I don’t know about you, but I would do just about anything to own a dog right now. Renting and commuting won’t allow for it at the moment, but it got me thinking, why are dogs so adorable? New research has actually found an evolutionary reason.
Dogs are one of the most diverse species on earth. Other than size, their coats, ears, temperament and more can vary dependent on their breed, even though at a genetic level they are practically identical! 84 dog breeding governing bodies across the globe decide if a dog meets the criteria of a specific breed, and getting a completely new breed recognised is very difficult. Worldwide, there are 360 registered dog breeds and obviously, this does not include dogs from mixed breeds. Dogs have been bred for a plethora of tasks for which they are still used to this day, but obviously they make amazing pets too.
There has been a lot of research into the science behind the saying “dogs are man’s best friend”. The remains of domesticated dogs buried with humans dated at 14,000 years old, have been found in ruins as far apart as Japan and North America; making dogs the oldest animal to live alongside humans as a companion. As a result of this, dogs have similar social values to us and thus, we have a very close bond with them, as they adapt their behaviour to fit with ours. It has been found that oxytocin (i.e. a hormone that suppresses cortisol which is linked to anxiety and depression) peaks in both the owner and the dog when they interact in a positive manner.
Alongside adapting their behaviour to fit ours, a new study has found that dogs’ eyes have evolved new muscles to better communicate with humans. The research was conducted at the University of Portsmouth (UK) and published this week (June 17th) in PNAS. Their work compared the anatomy and behaviour of dogs and wolves. Whilst most of their facial anatomy was very similar, researchers found that the anatomy around dogs’ eyes have evolved to better communicate with humans. Unlike wolves, dogs have a small muscle above their eye which allows them to raise their inner eyebrow. This action makes a dog’s eyes look larger, and thus triggers a nurturing response in humans. Amongst other features, a child’s large eyes are evolved to trigger this nurturing response, enhancing its chance of survival. Dogs have likely evolved to trigger this same reaction from us, meaning we are more likely to take care of those “puppy dog eyes”. The study found that dogs would move their eyebrows more when humans were looking at them compared to when we were looking away. Overall, this means we not only want to care for them, but they also appear to us, as though they are capable of human-like communication; although this is an illusion.
The group proved this was a trait of evolutionary gain as this muscle was not consistently seen in their closest living relative, the wolf. This muscular evolution is considered very fast, usually taking much longer for such traits to evolve. There are other evolutionary examples seen in fossil sites. For example, there have been fossils of whales on land, suggesting an intermediate species before the mammal returned to water. Also, some fossils depict dinosaurs which had feathers; likely used for insulation or aesthetic, rather than for flight. Such examples show how much evolution can help over time, and how much more change there could one day be.
Without a doubt, “puppy dog eyes” are effective (on me at least), and finally science has shown that our canine friends have evolved to play up to our desire to look after vulnerable things. Maybe felines have a bad wrap, at least they make it known they just use us for food and shelter! (I realise that this may be a sore spot for many pet owners; I apologise).