Good morning all,
At several points this term, we have discussed the genetics of behavior, including both the ability of single genes to influence behavior, as well as the heritability of individual behaviors and how traits can potentially be mapped onto phylogenetic histories. In the recent behavioral news is a report of a study that used large databases on dog behavior and genetics to look for behavioral traits that were associated with consistent genetic features. The researchers found >100 potential sites in the genome that were strongly associated with dog breed characteristics, including train-ability, aggression, excitability, and others.
One of the strengths of the method used here was that the researchers restricted themselves to a subset of the data pertaining to purebred dogs. This has the advantage of eliminating cross-breed variation which could dilute the strength of the genetic signals they were trying to detect. Dogs also are an advantageous species for a study like this, because they are popular, have long been bred in relatively pure lines, and have been artificially selected for a range of behavioral characteristics.
Some of the associations reported are quite strong, with heritability estimates as high as 60-70%. Those are very high values, near the limit reported for animal behavior-genetic comparisons. It's also surprising, in that, while this study has several strengths in its design, it also has one specific weakness: the researchers did not have genetic and behavioral information from the same individual animals, but instead were relying on databases (and breed averages) assessed across different individuals. That suggests that some of the associations, if tested within individual subjects, could be even stronger.
The human-dog relationship is a long one, and our artificial selection of dogs has been enormously powerful - when you think about all of the different dog breeds in the world, from Danes to dachshunds, Newfoundlands to chihuahuas, they all are the same species. That is testament to an enormous phenotypic plasticity (reaction norm) within their development. I'm going to request a copy of the original research article that this news report references, if anyone would like to see it - I'll bet it is interesting reading. Perhaps it will shed some light on my dog's (a rescue Rottweiler) behavior...
Have a great rest of the weekend - see you on Tuesday.