Japanese Wolf – Dogs Closest Cousin?

Japanese Wolves have been extinct for 100-200 years. The only intact specimens are found in museums. Recent research has shown a strong link between these wolves and some modern dog breeds. Read on to find out which ones.

Did Dogs Come From the Japanese Wolf?

New DNA evidence suggests that ancient Japanese wolves might be modern dogs’ closest relatives. Modern wolves are less related to dogs. There seems to be a missing evolutionary gap that this research narrows. Other theories propose that dogs originated from wolves in Europe or the Middle East but these latest findings weaken those theories due to the genetic similarity found.

Japanese Wolf stuffed in a Museum
Japanese Wolf – about the size of a modern-day Border Collie

Where are they Now?

Only the size of a Border Collie, these canids were found in many parts of Japan and were admired as a protector of farmers and travelers. They went extinct around 100 to 120 years ago following a rabies epidemic in the 17th century that caused a purge of the species.

How did they Determine the Relationship to Dogs?

A study on the preprint server for Biology, BioRxiv, has determined from the preserved remains of the Japanese Wolf that modern dogs found in East Eurasia contain this species DNA.  In fact, up to 5.5% of modern dog genomes throughout East Eurasia are derived from Japanese Wolf ancestry.

Evolutionary biologists in Japan studied the complete genomes of 9 Japanese Wolves. They obtained the samples from museums as well as from skulls found on the roofs of old houses (people use to place the skulls of these wolves on their roofs for protection).

They then sequenced the DNA of 11 dog breeds including the Shiba Inu. Researchers compared sequences with the available DNA of a variety of canids, like foxes, coyotes, dingos, other wolves, and modern dogs from around the globe.

Japanese Wolves stood out from the pack so to speak. The Japanese Wolf lineage was closer to dogs than any other animal in the study.

Golden Lab panting

But not All Dogs?

East Eurasian dogs like the Shiba Inu as well as ancient wild breeds like the Dingo or the New Guinea Singing Dog contain up to 5.5% of the genome of the Japanese Wolf but western breeds like the Labrador Retriever contain much less.

No one knows how the Japanese wolf ended up in Japan in the first place but evidence shows a genetic relationship to a type of Siberian Wolf that is also now extinct. How they migrated and how dogs arose are still being debated.

One hypothesis is that Japanese Wolves mated with dogs as eastern migration occurred. Later, those eastern dogs bred with western dogs, diluting Japanese wolf DNA in these breeds.

Shiba Inu – a Basal Breed?

It comes down to 4 genes that the now extinct Japanese Wolf shares with some modern dog breeds. It’s unclear why these genes persisted or what they do. Scientists know that one of these genes when altered in mice causes the animal to binge food.

Other genes might affect physical features. Shiba Inu’s for example have pointed ears like a wolf and not floppy ears like many western breeds. 

Pure-Bred Shiba Inu

Shiba Inu’s are a basal breed — primitive breeds that have retained their essential nature. Each basal breed had a purpose, whether it was to hunt, herd, pull, or guard.

Basal breeds have retained the psychological and cognitive processes they were bred with thousands of years ago. Other examples include Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, Chow-Chow, and Afghan Hounds.

Below is a picture of my Shiba Inu mix that my wife and I rescued. She was sent to us from Japan by a friend of ours, Susan Mercer, who runs Heart Tokushima (take a minute and check it out and consider a donation). She has both a collar and a harness on because she is so wily that she would escape otherwise.

Mia - Shiba Inu Mix on a beach in Oregon
Mia – Manzanita Beach, Oregon

While not a pure breed, Mia is very different from any other dog I have owned. Her baseline is timid and aloof. Her main attachment is to my wife but she does get excited when I or the kids come home. After 10 minutes though, she’s back to being timid and still runs away from me.

When my wife comes home she goes berserk greeting her and then follows her around the house the rest of the day.  She loves to sleep under the bed (like a den) and even goes under the patio and dens down there. She is not motivated by food, hates to be picked up, and does not trust anyone outside of her “pack.”

She is a very sweet dog though but very different from my sister’s Golden Retriever who would lick you to death and always wants to play. Mia keeps things on her terms.

I once read that even if you raise a wolf from a pup, they can be hard to train because they simply do not care about pleasing humans. Basal breeds seem to lean more that way.

How you Can Help Wolves.

If you are disturbed by the plight of wolves in MontanaIdahoWisconsin and elsewhere in America and Canada:

Final thoughts

It’s too bad that the Japanese Wolf is no longer with us. It sounds like they were all exterminated not out of hatred but out of being too aggressively culled after a rabies outbreak in Japan 100-200 years ago.

Unlike Europeans, the Japanese revered these animals as guardians of farmers and travelers even going so far as to place the skulls of a dead wolf on the roof of their house for protection from evil.

This relationship with wolves reminds me of how the indigenous peoples of North America also revere these animals. For example in Wisconsin, the native groups there exercise their treaty rights and claim up to half of the wolves in the quota for any given state hunt.

They do not hunt the wolves however since they consider them sacred, they claim the hunting licenses simply to reduce the number of wolves that can be legally killed.

We could learn a lot from both of these cultures on how to better treat these animals.

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8 thoughts on “Japanese Wolf – Dogs Closest Cousin?”

  1. This has been a very interesting article. And I also lament that Japanese Wolves are no longer with us. As a first thought, I was mad at the way most of these specimens go extinct. But an after thought made me ponder how Japanese have a high respect for wolves. So, I conclude that their extinction derived from protecting humans and not from trying to profit from their fur.

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  2. Hi…I really enjoyed reading your article! I had never heard of the Japanese Wolf before. It’s too bad that they went extinct so long ago. It is so interesting to learn how dogs and wolves are genetically linked. I didn’t realize that some breeds have more of the genome than others. Your Mia looks like such an old soul. It’s so nice to know that many efforts are now being taken to help protect wolves. They are so important for so many reasons. Thanks for sharing all this information.

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  3. I very much enjoyed your article. I love animals and find things like this very interesting. I donate to ASPCA and WWF and constantly get things in the mail asking me to donate. It is sad to know that the Japanese Wolf is extinct, but I do find it very interesting that the modern day dogs share more DNA with this wolf than what we have been taught. Great article and I look forward to more.

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