be seen in wolves of the same group. It would then be logical to assume that, growing up next to humans, these animals might adopt the same behavior, since the attachment phenotype is already present. Additionally, it has been observed in other wild animals that being close to humans can cause them to become familiar.

“Because previous research has made important contributions to this question, I think it is now appropriate to accept the idea that if there are differences in human-directed attachment behavior among wolves, that behavior could be a potential target for early selective pressure exerted during domestication of dogs,” says Christina Hansen Wiet, an ethologist at Stockholm University in Sweden and lead author of the new study. “We found it necessary to test this extensively.”

These previous studies, in particular, showed that, contrary to popular belief, wolves can become attached to people, just like dogs. However, the tests carried out at the time were not thorough enough to really confirm this hypothesis. A new study by Swedish scientists has established for the first time a method showing that the attachment of a wolf (raised from birth by humans in conditions identical to domestic dogs) will be even stronger than that of a dog.

Students are like dogs

To test their theory, the Swedish researchers raised 10 cubs and 12 puppies as young as 10 days old. For 23 weeks, the animals were reared in exactly the same way, with dedicated care that was familiar to them. Then they were subjected to the same behavioral tests, one of which was to bring their trainers and strangers into their enclosure, which caused the animals a stressful situation. The same experience of infants does demonstrate that a stressful environment can stimulate attachment behaviors such as intimacy and care seeking.

The main purpose of these tests is to find out if wolves, like dogs, can form special bonds with people they know. During the experiments, 23-week-old cubs automatically preferred their guardians, towards whom they showed strong affection. This result shows that this ability has not evolved specifically in dogs.

In addition, the researchers found that wolves suffered more from a stressful situation than dogs. “It was quite clear that wolves, like dogs, preferred a familiar person abroad. But perhaps even more interesting was that while the dogs weren’t particularly affected by the test situation, the wolves were. They walked around the test room,” says Hanser Wheat.

These results also suggest that the bonds of affection that wolves develop with their caregivers are perhaps even deeper than those of dogs with their owners. In addition, the presence of guards in the enclosure for wolves would act as a buffer, because the latter would immediately cease to experience stress in their presence. “Wolves showing human-directed affection may have had a selective advantage in the early stages of dog domestication,” the expert concludes.

Ecology and evolution.

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