It's hard to imagine, when confronting the wee Chihuahua or the minute Maltese, the tiny shih-tzu or the petite Pekingese. Adorable or annoying, the world's small dogs appear to share one trait - a genetic link to the fearsome grey wolf of the Middle East. Researchers believe that all dogs that weigh less than 9kg evolved from grey wolves, present in the Middle East more than 12,000 years ago.
Melissa Gray and Robert Wayne, of the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that a form of a gene called IGF1, found in all small dogs, is linked to regional populations of the grey wolf. The researchers, who studied the genetics of wolves across the world, believe that villagers in the Fertile Crescent area of what is now Iraq may have bred smaller dogs. "Small size could have been more desirable in more densely packed agrarian societies where dogs may have lived partly indoors or in confined outdoor spaces," their report said.
Tying in with the results, archaeologists have found remains of small domestic dogs in the region from 12,000 years ago. In the UAE, archaeological evidence of domestic dogs dates back 4,000 years, based on the remains of a dog found next to a female skeleton in Ras al Khaimah. The researchers' findings seem to be at odds with studies that placed the origin of all domestic dogs in eastern Asia. Adam Boyko, a geneticist based at Stanford University, said the study "really pokes a hole in the argument of this relatively simple domestication in east Asia".
Prof Gray said the findings did not place the first domesticated dogs in the Middle East, but pointed to a "strong indication" that the region "played a significant role in the early history of domestic dogs". Dinky dogs, in particular. The grey wolf is found in a wide variety of habitats, including grasslands, deserts, forests and mountains. However, wolves are thought to have disappeared from the UAE.
Peter Hellyer, the co-editor of The Emirates: A Natural History, said the Arabian wolf, a subspecies of the grey wolf, is believed to have become extinct in the Emirates in the last decade or so. "This is primarily because of hunting," he said. He added that individual wolves might occasionally pass through parts of the country such as Hatta or Al Ain. Experts believe that wolves could become established again in the UAE, particularly as populations are increasing in Oman, where hunting is banned.
The grey wolf's former range covered vast swathes of the northern hemisphere, although they are now extinct from many of the countries where they were once abundant, including Mexico, Britain, Morocco and the Netherlands. However, thanks to their overall abundance they are not considered to be at risk of global extinction. @Email:email@example.com * With inputs from AFP