The dogs of the genus Canis include some of the most familiar of all mammals: the wolf Canis lupus, the coyote C. latrans, and of course the domestic dog Canis familiaris. I have already discussed in an earlier post how these three, together with the golden (Canis aureus) and the Simien (C. simensis) jackals, form a cluster of closely related species (that I'll refer to as the 'wolf group') that are not always clearly separated. Today, I'll take things a bit further and look at the fossil history of the genus Canis.
The earliest taxa assigned to the genus Canis are known from the late Miocene, about six million years ago (Tedford et al. 2009). Early Canis have been identified in both Europe (C. cipio) and North America (C. ferox), though there is some uncertainty about whether the European C. cipio should be treated as Canis or assigned to the related, slightly earlier fossil genus Eucyon. Whatever the case, it doesn't appear to have been long before Canis populations were well and truly established on both continents. The North American Canis ferox was, as far as I can tell, probably not dissimilar to a modern coyote in appearance, and early Canis species probably also resembled coyotes in being fairly generalist predators. In the evolutionary analysis by Tedford et al. (2009), C. ferox was suggested to have begat C. lepophagus at the beginning of the Pliocene, which in turn begat two lineages: one leading to the modern wolf group, the other leading to three North American Plio-Pleistocene species (C. thooides, C. feneus and C. cedazoensis) that were smaller than their ancestor and probably similar in appearance to modern jackals. It is somewhat unfortunate that Tedford et al.'s analysis did not include the African side-striped (C. adustus) and black-backed (C. mesomelas) jackals, which molecular and morphological analyses have generally agreed lie outside the wolf group. Biogeography alone suggests that the North American 'jackals' were probably convergent rather than directly related to the modern African species, but it would be nice to know.
The modern wolf group diversified in the late Pliocene, including a number of fossil species as well as the modern. The rate of diversification and spread of wolf-group Canis was such that palaeontologists refer to their appearance in the fossil record as the 'wolf event', and use it as a marker of the development of the colder tundra climate of the Pleistocene ice ages. Higher diversity in Eurasia suggests that it was probably the centre of diversification, with North American species derived from repeated colonisation. Significant among these was the relatively large C. armbrusteri, a close relative of the grey wolf C. lupus. Canis armbrusteri is notable as the probable ancestor of the late Pleistocene dire wolf C. dirus, made famous by its appearances in the works of Robert E. Howard* and similar authors. As well as being a dominant predator in North America, the dire wolf spread into northwestern South America. A similar large Canis species, C. nehringi, is also known from the same time in Argentina, but the analysis of South American canids by Prevosti (2010) was unable to clearly determine whether C. nehringi was a southern relative of C. dirus or a convergent relative of the Xenocyon lineage.
*A man who spent far too much time thinking about oiled chests if ever there was one.
Xenocyon is itself relevant to the history of Canis: first appearing in the late Pliocene, Xenocyon lycaonoides is probably the ancestor of the modern African hunting dog Lycaon pictus and the Asian dhole Cuon alpinus, forming a hypercarnivorous lineage specialised for collaborative hunting of large prey. Phylogenetic analyses of modern taxa have varied as to whether Lycaon and Cuon are the sister group of modern Canis, or whether they are in fact more closely related to the wolf group than are C. adustus or C. mesomelas, rendering Canis paraphyletic. Removal of the latter two species from Canis into separate genera as Schaeffia adusta and Lupulella mesomelas to preserve monophyly has been suggested, but almost universally ignored (as well as failing to resolve the status of the non-wolf-group fossil Canis species). Tedford et al. (2009) even nested the Xenocyon lineage within the wolf group itself, as sister to the Canis lupus-C. dirus group, but one might suspect the influence of convergences to large size and hypercarnivory. Prevosti (2010) placed Lycaon and Cuon in a more standard position just outside the wolf group, but did not consider as many fossil Canis species as Tedford et al.
The Xenocyon lineage was undoubtedly Eurasian in origin, but the primarily Eurasian X. lycaonoides did spread into northern North America, and a second species X. texanus was found in the Pleistocene of (surprisingly) Texas. The modern dhole Cuon alpinus was also present in North America in the latest Pleistocene, with remains of at least four individuals found in a cave in northeastern Mexico, as well as being found in Europe (Tedford et al. 2009). Also a member of the Xenocyon lineage was the Pleistocene Cynotherium sardous, found on the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia and Corsica (which were a single island when the Mediterranean sea level was lower). Though descended from hypercarnivorous ancestors, Cynotherium became adapted in its island habitat to hunting smaller prey (such as the Sardinian lagomorph Prolagus sardus). Though it retained the simplified dentition of a hypercarnivore, it became smaller and the skull became less reinforced, as befits an animal no longer wrestling down large ungulates (Lyras et al. 2006).
Lyras, G. A., A. A. E. Van Der Geer, M. D. Dermitzakis & J. De Vos. 2006. Cynotherium sardous, an insular canid (Mammalia: Carnivora) from the Pleistocene of Sardinia (Italy), and its origin. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 26 (3): 735-745.
Prevosti, F. J. 2010. Phylogeny of the large extinct South American canids (Mammalia, Carnivora, Canidae) using a "total evidence" approach. Cladistics 26: 456-481.
Tedford, R. H., X. Wang & B. E. Taylor. 2009. Phylogenetic systematics of the North American fossil Caninae (Carnivora: Canidae). Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 325: 1-218.