What is a German Shepherd? The answer from the genomic data

Sagan German shepherd

If you were to ask the average person how to classify a German shepherd in terms of dog breed taxonomy, most would say it’s guard dog, putting it somewhere with the Rottweiler and the boxer. Others might think it’s a primitive breed and might classify it with the Siberian husky and the malamute.

Those with a bit more dog knowledge would p lace it with the Belgian and Dutch shepherds.

Indeed, if you were going to ask me where I’d classify German shepherds ten years ago, I would have placed them as the German variant of what became distilled from a German-Belgian-Dutch prick-eared, black-masked herding dog landrace.

DNA studies have changed quite a bit of our understanding of dog breeds and their origins. In the initial attempts to classify dog breeds using only mitochondrial DNA found that German shepherds clustered with the mastiff breeds.

However, more recent genome-wide analyses have revealed something rather unusual. German shepherds are not directly related to the Belgian herding dogs at all. Instead,  one study found that they they are most closely related to the Berger Picard, the Chinook, and the Peruvian and Mexican hairless dogs.

Initial studies of regional Italian herding dogs using microsatellites suggested a close relationship between those dogs and border collies.  However, more recent genome-wide analyses have placed the Italian herders much closer to the German shepherd dog. Indeed, the German shepherd is very closely related to Italian prick-eared herding types, such as the Lupo Italiano and the Cane Paratore. These Italian herders and the Berger Picard all fit in a single clade with the German shepherd.

These findings upturn our assumption that the Belgian and Dutch shepherds are that closely related to German shepherds– at least in the bulk of their DNA.

However, the initial genome-wide study that found a relationship between the Berger Picard and the GSD also found that there was some GSD in the various Belgian herders, including the Bouvier des Flandres.

That means that at some point in the development of those breeds, German shepherds or proto-German shepherds were crossed into them. Crossing German shepherds with the Malinois isn’t an uncommon practice in some working dog circles even now. Apparently, this practice was done more frequently when the breeds were not so defined as they are now.

And it should be noted that only tiny ancestry blocks from German shepherds into the Belgian breeds. The bulk of their DNA derives from very distinct dog stocks. The Belgian herding breeds are more closely related to British herders and Western sighthounds than they are to German shepherds.

These genome-wide studies have lots of interesting findings, including that xoloitzcuintli and Peruvian hairless dogs are almost entirely derived from European herding dogs and that their sister breed is the Catahoula. Because of this relationship to these Latin American dogs, the Catahoula is probably more derived from Iberian herding breeds than from French ones. It is likely that the hairless dogs of the New World are the originators of their hairless trait, but because it is conferred via a semi-dominant allele it was easily transferred onto a population that consists of dog of European origin.

The relationship between German shepherds and Italian herders is easily understood. German shepherds are heavily derived from Bavarian and Swabian sheepdogs, and Bavarian shepherds were often grazing their sheep in the Alps during the summer, as were the Italian shepherds. The dogs exchanged genes in those high country meadows, and their pups went onto found populations on both sides of the mountains.

This story fits the genomic data, but it make the Berger Picard a bit of an anomaly. Picardy is in the northeastern France, a long distance from the Alps. It would make more sense for this breed to be more closely related to the Belgian shepherds and the Bouvier, but it is not. The North European Plain is easier for dogs and their genes to flow across, but the Berger Picard is very close the German shepherd breeds and its Italian cousins.

I do not have a good answer for why this anomaly exists. I don’t know much about the Berger Picard or its history. Maybe it became a very rare breed and was interbred heavily with German shepherds, or maybe the region is very connected through markets to the Alps or Bavaria or Northern Italy.

Maybe someone can answer these questions for me.  It seems weird that the Berger Picard is so closely related to dogs that have origins in Southern and Central Europe rather than adjacent Belgium.

The evolution of herding breeds is complex. Apparently, having a dog with a wolf-like phenotype is useful for herding flocks. The Belgian shepherds apparently evolved their type independently of the German shepherd, the Berger Picard, and the Italian prick-eared herders. Perhaps sheep just respect that look more, and it has some advantage in their management.

