Dogs come from wolves but when we compare dogs and wolves they look so much different from their ancestors. True there are breeds like German Shepherds, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes etc that closely resemble the wolves, most breeds do not. This is not only for dogs that were a result of selective breeding but even mix-breed dogs. Have you ever wondered why do some dogs have floppy ears and some don’t?
Did you know that Charles Darwin was thinking the same thing 150 years ago? In 1868, Darwin published a book called ‘The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication’, it is a very vast book that contains vital information on the evolution of animals that took place during or after they got domesticated.
In his book, he also discusses how domesticated species are slightly different from their wilder counterparts. He didn’t just look at dogs but pigs, foxes, goats, cows etc. He noticed that domesticated versions of the same species had:
- patches on their skin
- Lighter skin
- a smaller snout
- floppy ears.
He clubbed all these physical changes and termed them as domestication syndrome.
Why Do Some Dogs Have Floppy Ears And Some Don’t?
There seems to be a special kind of cells called the neural crest cells. Neural crest cells were first discovered by Swiss anatomist Wilhelm His Sr. He said that a high amount of neural crest cells was found among wolves that parted away.
We didn’t force wolves to come to us. The docile wolves broke off from their families and came to us. These wolves did not have droopy ears but there was a difference in their behaviour.
The neural crest cells are responsible for many changes in their anatomy – this includes both physical and mental changes.
Neural Crest Cells Are Responsible For:
- Triggering adrenaline – so that we can fight or flight
- Forming bone structure
- Pigmenting the skin
- Forming cartilage
These cells are found in an organism during their embryo stage and as they grow older the cells disperse to other parts of the body.
Our dogs have very few neural crest cells when compared to their ancestors. Wolves that first came to live around human civilisation also had lower amounts of neural crest cells. These wolves then had babies with other wolves that lived closer to humans civilisation. Their offsprings had even fewer amounts of neural crest cells.
With more wolves with less neural crest cells breeding amongst each other, we saw the coming of docile, tail wagging, head tilting, cute as a button, domesticated dogs.
Neural crest cells are considered a deformity among wolves but it a deformity that played to our favour.
Experiments and Credibility
Around a century later, Russian Scientist, Dmitri K. Belyaev, conducted an experiment with foxes to prove that tameness was a result of breeding and not of increased human interaction.
He conducted this experiment with silver foxes and began the experiment by selecting the most docile wild silver foxes that he brought to a safe contained environment that closely resembled their natural habitat.
These foxes underwent a series of experiments that included them interacting with their handlers and accepting food from their handlers. By the time the foxes reached their puberty (at 7-8 months old), they underwent the final test and the most docile of the foxes in this group were chosen to breed. The chosen lot could not be more than 20% of the existing group.
Surprisingly, 40 generations later, the foxes born as a result of this experiment exhibited dog-like behaviour. They wagged their tail around humans. They also wined for attention from their handlers and showed less aggression towards people they have seen for the first time.
What’s shocking is that, while Belyaev did not conduct this experiment to alter their physical looks, there was visible changes in their appearance. Their snouts became smaller and their tails became shorter and curlier and their ears became floppy!
Criticism and Scope
The neural crest cell theory still has a lot of scopes because there are many questions that have been left unanswered. For instance, it doesn’t explain why cats have upright ears even after they have been domesticated.
However, we have come a long way and the universe is full of secrets. We are sure we will unravel the questions, one at a time.
Will My Puppy Have Floppy Ears When She Grows Up?
Many dogs with upright ears actually have droopy ears as puppies. Also, if you adopt a puppy, you can’t really tell if they will have droopy ears or upright ears when they grow up.
So here are some ways to make out if your puppy will have straight ears or droopy ears when they grow up:
- Their ears are lower down on the head – if their ears are perched lower on the head, their ears will droop
- Their ears will have little movement – dogs with droopy ears have a little movement in the tips of their ears. In case of puppies that will have straight ears when they grow up, they can hold their ears up for some time when they hear a sound
- They are more than 8 months of age – if their ears haven’t straightened in the last 8 months, their ears are more likely to stay droopy all life.
Many have their preferences. Some like their ears straight while others like it droopy. As for us, we think it is a great sense of pride to own a dog with droopy ears. After all, their ancestors chose to come and hang out with us.