The stray dogs of Moscow
It is very common for people including scientists, more specifically biologists, to look outside the man-made environment to find something of interest. We look towards the wilderness as something mysterious and intriguing. Although it is true that we haven’t started to scratch the surface of all the interesting things that unadulterated nature has to offer, it is safe to say that we can find a lot of interesting things in more familiar environments.
Andrei Poyarkov is one such biologist who managed to tear his gaze away from the allure of pine forests and freezing tundra, and decided instead to focus on his beloved Moscow’s other inhabitants: Moscow’s stray dogs. Poyarkov had been studying Moscow’s stray dogs for over 30 years. During his studies he noticed that the environment forced the dogs to adopt a lot of physical and behavioural changes. He observed that Moscow’s stray dog population peaked at 35 000 individuals and was greatly determined by the food available. After a number of generations, the environmental stresses led to medium sized dogs, with thicker coats and wedge shaped heads.
However, the most interesting differences might have been behavioural. The dogs started to utilize the subways infrastructure to keep warm and survive the harsh Russian winter, but perhaps the most surprising is that an increasing population of the dogs is learning how to use the Metro on their own. Dogs who learn how to navigate the Metro and memorize important metro stops can get from one point in the city to another in a relatively short time and therefore have an advantage when it comes to securing resources. Adapting to man-made environments by relying more on their brains than their brawn seems to be serving this population of stray Muscovite dogs very well. They are being competitive and ensuring their existence and that of their progeny for the foreseeable future.
Besides being interesting on a biological level, this uncanny ease to adapt to man-made systems and environments might be proof that our fellow fury partners in crime are truly biologically adapted to cohabit with us humans and exploit the niches that we provide. Furthermore this may prove that the process of domestication is a natural process to our species and the species that we interact with and is not some form of natural perversity that some people seem to insist on calling it.