Going to the dogs in Sardinia.
Sardinia is that remarkable example of genetic isolation, an island with endemic and genetically distinct people and dogs, as well as many other resident endemics. Sardinians may claim that they are pure Italians, quite rightly. But like the British, the Belgians, or many others, they are a mixture of many invading cultures and peoples.
Dogs have been bred by humans, creating possibly the most extreme sizes and forms of animal artificial selection. When we domesticated farm animals, birds or cats, we artificially selected for abilities or
looks. But, in the case of the Cane Fonnese (Fonnis dog) we seem to have chosen extra special behavioural characteristics that enable it to protect, defend and even steal. The research enabled by the whizz-bang genome sequencing now available is now being directed at many groups, instead of the landmark species that we originally needed to know as much as possible about. For more on dog breed origins in South Asia and particularly the native American breeds, read The origins of dogs.
From Portuguese water dogs to Maltese terriers, a total of 155 dogs from 23 breeds of Mediterranean dogs were sampled in Dayna L Dreger and her associates paper, Commonalities in Development of Pure Breeds and Population Isolates Revealed in the Genome of the Sardinian Fonni's Dog in the journal, Genetics. The authors all work in the NHGRI (Maryland, US), the University of Milan, and G. d'Annunzio University, Italy.
The strangest finding is that the dogs are related to breeds where Sardinian people originated. Despite allegiance to Italian nationality, the unique population of Sardinia differ from their fellow nationals (who often have northern and western European origins) in their ancestry. The main influences, partly because of their proximity, have been Egyptian and other North African regions, Jordan and other parts of the Middle East and Hungary, where the 10th century Magyar warriors are responsible for many raids and battles in Italy. Now the dog genome backs up this data.
Up to now, it seems that this appear concerns dog genetics, but it is the principal of using isolated populations that will now be able to catch on. While the Bedu tribes Icelanders and Finns have unique genetic traits as
population isolates, the Sardinian dog is a true breed (despite Crufts opinion) that has shown the way to a new parallel way to investigate human disease, by using dog genomes alongside their accompanying human genetics sequences.
As far as the old dog is concerned, the close relatives turn out to be the graceful greyhound-like saluki from Arab tribes and the large Komondor, a sheepdog from Hungary. An obvious candidate for an ancestor, the Neapolitan Mastiff, is far-removed from the Sardinian dog, but Cane Fonnese has been bred into some Italian dogs.