Whenever I come back from a long trip, my best friend, Coal the German Shepherd, greets me by wagging his tail and looking at me inquisitively, as if expecting a nice treat from the city – or perhaps waiting to play fetch after a long break. He often accompanies me on many excursions. Coal is loyal, obedient, and quite a handsome dog. His large hazel eyes, long brown-and-black fur, pointy eyes, and a great zeal to chase and play with goats reminds me of his distant and wild cousin – the wolf. The resemblance is uncanny! Indeed, because a dog’s closest living relative is the wolf.
The story of how German Shepherd was bred is quite interesting – it was formerly bred in Germany solely as a working dog that helped shepherds keep the sheep safe from prowling predators like wolves. For their resemblance to the wolf, they were also called the Alsatian Wolf Dog in UK. Known for their quick learning abilities, Professor Stanley Coren ranked them third-most intelligent breed in his book ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’. All these traits are a result of careful selection and breeding that started more than 10,000 years ago when man first tamed wolf. According to scientists, the modern day dog is said to be tamed from the European Wolf, which is now extinct. Today, the modern day wolf is our dog’s closest wild cousin.
Dogs are just one of the animals that are known to have a link with wild animals. Have you ever thought how many of such wild animals are our best friends today? In fact, almost all the animals we are familiar with, from the little pet mouse to the large elephant, are as much our best friends as dogs are, thanks to our long association with them. But be warned, their wild cousins are just the more dangerous! Let us find out more about the wild cousins of our today’s domestic animals.
If you were walking on this planet more than 5,000 years ago, chances are that you might have come face-to-face with a large herbivore with horns as long as 80 centimeters! This is the Aurochs, one of the formidable herbivores that lived alongside Eurasian Wolves in Europe and Asia. The Aurochs is considered to be the ancestor of our domestic cattle. Today, the Aurochs do not exist, but our cattle still has some close wild relatives such as the Gaur – the largest bovine species roaming India’s untamed forests.
The dog and the cattle are one of the earliest instances where man domesticated animals – and even today, although their ancestors do not exist anymore – they are still with us along with their cousins. There are several recent instances of domestication as well where the ancestors are still truly wild, and one of the most important to us is the buffalo – called the domestic Asian Water Buffalo. The buffalos you see wallowing in shallow pools during the heat of the day is a behaviour very similar to the Asiatic Wild Buffalo – the wild cousin that still roams wild in India. But just as docile and kind the domestic buffalo is – the wild buffalo is exactly the opposite. They are considered to be one of the most dangerous animals in the wild – mostly because they have to deal with predatory animals like the tiger. Their nature and their extremely long horns – as long as 200 centimeters – are the only characters that differentiate the wild from the domestic water buffalo.
There are several other animals that we are most familiar with, but do not know much about their wild cousins. Before we move onto the wild cousins of vegetables and fruits – can you help me find out who the true wild cousins of our fellow animal friends are?
1. Domestic Cat
2. Domestic Fowl
8. Domestic Pig
One of the reasons why we are successful on this planet is because of our ability to tame animals and plants for our benefit. This does not mean that we merely trained them for our selfish use – but over time our lives became so entwined with theirs that now we cannot imagine a world without them. Indeed, just as dogs were tamed from wolves to defend sheep from wolves, the cattle supported us in agriculture – one of the foundations of our civilization. It can be said that our friendship with them was meant to happen; after all it overlapped with us growing our own food instead of finding it in the forests – by undertaking agriculture and animal husbandry.
This brings us to vegetables. It is an interesting thought to wonder where our vegetables came from – who was the first to cook rice, make chapattis, eat a watermelon or make vegetable of eggplant (Brinjal) and bitter gourd. Perhaps we will never know who the first person was, but we definitely liked what we ate and quickly started cultivating it!
One of the world’s most common food items is rice. No one really knows which part of the world it was first cultivated in. According to one study, it was first domesticated over 8,200 to 13,500 years ago – about the time when we started domestication of most other animals. You will be surprised to know that there are still several species of grasses that are truly wild in nature – they grow along lakes and other wetland ecosystems, and some are even consumed as a delicacy.
Just as rice is one of the most commonly consumed foods, apple is perhaps the most famous fruit in the world. Even little kids who might not have tasted an apple first associate the alphabet A for Apple! Its ancestor, the wild apple, is native to the cold mountain forests of Central Asia. The apple we eat today is a hybrid of two species – Malus sieversii and Malus sylvestris.
Probably the most beloved (or disliked, for some of us!) vegetable we eat is Potato! As a child I never liked eating potato sabzi much, but this vegetable – which is in fact a tuber (a modified underground stem) – is also a popular vegetable eaten by many. According to researchers, potato was domesticated 7,000 to 10,000 years ago – again about the same time we started domesticating animals. As many as 200 species of wild potatoes still occur in the wild lands of America, some of which are inedible.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg of vegetables we eat today. Can you help me find the wild cousins of the fruits and vegetables you love eating? I’m mentioning some which we all love below:
Why do you think we should care to know who these wild cousins are? Many of the wild cousins of our domestic animals and plants are either extinct or are threatened. Today, they receive the attention of only a few researchers. Several organizations, such as the Botanic Gardens Conservation International, The International Rice Genebank, and Society for Conservation of Domestic Animal Biodiversity, are working towards preservation of the wild as well as the domestic plant and animal diversity.
Unfortunately, there is no day that celebrates the Wild Cousins Day, so it becomes our responsibility to educate our friends and families about them. Just as we keep a track of new cars and mobile phones in the market, the least we can do is remember the wild cousins of our domestic friends at least once. The wild cousins, after all, are the backbone of our civilization.
By Aniruddha Dhamorikar
(Programme Officer), The Corbett Foundation, Kanha
First appeared in The Hitavada’s Twinkle Star magazine in March 2015