Yesterday’s heroes

The man and his dog, Gunnar Kaasen with Balto , circa 1925/Wikimedia Commons

Today’s sled dogs little like hero of yesteryear

Short of leg, a little wide of girth and fluffy, the legendary sled dog Balto looks little like the skinny, short-haired, long-legged hounds of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race of today, and now geneticists are saying he truly was different than the sled dogs of the here and now.

“Balto’s genotype predicts a combination of coat features atypical for modern sled dog breeds and a slightly smaller stature,” they write in a peer-reviewed study published in Science this week. 

“We propose that Balto’s population of origin, which was less inbred and genetically healthier than that of modern breeds, was adapted to the extreme environment of 1920s Alaska.”

Or, in other words, the dogs that the late Joe Redington hoped to “save” by starting a 1,000-mile race from Knik to Nome in 1973 are now gone, replaced by inbred and genetically less healthy – but much faster – dogs due to the creation of what has come to be called The Last Great Race.

Blame or credit the law of unintended consequences driven by the power of competition because this genetic shift did not come by accident. It was driven by humans who wanted ever faster dogs, like Salukis hounds, and dogs better adapted to heat, like German short-hair pointers.

Top mushers recognized early on that in dogs as in people “prolonged heavy exercise, under normal temperature conditions, (caused) a state of metabolically induced hyperthermia…which provides a limit to performance,” as the experts put in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

And thus began efforts to breed for dogs that could best dissipate heat when involved in heavy exercise for days on end with the end result being what is seen during the modern Iditarod, a lot of dogs wearing coats because they now regularly need outwear to maintain body temperature in the cold.

Balto had his own coat of fur as the genetics researchers noted.

“Balto belonged to a population of small, fast, and fit sled dogs imported from Siberia,” they wrote, and as everyone knows, if hell was cold rather than hot, it would be called Siberia. Despite global warming, the thermometer dipped down to 80 degrees below zero in January of this year. 

Needless to say, for a dog to survive in Siberia with no manmade coats to wear and no straw to sleep on, it had to be one tough animal.

A product of the survival of the fittest

“…Balto and his working sled dog contemporaries were more genetically diverse than modern breeds and may have carried variants that helped them survive the harsh conditions of 1920s Alaska,” wrote the 11 scientists from the University of California, Cornell, UMass, Uppsala University and the Cleveland Museum of Natural history collaborated on the study. “Though the era of Balto and his contemporaries has passed, comparative genomics, supported by a growing collection of modern and past genomes, can provide insights into the selective pressures that shaped them.”

Balto’s makeup was largely due to natural selection. A lot changed in the 100 years following his passing. Humans, as is their wont, started tampering with nature in ways big and small.

Scientists who took an in-depth look at the modern husky a decade ago observed that “the Alaskan sled dog offers a rare opportunity to investigate the development of a dog breed based solely on performance, rather than appearance, thus setting the breed apart from most others. Several established breeds, many of which are recognized by the American Kennel Club, have been introduced into the sled dog population to enhance racing performance.”

Their peer-review study published in BMC Genetics concluded then that the original Alaska sleddog genes had been diluted to the point that they made up only 35 percent to 60 percent of the genes of the modern dog with some significant differences depending on whether the dogs were bred for sprint or long-distance racing.

Overall, their genes turned out to be a crazy mix of “21 ‘related breeds’ (that) included the Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky, which were expected based on historical information, and the pointer, which has recently and repetitively been bred into the population. The Samoyed, Chow Chow, and Akita also have historical roots as northern draft dogs.

“Other breeds included in the ‘related breeds’ group were the Saluki, Afghan Hound, and Borzoi, which are well known for their speed; the Great Pyrenees and the Anatolian Shepherd, both of whom are northern climate guard dogs, and the Weimaraner, a hunting breed of shared ancestral heritage to the Pointer. Additional related breeds were the Japanese Chin, Shar-Pei, Shiba Inu, Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Basenji, Tibetan Spaniel, and Tibetan Terrier, most of whom share an Asian heritage with the exception of the Basenji.”

