I never wanted a dog. Ever. I had a cat as a child (RIP Spot – yes the tween me did indeed give my feline pet that unlikely – and perhaps unfortunate – moniker), and I always thought that a dog would be far too much work and cause lifestyle restrictions that would dwarf any and all benefits. But my darling – and persistent – 11-year-old daughter finally wore me down, and last week we adopted a canine named Darla from a local shelter. We think she’s about 3 or 4 years old, and she’s absolutely the sweetest, prettiest, bestest dog ever (just look at the posted pic and simply TRY to disagree – I dare you!). Yes, I’ve been won over. Big time.
The many dog owners that I work with want to know all about Darla (and why wouldn’t they, given how totally awesome she is?). As her past is unknown, much speculation has been made about her lineage. The consensus is that she’s mostly black lab, with some border collie also likely in the mix (any additional suggestions are welcome as comments). As someone who knew very little about dogs prior to last week, I literally had to Google “border collie” to see if that was an apt comparison. I learned even more in the process.
Biologically, dogs and wolves are considered close “relatives” but distinct species. The domestic dog is formally known as Canis lupus familiaris, and the wolf as Canis lupus. A species (or “kind” in other vernacular) is biologically defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. But this definition sucks.
While considered among the same species, there is absolutely no way that a Chihuahua and a Great Dane can naturally mate (the visual frankly scares me). Plus, the distinct, separate species of dog and wolf CAN indeed produce offspring, with the resulting “wolfdog” also able to reproduce on its own (Google if you doubt this). And we all know about mules, the almost – but not entirely – sterile spawn of a horse and a donkey. The mule’s parents also happen to have different number of chromosomes (32 paired for a horse and 31 for a donkey), this making the ability to have viable progeny seem even more unlikely. In any event, Darla has taught me that the term “species” is not nearly as clear-cut as I had previously believed. And – more importantly – that biology and genetics are truly fascinating and worthy of study.
Despite the greatness of our country, America ranks near the bottom of industrialized nations in science literacy. The fact that getting a dog has caused this 49-year-old man to think more about biology than I have in years is at the same time both hopeful and scary. My wish is that science education in this country can be made more rigorous and interesting. But right now, Darla needs to be taken out for a walk.