As we have seen, dogs can evolve very similar physical traits in parallel with each other, which is why we must always be careful when creating an umbrella classification for different breeds.

Just because they look alike and have similar functions does not mean they are that closely related.


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Natural History

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Remember Me Thursday Honors Shelter Pets–Don’t Miss #RememberMeThursday Contest

“All of the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.” A time to take the words of Saint Francis of Assisi to heart, Remember Me Thursday is a day to light the…

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Live Near Wildfires? Vet Advice on Keeping Your Dog Safe

Historic wildfires have ravaged California in recent weeks, leaving an astonishing 3.3 million acres burned in less than a month. Across California, it is estimated that 29 major wildfires are still…

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Sweet Corn with Chili and Orange Hoisin Glaze

Grilled Corn with Orange Hoisin and Chili Glaze

One of the things that I love most about summer is sweet corn on the cob. So as sweet corn season (and summer itself, boohoo) comes to an end, I find myself grabbing it from a local farm as often as possible knowing that it will soon be gone.
This is one of my favorite ways to eat sweet corn, with a unique twist. You may even remember me sharing it here a few years ago. I’ve since tweaked a few things with the recipe and now I officially declare it end-of-summer sweet corn perfection. I hope you love it as much as we do. 
Grilled Corn with Orange Hoisin and Chili Glaze
Grilled Corn with Orange Hoisin and Chili Glaze
Sweet Corn with Chili and Orange Hoisin Glaze  

Serves 6

6 ears sweet corn, husked
1 tablespoon Hoisin Sauce  
1 teaspoon chili oil (red pepper flakes work too!) 
5-6 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons finely grated orange rind
fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)

Heat your grill to medium high. In a small bowl, combine Hoisin sauce, chili oil or red pepper flakes, melted butter, and grated orange rind, and mix well. Grill corn for about 3 minutes, turn, and grill another 2-3 minutes. Use a brush to coat corn with glaze, and continue to grill for another 5-7 minutes, brushing with the glaze every couple of minutes. Remove corn from grill, brush with glaze, and top with chopped cilantro.  

Grilled Corn with Orange Hoisin and Chili Glaze
Grilled Corn with Orange Hoisin and Chili Glaze

Savor that sweet corn, friends. I know I will be, ’til summer’s bitter end. 



Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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How Much Does It Cost to Have a Dog?

If you’re thinking about adding a dog to your family, you may be wondering if you can afford it. Here’s our guide to costs associated with having a dog in your pack. Acquisition: Your initial cost to buy a dog will vary greatly depending on the breed (or lack thereof) and on where you buy. … Continue reading How Much Does It Cost to Have a Dog?

Doggies.com Dog Blog

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4 Years Seizure Free!

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen my post on August 13th celebrating this amazing milestone.  Well it’s a couple of weeks later now, but I decided I wanted to share here too. Four years ago, on August 13th, this kind, wild, funny, wise little boy had his last seizure from Infantile Spasms. There were cupcakes and extra snuggles to celebrate. 

You can read more about Emmett’s journey with IS, and why four years of seizure freedom is such a big deal, right here.
For those of you who showered us with so much love and positive vibes when we were in the thick of it, we are forever grateful. And if you are a new IS parent who comes across this, I am here for. Please reach out.
We love and are constantly inspired by you, Emmett!


Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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The Thylacine was more a marsupial coyote than a marsupial wolf

One of the most common memes in our popular understanding of zoology is that the thylacine of Tasmania was the marsupial equivalent of the gray wolf.  This idea comes from a rather superficial understanding of its morphology, and lots of speculation about its behavior have stemmed from this popular understanding. One idea is that they were pack-hunters like wolves and dingoes, and they would have been murder on Tasmania’s sheep industry. Therefore, the final extinction of the thylacine was largely predicated upon a rational fear that the creatures would have been detrimental to sheep husbandry.

A lot of these speculations come from a belief that the thylacine was quite large. As I have discussed before on this space, larger carnivores are largely forced to hunt larger prey to survive. Otherwise, the larger size is of no benefit to the animal. Ecologists have found that the mass of 21 kg (about 46 pounds) is the size at which a carnivorous mammal can no longer subsist on smaller prey alone.