The crazy bloodlines of the Alaska huskies of today/BMC Genetics

The distance dogs still had strong connections to Malamutes and Siberians, two old Alaska working breeds, with dashes of Saluki hound, Weimaraner, Samoyed, Shar-Pei, Tibetian terrier and Anatolian shepherd.

Much of the Malamute and Siberian ancestry had been bred out of the sprint dogs, however, and generally, more Saluki, pointer and Weimaraner were bred in although there were also traces of most of the breeds linked to distance dogs plus genes of Borzoi, or the Russian wolfhound as it is sometimes known.

It is a long-legged canine with a “calm, agreeable temperament” that can hit speeds of 35 to 40 mph, according to the AKC. Speeds like that are every sprint musher’s dream.

The authors of the study – who came from the National Institutes of Health and the University of Alaska Fairbanks – concluded that “the Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky contributions are associated with enhanced endurance; pointer and Saluki are associated with enhanced speed and the Anatolian Shepherd demonstrates a positive influence on work ethic.”

Evolution to match times

Their study charted the ever-evolving, genetic history of an animal that was a companion to the earliest people to inhabit the northland before becoming the workhorse of the north in “the late 1800’s to early 1900s…termed the ‘Era of the Sled Dog’ due to the breed’s dominating presence in polar exploration and the boom of the Alaskan gold rush.”

The gold rush was Alaska’s first big economic boom. It was followed by a bust that almost did in the once prominent sled dog, but it survived.

“While the Alaskan sled dog experienced a decline in popularity as more modern modes of transportation became accessible in northern climates, they have recently undergone a rediscovery with the birth of sled dog racing, beginning in the late 1930s,” the researchers wrote. “Concomitant with this rebirth has been a transition from working class dog to high-performance athlete.”

The researchers conducted a bunch of tests to try to sort out the genetic components of that performance and generally concluded that Siberian and Malamute genes led to both slower running speeds and less endurance for sprint dogs going all out for eight to 30 miles at speeds up to 25 mph.

But things got a whole lot more complicated when it came to distance dogs. The scientists calculated a 15 percent loss of speed for the distance dogs with strong Malamute genes and a 10 percent loss for this with a strong Siberian heritage, but both of gene pools contributed 11 percent gains in endurance when running for 100 miles per day or more at speeds of eight to 12 mph, leaving open the question of whether an Iditarod musher would do better to harness up a bunch of hares or a bunch of tortoises.

Pointer genes, despite the fact most mushers think pointers bred into teams producing a lot more speed, actually delivered slight speed losses in both sprint and distance teams, according to the study. Weimaraners, meanwhile, produced slight speed advantages, but with a slight loss of sprint endurance.

Samoyed genes showed a slight improvement in endurance for distance dogs, but not sprint dogs. Anatolian genes showed a slight improvement in both speed and work ethic, which was rated the top strength of the old Alaska sled dogs like Balto.

Despite all the evolutionary changes, there remained a strong hint of him and the other dogs of his day in the bloodline, according to the study.

“The most striking observation was that strong performers in all categories and of both racing types showed a comparative increase in the (traditional) Alaskan sled dog genetic signature,” the authors wrote. “This was particularly illustrated by a 25 percent increase in the Alaskan sled dog signature seen in high performers of speed for distance dogs and a 26 percent and 38 percent increase in endurance and work ethic respectively for sprint dogs.”

Balto’s successors could now,  by scientific standards, qualify as their own breed. Or maybe two, given that there appear to be two genetically distinct versions of this Alaska sled dog.

“The Alaskan sled dog presents a case in which a genetically distinct breed of dog has been developed through the selection and breeding of individuals based solely on their athletic prowess,” the researchers wrote. “The creation of the Alaskan sled dog breed happened without the implementation of breed standards of size and appearance, or the closing of the breeding population to only those individuals deemed representative of the breed, as is the norm for AKC-recognized purebred breeds.”

But there are significant differences between the Alaska sled dog, sprint version, and the Alaska sled dog, distance version.

