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Some wolf pups will spontaneously fetch a ball thrown by a human, researchers in Sweden have discovered. This quintessentially canine trait was thought to have been acquired by dogs through selective breeding and training. The finding that it comes naturally to some wolves raises the possibility that the trait helped determine which animals were ‘adopted’ by humans in the early stages of domestication during the Agricultural Revolution some twelve thousand years ago.
Between 2014 and 2016, the team at Stockholm University hand-reared three wolf litters. At eight weeks old, the pups underwent several tests, one involving an unfamiliar human tossing a tennis ball across the room. While no pups from the first two litters showed much interest in the ball, three out of six from the 2016 litter chased it and, when coaxed, returned it to the human. The researcher, Dr Christina Hanson Wheat, suggested that natural genetic variation is the probable explanation as to why some pups chased the ball whilst others didn’t; all three litters were raised in identical conditions but each had different parents.
Until around eight weeks, wolf pups are barely discernible from dogs!