Thylacines were estimated to have weighed 29. 5 kg (about 65 pounds), which meant that their diet would have been larger prey. However, really big prey species are almost absent from Tasmania. The largest kangaroo in Tasmania is the Tasmanian Eastern gray kangaroo, which weighs is roughly the size of the smaller forms of white-tailed deer in the US.  Further, analysis of Thylacine skulls revealed that they could not withstand very much force. So the thylacine would not have been a very effective predator of prey the size of an Eastern gray kangroo, and it would have had a lot of trouble grappling with a fully grown sheep.

The fact that thylacines would have had problems killing large prey creates a contradiction in their supposed larger size.  If thylacines really did weigh 65 pounds on average, then they would be a major exception to the rule that larger predators must hunt larger prey to survive.

Well, a new analysis by researchers at Monash University has revealed that traditional estimates of thylacine size were greatly exaggerated.  Using complex morphometric analyses on various preserved specimens, the researchers revealed that the mean weight of a male thylacine was 19.7 kilograms (43 pounds). The mean weight of a female was 13. 7 kilograms (30 pounds).

These animals would have been roughly the same size of an Eastern coyote. Now, Eastern coyotes can live on large prey or small prey, and they can scavenge quite well. But they have skulls that can withstand blunt force from a sheep or a deer that a pack of them has run down. The Eastern coyote can live as a fox or a wolf, depending upon the conditions of the ecosystem in which it lives.

A thylacine would have been a smaller prey specialist, and because its weight did not exceed 21 kilograms, its subsistence on smaller prey did not violate the “costs of carnivory” rule.

Indeed, the only predatory mammal I can think of that does come close to violating this rule is the maned wolf, which sometimes weighs 22 or 23 kg. It lives almost entirely on small prey and fruit. This species has been persecuted for its attacks on livestock, but like the thylacine, it is not much of a threat to them.

Of course, there will be debate about this finding. Many historical accounts of thylacines suggest or imply or even outright claim that they were killing sheep and dogs left and right.

But the truth is that Europeans had their own concept of what a creature like this could do or was likely to do, and they merely transposed these ideas onto a creature that had the superficial appearance of a wolf or hyena.

We should by now stop trying to pigeonhole the thylacine into a marsupial wolf and should try to appreciate it for what it was.

Or might still be.*


*I don’t believe they still exist, but I certainly wish they did!





Natural History

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A First Day of Preschool Interview (For In Person, E-Learning, or Homeschool!)

A First Day of Preschool Interview (For In Person, E-Learning, or Homeschool!)

If you’ve been following us for a while, you know that over the past couple of years, I have put together a fun ‘interview’ with questions to ask my kids on their first days of school (and on the last day, to see how answers of changed).  I shared my daughter’s answers a couple of weeks ago. My son’s first day was yesterday, so I thought I’d share his answers as well. 

As I mentioned with my daughter’s interview, I changed the questions slightly this year incorporate the new ‘normal’ in which we’re living. Whether your child is learning in person, remotely, or via homeschool this year, this survey is a fun way to document the beginning of the year. 

1. What is your name? Emmett.
2. What grade are you in? Pre-K.
3. How old are you? 4-1/2.
4. What is your favorite color? Blue.
5. What is your favorite thing to do at school? Play.  
6. What is your favorite activity outside of school? Soccer and gymnastics.
7. What do you want to be when you grow up? A musician and Sonic (the Hedgehog).
8. What is your favorite food? Mac and cheese. 
9. How old is your mommy? 10.  
10. What is her job? Yoga. (I wish!)
11. What is mommy’s favorite food? Spinach.  
12. How old is your daddy? 40.   
13. What is his job? Work. 
14. What is daddy’s favorite food? Mahi mahi.
15. What do mommy and daddy like to do? Go on a date.
16. If you have brothers or sisters, what are their names? Essley.
17. How old is your brother(s) (and/or sisters)? 6.
18. What is your brother(s) (and/or sisters) favorite food? Fried chicken.
19. What is your favorite toy? Paw Patrol toys.
20. Where do you live? Chicagoland.
21. What is your favorite thing to do? Go to Disney World because we never went.  
22. What is your favorite place you’ve ever been? McDonalds. 
23. Who is your best friend? Nick and Hunter.
24. What is your favorite animal? Dinosaurs.
25. If you could have anything you wished for, what would it be? Go to Disney.

