The time when dogs began

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE — Sometimes it takes more than a good speaker and subject to bring off a satisfying evening of scientific infotainment.

The right place, the right atmosphere, the right size audience and the right mix of people and animals may also play a role.

Thomas Leitner, a biological theorist at Los Alamos National Laboratory took care of the first requirement Tuesday night with an accomplished presentation on his search for the birth of the dog.

More precisely, Leitner recounted a series of increasingly complex studies to narrow down the questions of where, when, how and why wolves — who are dogs’ immediate ancestors — became domesticated. By analyzing mitochondrial DNA, one of the basic metrics of evolutionary research, he has tried with partial success to answer each of those questions. And he also has a few theories on the ones he hasn’t answered yet.

Leitner and his collaborators now probably can make as good a case as anybody in the world that the multiplicity of breeds of dogs – from the Mexican Hairless to the Great Dane and every mutt in between – have descended from at least 48 gray wolves in the area south of the Yangtze River in China.

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