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Although it is not known exactly when and where dogs began to be domesticated by humans, most scientists agree that the earliest genetic differences from wolves, the animals from which they descend, are to be placed around 33 thousand years ago. The fact that today dogs know how to conquer food or caresses with a single look at their owners is not a coincidence: a recent study indicates that these animals began to develop facial muscles in a way to communicate better with humans and like them more, a process in which domestication would play an important role.
The research was conducted by Anne Burrows, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) and was presented last April 5 during a meeting of the American Association for Anatomy in Philadelphia. It is based in particular on the anatomical study of the muscles that allow animals – including humans – to change facial expressions, that is, the facial mimic muscles.
To simplify, in humans most of these muscles are characterized by fibers that contract very quickly and easily (and fatigue just as quickly), allowing you to smile spontaneously in response to a compliment or a raised eyebrow. to react to something perplexing; then there are mimic muscles with fibers that contract more slowly, which are instead used for prolonged actions over time. It is on the rapidly contracting fibers present in the facial muscles of wolves and domesticated dogs that the research of Burrows and his colleague Kailey Madisen Omstead, head of the biological research laboratory of his own university, has focused.
According to the results of the study, the percentage of fibers of this type found in the facial muscles of dogs varies between 66 and 95 percent, while in wolves it stops at 25 percent. In contrast, a much higher percentage of fiber of the second type was found in the facial muscles of wolves – 29 percent compared to about 10 percent seen in dogs. From the point of view of evolution, the researchers hypothesize that the presence of fibers that contract more slowly may have facilitated the wolves in long and controlled movements, such as howls; in dogs, however, those that contract faster may have developed to attract the attention of humans through the expressiveness of the eyes or with shorter barks.
The hypothesis of the researchers is that during the domestication process, humans have to some extent selected and raised dogs based on facial expressions that they found most similar to their own, and that at the same time the fibers of the dogs’ muscles evolved in a way that to improve the communication of the animals with the owners.
As another had already pointed out study of 2019 also conducted by Burrows, with the evolution dogs have also developed a particular muscle that allows them to raise the eyebrow arch, making their eyes seem larger and making them more like humans, so to speak: this expression recalls that of people when they are sad, and therefore stimulates the owners to want to take care of them, Omstead noted. Another muscle always developed in dogs and also present in wolves, but much less used, allows instead to stretch the outer ends of their eyes towards the ears, producing an expression that humans can remember that of the “smiling” eyes.
“Dogs are truly unique compared to all other domesticated animals because their bond with humans is demonstrated through gazing at each other, something that is not observed in other domesticated mammals, such as horses or dogs,” Burrows commented. The study’s findings indicate that humans may have “deliberately or not” bred dogs that had facial expressions more like their own, Omstead added. “We also know that we are still subconsciously looking for these traits in dogs,” he concludes.
– Read also: How long have dogs existed?