26. Are you learning at school, on the computer at home, or doing homeschool this year? All of them.
27. What is one thing you love about the unique way you are doing school this year? I like to wear my Cookie Monster mask at school.  

I’d love to see your kids answers as well, for anyone who wants to share! (I got the cute chalkboard sign in the photo above right here.)


Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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So does the maned wolf break the “costs of carnivory” paradigm?

In recent post I wrote about the new research regarding the thylacine’s size, I mentioned that maned wolves might violated the “costs of carnivory” rule, which states that predatory mammals that weigh more than 21 kilograms (46 pounds) must haunt larger prey sources to survive.

Maned wolves do exceed this size, but their diet does not consist of large prey. They are not a threat to ungulate livestock. They take only small prey, such as rabbits, rodents, and small birds. They could be a threat to chickens and other poultry, but they aren’t cattle killers.

On a superficial reading of their ecology and diet, one would assume they would break this 21 kilogram rule. The largest ones do get to around 23 kilograms, and if they are that large, then they surely break this “costs of carnivory” rule.

But they don’t.

The reason is they have a most unusual diet for a canid.  Between 40 and 90 percent of their diet can consist of a single fruit called a lobeira or “wolf apple.” The average diet of a maned wolf is around 50 percent vegetable matter, which means they aren’t as bound by the rules of carnivorous diets as other mammalian predators are.

The maned wolf first appeared in the fossil record in what is today the Desert Southwest what is called the Blancan faunal age (late Pilocene to early Pleistocene).

It entered South America, along with a whole host of other canids, and it evolved to a specialist niche as a grassland predator. Many species of similar-sized dog were also diversifying in South America, it is likely that it evolved its unusual diet as a way of avoiding competition with more carnivorous canids.

So vegetarian are maned wolves that when fed a typical wild carnivoran diet in zoos, they often develop bladder stones. Their kidneys cannot absorb a particular amino acid called cystine, and the excess cystine turns into stones.

Most mid-sized canids are true generalists in their diets. The exceptions are the maned and Ethiopian wolves. The Ethiopian wolf runs between 14-19 kilograms, so its rodent specialized diet does not violate the rule.

But the maned wolf’s heavily frugivorous almost takes them out of the predator guild entirely.  They are as almost omnivorous as most bears are, and all extant bear species exceed 21 kilograms at maturity.

So maned wolves don’t violate the costs of carnivory rule. They do so, because they are far less predatory than virtually any other dog species. They are certainly less predatory that other dogs of their size.


Natural History

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12 Halloween Themed Kids Outfits (Under $30)

12 Halloween Themed Kids Outfits (Under $  30)
1. Pumpkin Dress ($ 24.99)   |   2. Ghost and Spider Joggers ($ 9.99)   |   3. Pumpkin Sweatshirt ($ 9.99)   |   4. Skeleton Jogging Set ($ 29.99)   |   5. Black Star and Moon Tulle Skirt ($ 14.99)   |  6. Ghost Dress ($ 14.99)   |   7. Spider Web Dress ($ 17.99)   |   8. Halloween Socks ($ 12.99 for 5)   |   9.  Witch and Cat Dress ($ 24.99)   |   10. Spider Sweatshirt ($ 14.99)   |   11. Black Cat 2-Piece Set ($ 9.99)   |   12.  Jack O’ Lantern Hoodie ($ 24.99)

I’m one of those people who holds onto summer until the end of September, but the dumpster fire that is 2020 is making me want to fast forward more than usual. I am not ready for fall by any means, but I am looking forward to trying to make Halloween extra special this year, knowing that the usual parties and trick-or-treating fun likely won’t be happening. This means I’ve been picking up a decoration and cute piece of Halloween clothing here and there, and I couldn’t resist sharing some of these adorable Halloween themed outfits with you guys. Best of all, they’re all under $ 30.

Are you ready for fall/Halloween, or soaking up summer for just a little longer?

Bubby and Bean ::: Living Creatively

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