“Cluster analysis demonstrated that when the Alaskan sled dog population was compared to a large data set of purebred breeds they separated into two groups that align with their racing style, sprint versus distance,” the researchers wrote.

“The same results were evident when the sled dog population was analyzed independently, without the purebred breeds. These two racing styles have diverged over the past 100 years with athletic emphasis on either speed or endurance, as appropriate to the extreme differences in race length (sprint-30 miles, distance-1,000 miles).

“Unsupervised clustering analysis of the Alaskan sled dog population showed that 21 percent of a subset of 42 unrelated dogs from competitive sprint kennels grouped within the distance sled dog population. However, not a single individual from a distance kennel grouped within the sprint sled dog population. We speculate that a fraction of the dogs competitive in sprint racing are genetically capable of performing as distance dogs, but the reverse is not true.”

More than one Alaska distance musher has learned this latter information the hard way. The well-known distance kennels that have taken a shot at sprint races have never done well. And the story has been pretty much the same when sprint kennels have tried to take on a long-distance race.








8 replies »

  1. Funny they chose balto to get genetic analysis. How pure was balto ? Taking one dog and declaring it genetic representation of huskies seems counterintuitive.
    Balto and gunner were known as frauds for taking the glory . ( check lawsuits and arguments with seppala about financial awards and public recognition) Balto was known as a sub standard dog who didn’t even make sepallas main team .
    Gunner kassan was known as a glory hound who was scheduled for a very short leg of the trip and slipped past the final leg driver to get the glory into nome . Reaping large cash rewards.
    I think he even did a poor job of tying the package into the sled and lost it in the snow for a time- unless thats a brent sass type myth. ?
    ( who doesn’t secure a precious package?)
    Gunner was effectively a handler or B musher for seppala kennel which interestingly was really owned by various business interest’s if I remember correctly. That was how large kennels were financed. As they we’re basically freight transport.
    They ate really well – often sheep – beef fish ect . and were truly cared for . Many Road houses had indoor areas for the dogs and often straw or wild grass .
    Nome had indoor stables for the well off teams .
    Village kennels was different for sure .
    Definitely survival of the fittest with them often being free to hunt for themselves. Yet still it was known to bring dogs inside during foul weather.
    During starvation times young girls or kids often hid or saved pups from hungry people.

    To get a representative genetic sample of “huskies”
    It would have been better to use multiple samples from many areas of alaska or maybe siberia or ???Though it would have probably included seppalas famous leader “Togo” and the kennel. As they were recently from siberia mostly.
    If you look at pictures it’s pretty clear they were a partially mixed breed and many kennels in nome were known as full mixed breed.
    So the research study needs anylized carefully to determine how applicable it is to their determinations.

    Even multiple samples would be problematic because dogs would have without doubt bred into whatever was local regardless of breed.
    With pet’s or farm gaurd hunting ect dogs being ever present as free ranging strays is and was common. No doubt there was also kennel cross breeding so could you have even considered huskies of that era a distinct breed?

    Or were they already mixed with samoyeds , shepards collies ect ect ?
    Would be interesting to dig into specifics.

    Seppalas dogs would have been representatives of old siberian breeds but even those would have been mixed as they were performance animals snd not pure bred.

    All that said – there is absolutely no doubt older breed sled dogs were better suited to arctic travel and survival.

    The norris kennels still race in distance and sprint races a siberian husky breed that goes directly back to seppala kennels. So not all is lost .

    Also there are still performance arctic breeds in siberia and other parts of the northern world.

    Really cool science involved article. Thank you Mr medred ! !!!

    • Excellent points. I would expect Balto was “generally representative.” I’m guessing there was a shit-ton of variation in sled dog then available in Alaska for the simple reason you note: dogs were needed, and that sort of leads to an attitude of “breed what you got.”

      I’m sure people were selecting for the best of what they had had and then hoping for the best, but I expect it was pretty random.

