Origin of the canids

 

Canids are mammals characterised by pointed canines, teeth designed for an omnivorous diet and a skeleton built for digitigrade locomotion (walking on the toes without the heels touching the ground).
The Canidae family belongs to the Carnivora, an order that developed in the early Tertiary Period in the ecological niches left by the large reptiles that disappeared at the end of the Mesozoic Era.
They began to spread and diversify throughout North America with the appearance of Miacidae, which resembled modern-day weasels. The Carnivora family was at its zenith forty million years ago when it included forty-two different genera. Today, only sixteen genera remain. The modern Canidae family includes three sub-families: Cuoninae (lycaon), Otocyoninae (South African Otocyon) and Caninae (dog, wolf, fox, jackal, coyote).

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Evolution of the canids

 

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The canids started to evolve and diversify at the beginning of the Tertiary Period on the North American land mass with the appearance of a family of carnivores called the Miacidae, which resembled modern-day weasels.

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Canids gradually replaced Miacidae, giving rise to the hesperocyon, genus, which was very common approximately thirty-five million years ago. Their skulls and toes showed skeletal and dental features similar to those of modern-day wolves, dogs and foxes, indicating a direct link to these early carnivores.

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The Miocene epoch

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 saw the appearance of the Phlaocyon genus, which is thought to have resembled a raccoon, and the Mesocyon genus, which had a dental construction similar to that of modern dogs.

The body profile of canids evolved through the Cynodesmus (which looked like a coyote), the Tomarctus and the Leptocyon, gradually taking on the appearance of today’s wolf or even spitz–type dogs with the reduction and coiling of the tail, the lengthening of the legs and extremities, and the reduction of the fifth toe (dewclaw), which enabled the animal to run more quickly.

 

Appearance of the Canis genus

The Canis genus of the Canidae family did not appear until the end of the Tertiary Period. These animals reached Europe via the Bering Strait during the late Eocene epoch, but seemed to disappear during the early Oligocene epoch as the Ursidae family (bears) grew in numbers. Canis lepophagus migrated to Europe from North America in the late Miocene epoch. This new arrival looked much like the modern dog, although it was closer in size to a coyote.

During the Pliocene epoch, these canids spread towards Asia and then Africa. Paradoxically they do not appear to have moved into South America until much later, during the early Pleistocene epoch. Finally humans introduced the genus to Australia around 500,000 years ago, during the late Pleistocene epoch, although there is no proof that these early canids are the ancestors of the modern-day dingo — wild dogs that were brought to Australia by humans a mere 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Ancestor of the wolf, jackal and coyote

Canis etruscus (the Etruscan dog) appeared approximately one to two million years ago. Despite its small size, it is thought to be the ancestor of European wolves. Canis cypio, which lived in the Pyrenees eight million years ago, appears to be the ancestor of modern jackals and coyotes.

Archaeological sites in Europe and China

Several varieties of dog have been found buried at archaeological sites in Europe. It is thought that the largest are descended from the large northern wolves, which stood as tall at the withers as today’s Great Dane. They probably gave rise to Nordic dogs and large herders. The smaller ones, morphologically similar to modern-day wild dingoes, are probably descended from smaller wolves from India or the Middle East. Other archaeological finds show the early existence of large dogs in the north.

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