      And there were interesting connections between dogs and people back in those days. Take it from Hudson Stuck, the author of Ten Thouand Miles with a Dog Sled:

      “…The little town of Hot Springs is fortunate in having some mining country around it to fall back upon for its trade. We lay an extra day there, waiting for the stage from Fairbanks to break trail for us through the heavy, drifted snow, having had enough of trail breaking for a while. At midnight the stage came, two days late, and its coming caused me as keen a sorrow and as great a loss as I have had since I came to Alaska.

      “We knew naught of it until the next morning, when, breakfast done and the sled lashed, we were ready to hitch the dogs and depart. They had been put in the horse stable for there was no dog house; the health resorter, actual or prospective, is not likely to be a dog man one supposes; but they were loose in the morning and came to the call, all but one—Nanook. Him we sought high and low, and at last Arthur found him, but in what pitiful case! He dragged himself slowly and painfully along, his poor bowels hanging down in the outer hide of his belly, fearfully injured internally, done for and killed already. It was not difficult to account for it. When the horses came in at midnight, one of them had kicked the dog and ruptured his whole abdomen.

      “There was no use in inquiring whose fault it was. The dogs should have been chained; so much was our fault. But it was hard to resist some bitter recollection that before this ‘exploitation’ of the springs, when there was a modest road-house instead of a mammoth hotel, there had been kennels for dogs instead of nothing but stables for horses.

      “I doubt if all the veterinary surgeons in the world could have saved the dog, but there was none to try; and there was only one thing to do, hate it as we might. Arthur and I were grateful that neither of us had to do it, for the driver of the mail stage, who had some compunctions of conscience, I think, volunteered to save us the painful duty. ‘I know how you feel,’ he said slowly and kindly;
      ‘I’ve got a dog I think a heap of myself, but that dog ain’t nothin’ to me an’ I’ll do it for you.’

      “Nanook knew perfectly well that it was all over with him. Head and tail down, the picture of resigned dejection, he stood like a petrified dog. And when I put my face down to his and said ‘Good-bye,’ he licked me for the first time in his life. In the six years I had owned him and driven him I had never felt his tongue before, though I had always loved him best of the bunch. He was not the licking kind.”

      Hell of a book written by a tough guy with a heart.

  2. I’m curious which kennels they worked with. Lots of mushers over the years have believed that the best dogs can do both sprint and distance well, depending on how they were trained and conditioned.

    • The study doesn’t specify. Says only this:

      “One hundred and ninety-nine Alaskan sled dogs were sampled from eight “high performance” racing kennels. “High performance” sprint kennels are those whose dogs finished in the top 25% of sprint competitors in the International Sled Dog Racing Association annual points standings. High performance distance kennels are those that had a primary team finish in the top 15% of all competitors for the Yukon Quest or Iditarod races during the two consecutive years that sample collection was undertaken.”

      I’d expect that if you really wanted you could go back to the years in question – 2007 to 2009 – and come up with a good guess of who was involved. I’m thinking you have a pretty good idea of who in the crowd is the most scientifically interested and who would be willing to go to the trouble of having scientists hanging around doing blood testing.

  3. My addled memory seems to remember “huskies” in the ’70’s and ’80’s on the Lower Kuskokwim and Lower Yukon had more in common (when it came to appearance) with German Shepherds than the current sled dogs.

    • Yes, many breeds like Makenzie River huskies had strong Shepherd genes.
      One of my first rescues two decades ago looked like a shepherd with husky coat.
      He was an amazing dog…
      Now the dogs are much smaller and look like the Shepard is getting bred out.
      I think over 100 yrs ago many Shepherds were scooped up off the streets of Seattle and shipped north to haul into the mining areas.

  4. You are correct, as usual, Craig. I joined Iditarod back in the day, to relive the life of early day Alaskan’s. That was such a challenging, interesting time in our history. So much tradition and so much character. Those early guys and gals 100 years ago didn’t just survive in Alaska’s harsh winters, alone in the wilderness. They thrived. That’s what made Iditarod so much fun. It was us in tune with Alaska. I believe that’s why fans, sponsors and volunteers were so eager to be involved and had so much fun. It’s been erased by people who no longer care about the Alaska element, but simply about the competition. Sad for us oldtimers to watch. Burt

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